BY HUGH TURLEY — With CIA director Leon Panetta poised to take over as Secretary of Defense as soon as next month, I was put in mind of the first man to hold that job, James V. Forrestal. He was appointed in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman after holding the post of Secretary of the Navy for three years.
Several years ago I interviewed his chauffeur, John Spalding, at his home in Littlestown, Pennsylvania. In 1944, the first class boatswain’s mate was an instructor assigned to the ROTC program at Princeton University. A call came that the Secretary of the Navy would soon arrive at nearby Mercer Airfield and Spalding was ordered to pick him up.
Spalding drove Forrestal to a meeting with the Princeton University president and continued to chauffeur him around for several days. When Forrestal invited him to New York as his driver, Spalding initially declined, saying that he would be lost there. But Forrestal told him, “Don’t worry, I’ll help you.”
Spalding was impressed by Forrestal’s kindness. When they first met, the secretary instructed the chauffeur never to open the car door for him, a situation that others found puzzling, to say the least. Spalding recalled what happened once when he pulled up at the Waldorf Astoria, got out of the car, and just stood there.
“A Navy captain came over and gave me hell, and said, ‘Who do you think you are, an enlisted man, not opening the door [for the Secretary of the Navy]?’And Forrestal heard him and he really laid into that captain, saying, ‘Don’t you ever tell him what to do.’ ” When Forrestal became Secretary of Defense, Spalding continued as his driver. In that role, he saw many famous people, from financier and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch to Bishop Fulton Sheen. “Bishop Sheen was one of his most trusted advisors,” recalled Spalding.
Spalding only saw Truman once, when the president met with Forrestal for a tour of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, but it was a memorable occasion. The hospital’s commandant, Captain B. W. Hogan, offered to show them the presidential suite – where, as it turned out, there was illegal gambling in progress.
When the elevators opened onto the suite of rooms, recalled Spalding, everyone could see that “there was a craps game going on! The sailors were there, you know, and I’ll never forget the guy who was throwing the dice – his arm just stuck out,” frozen in mid-motion.
“Truman asked, ‘What’s going on here? You guys ought to have a lookout. You sailors are dumb as hell.’ ”
Truman, noted Spalding, “was an Army man.”
“I never saw such a nervous bunch of sailors in all my life. Nobody knew what to say. … Truman said, ‘Give me the dice.’ Nobody wanted to hand him the dice but he finally took the dice and said, ‘Give me ones’ [dollar bills], and he signed every one of those bills and gave them to each guy,” said Spalding.
“Then he shot the dice and said, ‘Remember: Next time act like somebody is in the Army and always have a lookout.’ And we walked out.” Forrestal and the others who were present did not say a word about the incident.
On March 31, 1949, President Truman dismissed Forrestal, who soon returned to the naval hospital, this time as a patient. He died there less than two months later, on May 22.