From the slopes of Nephin Mountain to the White House

James Forrestal was appointed Secretary of Defence in 1947

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 House.

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 Mayo’s tallest mountain. “James Forrestal’s father was nine when he left here and went to America,” ‘Toss’ told me.

“He worked as a carpenter before starting his own construction company.”
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 America’s most illustrious civil servants once lived there but the local community now plans to rectify that.
According to Forrestal’s 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 nation’s 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 Nephin.
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 1800’s 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.”

A priest
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 an officer.

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 pilot’s licence.

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 Forrestal’s 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 nation’s 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 centralised.
When Pearl Harbour was attacked most of Forrestal’s 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 Knox.

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.

Assumed Duties
On the death of the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, James Forrestal assumed his duties as Acting Secretary. It wasn’t 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 Knox’s shoes while the latter was ill, Mr Forrestal’s 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 Union’s 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 Forrestal’s mental health declined. According to historians, President Truman asked for the Secretary of Defence’s 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 world’s 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 Forrestal’s 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 missions

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 day combat.

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 repairs.
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.

Wife Josephine became a restless traveller following James Forrestal’s death
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 Bernstein’s “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 National Cemetery.

Courtesy of Tom Shiel and the Connaught Telegraph