Handwriting Tells Dark Tale?

By Hugh Turley

As Americans are killed and wounded daily in the Middle East the public might well revisit the May 22, 1949, death of James V. Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense of the United States.  

Forrestal cautioned that U.S. oil supplies could be endangered, relations with Middle East nations could be strained, and a possible military entanglement in the region could result from U.S. support for the partitioning of Palestine and sponsorship of Israel in 1948.  

In the opinion of biographers Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley (Driven Patriot, the Life and Times of James Forrestal, 1992), Forrestal’s position on the Middle East was motivated by his concern for basic national interests.  He thought it was wrong for his Irish immigrant father’s emotional ties to the Old Country to color his politics, and he viewed many Middle East partisans in the United States similarly. 

Initial news reports on Forrestal’s death said it was a “suicide” caused by depression.   As evidence that he was depressed, they said Forrestal was copying a morbid poem, "Chorus from Ajax" by Sophocles, just before he plunged from the 16th floor window of the Bethesda Naval Hospital.   

Historic Document Now Available At Princeton

Although Forrestal died in 1949 the official report on his death, known as the Willcutts Report after Admiral Morton D. Willcutts, the head of the National Naval Medical Center, was not available to the public until 2004. 

The Hyattsville Life and Times found the handwritten poem in the Willcutts Report at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University.   In the testimony, the poem is mentioned only once:  “Is that the [poem] he copied?  It looks like [Forrestal’s] handwriting,” Captain George N. Raines said. 

For comparison, the Hyattsville Life & Times obtained samples of James V. Forrestal’s handwriting from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library.  (See poem transcription and Forrestal note as shown in original hard copy of this article. ed.)  Noting the obvious differences in the writing style, the documents were forwarded to Professor Karen Miller Russell of the University of Georgia College of Journalism.  Professor Russell has researched and written about the media and Forrestal.   

“Allow readers to determine the truth for themselves” [with respect to the transcription’s authenticity],  Professor Russell said. 

The origin of the story that Forrestal copied the poem is remarkable because there were contradictory accounts in the Washington Post on May 23, 1949.  One story reported the poem was in his handwriting and stopped in the middle of the word ‘nightingale,’ in the second stanza.   Another story, in the same edition, reported he wrote in a firm and legible handwriting lines that did not come until much later, near the end of the poem.   

The official copy of the poem from the Princeton Library ends 11 lines before the line with the word “nightingale” so initial newspaper accounts appear to be false.   

Fifty years later, the Washington Post was still publicizing the poem as indicative of Forrestal’s suicidal emotional condition.  A front-page article in the Sunday Style Section on May 23, 1999, featured photos of the Naval Hospital, the 16th floor window, and a book open to the poem.  The article began by describing how Forrestal’s hand moved across the paper copying Greek poetry from a thick anthology. 

The Willcutts Report, the government’s last official word on the matter, concluded:

“… The late James V. Forrestal died about 1:50 A.M. on Sunday, May 22, 1949, at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, as a result of injuries, multiple extreme, received incident to a fall from a high point in the tower, Building 1.”  It did not say what caused the fall and it did not call the death a suicide. 

John Spalding of Littlestown, Pa., 87, was a Navy enlisted man and Forrestal’s personal driver.  When Forrestal died,  Spalding was called down to Admiral Monroe Kelly’s office, “He had a big map and he said where do you want to go for duty…You are going to leave tonight,” Spalding told the Hyattsville Life  & Times.   

Spalding decided to go to Guantanamo, Cuba, but before he left, Admiral Kelly and his aide Lt. Hooper made him sign a paper saying that he would never talk about anything regarding Secretary Forrestal.  

Spalding said that, in his presence, Forrestal never appeared depressed, paranoid, or in any way abnormal.   

If a Vietnam style memorial is ever erected to commemorate Americans dying in the Middle East, the name of the man who warned our current military entanglement might well be listed as the first casualty.


This article first appeared in the December 2007 Hyattsville Life and Times.  It is reprinted here with their permission.

January 30, 2009


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