The last cabinet level Secretary of the Navy, and the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal was not content to remain in Washington. As Secretary of the Navy during World War II he often visited the sites of active combat operations. Thus it was that he was present on Iwo Jima when the flag was raised on Mount Suribachi. What he said then has entered the lore of the Marine Corps:
The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.
Appointed the first Secretary of Defense in 1947, Forrestal fought against budget cuts proposed by President Truman that he thought endangered the nation’s security. He also opposed the proposal to unify the services which would gut the Navy and eliminate the Marine Corps. On March 31, 1949, Harry Truman, angered over Forrestal’s opposition to his policies, fired him. Tragically, Forrestal, who had worked non-stop on Defense issues since he joined the Roosevelt administration in 1940, had a nervous breakdown. While undergoing psychiatric treatment he committed suicide by jumping from the 16th floor of the National Naval Medical Center. He left behind a note with a quotation from Sophocles’ Ajax:
Fair Salamis, the billows’ roar,
Wander around thee yet,
And sailors gaze upon thy shore
Firm in the Ocean set.
Thy son is in a foreign clime
Where Ida feeds her countless flocks,
Far from thy dear, remembered rocks,
Worn by the waste of time–
Comfortless, nameless, hopeless save
In the dark prospect of the yawning grave….
Woe to the mother in her close of day,
Woe to her desolate heart and temples gray,
When she shall hear
Her loved one’s story whispered in her ear!
“Woe, woe!’ will be the cry–
No quiet murmur like the tremulous wail
Of the lone bird, the querulous nightingale–
Louis Johnson who enthusiastically endorsed Truman’s policies, became the second Secretary of Defense. He summed up his views in one sentence that angered the Navy and the Marines:
There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.
The Navy struck back with the Revolt of the Admirals where several admirals spoke out against the defense policies of the Truman administration at the cost of their careers. The Marines, perhaps recalling what Forrestal had said, enlisted John Wayne to ride to the rescue.
The film Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) earned John Wayne his first Oscar nomination as best actor. (Broderick Crawford would win for his stunning performance in All The King’s Men.) Wayne was initially reluctant to take the role, partly because he had not fought in World War II, and partly because he saw script problems and didn’t like the character of Sergeant Styker as initially written in the screen play. (There is evidence that Wayne, 34 at the time of Pearl Harbor, and with 3 kids, did attempt to volunteer in 1943 for the Marine Corps with assignment to John Ford’s OSS Field Photographic Unit, but was turned down.) Wayne was convinced to take the role because the film had the enthusiastic backing of the Marine Corps, which viewed it as a fitting tribute to the Marines who fought in the Pacific, and to help combat the move to abolish the Corps. Marine Commandant Clifton B. Cates went to see Wayne to request that he take the role and Wayne immediately agreed. (Thus began a long association of John Wayne with the Marine Corps, including Wayne narrating a tribute to Marine Lieutenant General Chesty Puller.) Appearing in the film were several Marine veterans of the Pacific, including Colonel David Shoup, who earned a Medal of Honor for his heroism at Tarawa, and who would later serve as a Commandant of the Corps, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Crow who led a Marine battalion at Tarawa. The Marines’ Hymn is sung in the film after the death of Wayne’s character, one of ten films in which a Wayne character died, and as the raising of the flag is recreated. Taking part in the flag raising were Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and John Bradley, the three survivors of the six flag raisers. (The three men who raised the flag and subsequently died in the battle were Franklin Sousely, Harlon Block and Michael Strank.) (First Lieutenant Harold Schrier, who led the flag raising party that raised the first, smaller, flag on Mount Suribachi, and who was awarded a Navy Cross and a Silver Star for his heroism on Iwo Jima, also appeared in the film.) The film was a smash hit, and plans to dismantle the Corps were quietly shelved.
Ironically, the Korean War started just the next year, with both the Navy and the Marine Corps proving they were essential during that conflict, and the attempt to dismantle the two services became a mere historical footnote.
Update: Forrestal’s suicide has ever been a feeding ground for conspiracy theorists. Go here for a prime example.