the slopes of Nephin Mountain to the White House
James Forrestal was appointed Secretary of Defence
The scent of silage filled the air as I approached an old
cottage in Lahardane last week. Tom Doherty, a knitted cap
on his head, was forking fodder to a couple of frisky bullocks
as a chill wind swept down from the snow-dusted summit of
Nephin Mountain. Yes, he confirmed, This
was the house where James Forrestal was born.
Not many Mayo people have ever heard of James Forrestal
but his namesake son became one of the most powerful men
of the last century. James Vincent Forrestal commanded the
US Armed Forces during the early dangerous years of the
Cold War and was touted as a strong candidate for the White
Local teacher and historian, Toss Gibbons facilitated
my visit to the Forrestal homestead which is situated at
the end of a long boreen near the butt of Mayos tallest
mountain. James Forrestals father was nine when
he left here and went to America, Toss
He worked as a carpenter before starting his own construction
The last Forrestal to live in the centuries old (two rooms/kitchen
and a cailleach) at Lahardane was John Willie who died some
forty years ago.
There are no signposts, no plaques to commemorate the fact
that one of Americas most illustrious civil servants
once lived there but the local community now plans to rectify
According to Forrestals biographers, there is much
to commemorate. Wrote one recently: If James Forrestal
had not existed, he could not have been invented except
by himself, and this is precisely what he did.
Take a poor Irish boy from a small town, propel him
by sheer determination into a prestigious university and
a Wall Street firm, give him the drive to become a millionaire,
teach him to appear confident in his power and privilege,
drive him mercilessly to perfection of mind and body, put
him in command of the nations armed forces in the
dangerous early years of the Cold War and tout him as a
strong candidate for the White House.
James Forrestal, named after his father, was born in Beacon,
New York in 1892, the third son of a three boy family. His
childhood was certainly different and more privileged than
that of his father reared in the hungry Mayo of the mid
1800s in a three roomed thatched cottage at the butt of
A well posed photograph of the three Forrestal boys in 1894
shows them immaculately turned out.
Henry and James share a handsome upholstered chair, a far
cry from the rough hewn pieces which served as furniture
in the homes of Mayo during that period. William, who would
have been about ten around that time, stands with one arm
protectively outstretched behind his younger siblings, a
picture of poise and contentment.
That picture alone powerfully illustrates how well James
Forrestal, Snr., has done in the New World since he left
Lahardane as a youngster. By the late 1800s James
had set up his own construction company based upon his skills
as a carpenter.
Both parents were strict Roman Catholics. Mary Ann Toohey
Forrestal was regarded as the disciplinarian of the family
and was said to have enforced order in the household largely
through the use of hickory switch, a not uncommon way of
imposing discipline at the time.
The three boys were educated at home before it was time
for them to go to High School. It is said that Mrs. Forrestal,
who was very ambitious for her sons, considered the system
of public education at the lower levels deplorable.
As he grew up, James came to be regarded as one of the smartest
boys in town. He did exceptionally well at school and, according
to historians, was very perceptive of social undercurrents
at an early age.
Mrs. Forrestal wanted James to become a priest. Not only
did he reject the vocation but he would stop practising
Roman Catholicism altogether. All the strict discipline
appeared to have backfired.
Leaving home as soon as he was able, James worked as a reporter
for a local newspaper as he put himself through Princeton
University. Leaving a few credits shy of a business degree,
he joined the naval reserves with the intention of becoming
The only way to a quick commission at the time was to become
a naval pilot. In those days there was no training organisation
for the training of pilots. The prospective eagles
had to take private lessons and earn a civilian pilots
By all accounts, James was a poor pilot but what he lacked
in flying ability he made up for as a staff officer. It
would be in this capacity that he would spend his whole
life in uniform. After leaving active duty with the Navy
at the end of World War One, James Forrestal became a bond
salesman on Wall Street. It was from these modest beginnings
that he acquired his personal wealth. By the time of the
Stock Market collapse of 1929, James was a senior partner
at one of the largest brokerage houses on Wall Street. This
enabled him to survive the crash with only minor losses.
James Forrestals talents came to the attention of
Government when he gave testimony on Capitol Hill on stock
market reform. In fact he supported changes in the law that
would ban practices he had used to acquire his own wealth.
This was later said to be the first instance of Mr. Forrestal
putting the nations good ahead of his own. The second
instance was not long in following when, at a large cut
in salary, he became an aide to President Franklin Roosevelt.
The road to the Pentagon had begun.
In 1940, James Forrestal was appointed Undersecretary of
the Navy at the recommendation of the Secretary of the Navy,
Frank Knox. He was not the first choice but he quickly established
a reputation for himself as a man with a formidable intellect
who was sharp and reliable.
The Navy Department at the time was an organisational mess
with nobody clearly in charge. James Forrestal wasted no
time in bringing in talent from Wall Street. By the end
of the war, he had carried out a stern to stern reorganisation
of the department.
Procurement was brought in line with modern industry practices.
Logistics was improved by the development of a service fleet
of auxiliary ships. Waste was eliminated and accountability
When Pearl Harbour was attacked most of Forrestals
reforms were in place. It was said that without those reforms,
America would not have won the war without them.
As the war progressed, Secretary Knox became ill and relied
more and more on James Forrestal to run the department in
his absence. Fleet Admiral King soon learned that if he
needed something he would go to Forrestal for it and not
Forrestal hated being office bound and would visit war zones
whenever the chance presented itself.
The most devastating visit in terms of emotional impact
was Iwo Jima in February 1945. This was only four days after
the operation to retake the island from the Japanese had
started. Casualties on both sides were high.
The sight of bodies, stacked like cord wood, was said to
have left James Forrestal so emotionally scared he would
never be seen smiling again.
On the death of the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, James
Forrestal assumed his duties as Acting Secretary. It wasnt
long before important people were championing his formal
appointment to the job. Time Magazine featured him on the
cover of its October 29th, 1945, issue.
President Roosevelt agreed and the appointment was swiftly
approved by the Senate. Mr Forrestal now held Cabinet rank.
Since he had been filling Knoxs shoes while the latter
was ill, Mr Forrestals activities in terms of the
war continued in much the same way as before.
On July 26th 1947, the National Security Act established
the office of the Secretary of Defence. President Truman
at first did not want Mr Forrestal in that position but
finally relented and offered the job to him.
The pressures of the job were immense. The Soviet Unions
development of its own atomic bomb was very worrying for
the United States and there was a great fear, shared by
James Forrestal, that Russia posed a grave threat to the
security of Europe.
As the pressures of his job increased, Mr Forrestals
mental health declined. According to historians, President
Truman asked for the Secretary of Defences resignation
as he felt he was no longer up to the job.
After some discussion, the resignation was submitted and
James Forrestal was, for the first time, since 1940, a private
citizen. His medical condition worsened and family and friends
spirited him off to Bethseda Naval Hospital with the concurrence
of the White House.
From a window in the famous hospital, Mr Forrestal fell
or jumped thirteen stories to his death.
In addition to having the worlds first supercarrier,
the USS Forrestal named after him, James Vincent Forrestal
has at least one High School; the building that houses the
Department of Energy in Washington DC a new corporate research
park at Princeton University and a lecture series at the
US Naval Academy named for him as well.
Perhaps the greatest tribute though is the simple inscription
on the tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery. It reads:
In the Great Cause of Good Government. This
one sentence can be said to sum up James Vincent Forrestals
entire personal life.First of big aircraft carriers named
after James Forrestal
The first of the supercarriers, Forrestal (CVA
- 59) was launched 11th September 1954 by Newport News Shipbuilding
and Drydock Co.Newport News, Va.; sponsored by Mrs. James
V.Forrestal, widow of Secretary of Defence Forrestal; and
commissioned 1st October 1955, Capt. Roy L. Johnson in command.
Forrestal represented more than one step in the evolutionary
chain of modern carrier aviation. Besides her sheer size
and weight, she was the first built with an angled flight
deck, which allows simultaneous takeoffs and landings. She
also featured four catapults and four deck edge elevators
to move aircraft from the hanger bays to the flight deck.
In June 1967, Forrestal departed Norfolk for duty in waters
off Vietnam. As the huge ship cut a wake through the calm
waters of the gulf of Tonkin on 29th July, 1967, the hot,
tropical sun beat down from a clear sky. Forrestal had been
launching aircraft from her flight deck on strikes against
an enemy whose coastline was only a few miles over the horizon.150
For four days, the planes of Attack Carier Air Wing 17 had
been launched on, and recovered from, about 150 missions
against targets in North Vietnam. On the ships four acre
flight deck, her crewmen went about the business at hand,
the business of accomplishing the second launch of the fifth
It was just about 10.50 am (local time). The launch that
was scheduled for a short time later was never made. Lt.
Cmdr. John S. McCain III, later a prisoner of war in Vietnam
and still later US Senator from Arizona, said later he heard
a whooshy sound than a low-order explosion
in front of him.
Suddenly, two A-4s ahead of his plane were engulfed in flaming
jet fuel - JP-5 - spewed from them. A bomb dropped to the
deck and rolled about six feet and came to rest in a pool
of burning fuel.
The awful conflagration, which was to leave 132 Forrestal
crewmen dead, 62 more injured and two missing and presumed
dead, had begun. The entire nation felt the tragedy, and
Life magazine reported that in five minutes, everyone
became a man. The ship returned to Norfolk for extensive
Forrestal was decommissioned, 11th September 1993, at Pier
6E in Philadelphia, and was stricken from the Navy List
the same day. Currently, she is on donation hold as a museum
and memorial at the Naval Station, Newport R.I.
Josephine became a restless traveller following James Forrestals
Josephine Ogden Forrestal, the wife of James Vincent Forrestal,
was born in 1899 and married him on October 12, 1926. She
spent the years following his death travelling restlessly,
living in France, Ireland and Jamacia before eventually
settling in Newport, Rhode Island. Their home on Prospect
Street in Washington, DC was sold in 1951 to a North Carolina
Congressman for $187,000.
She maintained an apartment at 399 Park Avenue in New York
city and for a time rented it to correspondent Robert Sherror.
According to him, she would appear infrequently from a trip
to France or Ireland and drop in on him for a drink.
Living in Newport, she developed a close relationship with
her great-niece, Millicent Ogden McKinley Cox and dabbled
in the preforming arts. She backed several local theatrical
productions, including Double Dublin and Leonard
Bernsteins Theatre Sons and made sporadic
attempts to write seriously.
She finished a play called Democracy set in
Washington DC in 1889 and bearing a resemblance to Henry
Adams novel of the same name and setting. In a comment
on the transient nature of prestige and social standing
in democratic America, one of her characters says that every
kindly mannered, pleasant voices woman and every
brace, unassuming man is given a free pass in every
city and village, but it is marked good for the generation
only. The play was never produced.
The Forrestals had two children, Michael (b. 1927) and Peter
(b. 1930). Michael would go on to serve in the Kennedy Administration
as an aide to George McBundy at the urging of his mentor,
Averall Harriman who took him under his wing when his father
died. He died from aneurysm in 1989.
Peter would hold several banking jobs before settling down
in Ireland with a new bride. Unfortunately, he died in 1983.
He left one daughter.
Journalist John McLain asked her to collaborate with him
on a biography of James Forrestal, but the project ultimately
failed to excite her. McLain started work on the book but
died before its completion.
She died on January 5, 1976, 27 years after her husband
and was laid to rest with him in Section 30 of Arlington
Courtesy of Tom Shiel and the Connaught Telegraph