John Abbott Oral History Interview

John Abbott

Oral History Interview with
John Abbott

Naval officer who assisted in liaison between the liaison group in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the Defense Program (the Truman Committee), 1944-46, and a special assistant to Secretary of the Navy Forrestal, February-July 1946.

San Francisco, California
March 5, 1970 and March 17, 1970
by J. R. Fuchs

[Notices and Restrictions | List of Subjects Discussed]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened December, 1970
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | List of Subjects Discussed]

Oral History Interview with
John Abbott

San Francisco, California
March 5, 1970
by J. R. Fuchs


FUCHS: Mr. Abbott, to start, I wonder if you might give us a little of your background: a brief resumé of when and where you were born, your education, and how you got started in life until the time you came in touch with Mr. Truman and the Truman Committee when you were in the Navy.

ABBOTT: I was born in Flint, Michigan in 1911. I grew up in that town, graduated from high school there, and went to Marquette University in Milwaukee for college; graduated from the


Marquette School of Journalism. I followed journalism for the next several years, and came to California in 1936. I went to work for the United Press in Sacramento, the state capital, covering the legislature and the state departments there. I stayed in Sacramento, later transferring to the Associated Press, until 1940, and at that time I went to Washington and went to work for Congressman John H. Tolan of California. Mr. Tolan, shortly after I came to Washington was appointed the chairman of a select committee of the House with the responsibility of inquiring into the causes of destitute migration. This was during the era of the dust bowl and the great uprooting of people from the Southwestern United States, many thousands of whom came into California and other Western States. I stayed with that committee until 1942. During that period, also,


the Tolan committee responsibilities were changed somewhat and they were asked to inquire into what was then greater priority, since World War II had begun. That was the great movement on a nationwide basis to the war production centers, Navy and Army arsenals, shipyards, and so forth. So, again, I came back to the West Coast for a considerable period of time. The committee also made an investigation into the relocation of the Japanese people residing on the West Coast. During all of the period, 1940 to 1942, I was in frequent contact, of course, with the many members of the House and in some cases the Senate, although the committee's work, of course, related principally to the House.

In September 1942, I entered the military service and was commissioned a naval lieutenant junior grade at Washington, D.C. I was assigned shortly thereafter to training in South Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans, and eventually was


assigned to duty in the Armed Guard, a rather little known branch of the Naval service which had the duty of manning guns on merchant ships and transports. After about two years, or a little less, of sea duty, I was requested by the son of Congressman Tolan, John H. Tolan, Jr., to come to Washington for an interview for possible service at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Mr. Tolan was already at work as a naval lieutenant in that office, under the direction of Captain John A. Kennedy. The mission of that office was to act as a liaison service for the Chief of Naval Operations and the various bureaus, and the Secretary of the Navy, with some of the committees of the House and the Senate who were inquiring into the several phases of the conduct of the war. The foremost assignment of that office was the relationship which the Navy and also the Army had, although that was not a direct part of our responsibility,


we were in frequent contact with the Army. The chief responsibility was to keep the lines of information and communication open to the Truman Committee as it was then known. The official name of the committee was, as I recall, the Senate War Investigating Committee.

A word of background about the Committee might be in order -- at least from my standpoint. The Committee was appointed by the United States Senate, I believe, early in 1941, possibly a little in advance of that. It was done at the urging of Senator Truman who felt that the United States was embarked upon, at that time, the greatest and the most costly effort in its history, and Mr. Truman correctly foresaw that there would be, although I think that he did not see the full extent, he saw that this was to be an enormous effort.

Mr. Truman had told the Senate in justifying his requests that his principal objective


was to eliminate waste of money. He was likewise concerned, of course, and primarily concerned, with holding down the loss of lives, but he felt that this, was, except for within very narrow limits, not a proper function of the Senate. Mr. Truman frequently recalled, then and in later years, that his inspiration for this idea came from his own reading of history, especially the Civil War, where he had gone very deeply into the committee appointed during President Lincoln's administration called The Committee on the Conduct of the War. This committee took it upon itself to intervene directly into military operations. Mr. Truman's recollection from his reading was that President Lincoln was forced on several occasions to go before the Senate and justify, attempt to justify, his designation of generals and why he wasn't recalling this general, or why he wasn't appointing, and above all, why he wasn't winning the war. Mr. Truman


felt that the proper field for his committee if the Senate agreed, would be to work directly with the procurement divisions of the Army and Navy. His belief was, and it was later borne out by the Committee's records, that many billions of dollars could be saved by close attention to cost and to expenditures.

So much for background. I will return to my own participation. I was then, at this time, advanced to the rank of full lieutenant and assigned, along with Mr. Tolan and under Captain Kennedy's direction, to work with the Truman Committee. Our duty was to maintain a close relationship with the staff, principally the staff and the chief counsel of the Committee, and to carry the complaints received by the Committee, which were very numerous, ranging over a wide field, reports, rumors, information of all kinds coming to the Committee alleging waste all over the country. The Committee was fully


aware that under the stress of war there were undoubtedly great areas of waste. Their principal concern was to try to instill in the Army and the Navy, a sense of responsibility and a very vigorous effort to correct these errors and to establish strict policies within the various boards and bureaus who were spending the money, to arrest this waste whenever it was found and to do their best to hold down expenditures. No one on the Truman Committee nor anywhere else in the Congress was disposed to deny the Armed Services what they needed to win, but Mr. Truman thought this could be done and still save money. He gave a figure later on, I believe, of an estimated saving to the United States, of something in excess of 16 billion dollars, through the Truman Committee's work.

I think the Committee's method of operation is of some significance, because in some respects it indicated Mr. Truman's basic approach to


government. He had a profound knowledge of American history; he had a profound faith in the American people, once they were given full information, to reach sensible decisions. He felt if this idea could be put across to the Armed Services, that they were also men of good will, and the net result would be an enormous gain all around. The thing Mr. Truman kept stressing was that there had to be a complete and full cooperation between the Armed Services and his Committee. He suggested soon after the formation of the Committee to the two Secretaries -- it is to be borne in mind that at that time there was no separate division of the Air Force. It was then called the Air Corps and was a part of the Army, the Marines, of course, being a part of the Navy. He suggested to the two Secretaries that in general a procedure somewhat as follows be set up: The Committee would receive complaints, and was already receiving complaints.


They would do their own evaluation. When they came upon something which they considered of broad significance or possessing unusual merit, or calling for corrective measures, whatever the avenues might be, the Armed Services, Navy or Army, would be called in and consulted. A determination would be made as to the seriousness of the situation, and a formula agreed upon for correction. Mr. Truman, his directness, his bluntness, his plainness, came very much to the fore in this kind of exchange. He later on told me, as I know he told many other people, that he considered this to be a fair bargain and was told by the two Secretaries at that time, that they considered it to be a fair bargain, and that he expected it to be carried out. Naturally, my own role, although of very little significance, the same as with Lieutenant Tolan or Captain Kennedy, left us in the position of not being able to win on


either side. We would come back from the Truman Committee offices laden with complaints and be directed to carry those off to which ever of the offending bureaus were at fault, or thought to be at fault. So, it was our somewhat melancholy and unpleasant duty to tromp down the hall and tell some senior admiral that the Truman Committee thought that he was doing a very poor job at an ordnance plant or shipyard, or some other facility. But of course, Mr. Truman stuck with it. He exacted these conditions, he expected them to be followed out, and I can recall on one or two instances, that when the going got a little rough for the Navy, and they began to have some second thoughts about the bargain, Mr. Truman wasted no time. He sent a note to the Secretary of the Navy on one occasion, and said that -- reminded him of the agreement -- he said, I believe it was the Bureau of Ships, as it was then called, didn't want to


give the Committee the information that they felt they had a right to see; and he told the Secretary that if the records were not forthcoming by 9 o'clock the next morning, it then being, as I recall around 5 or 6 in the evening, he would send a truck and a subpoena down and get the records with any number of men necessary to carry them out. Needless to say, the Committee got the records. Mr. Truman did not do this in my opinion to show off or throw his weight around or anything else. He felt that he and his colleagues who were nine on the Committee altogether, were engaged in an effort of utmost importance to the country as a whole, and he felt that the Navy and the Army would be much better off if they cooperated. And that was his approach. It was, as I say, a part of his overall philosophy of government, that you kept your word. It was a part, as he often said, of human relationships. You made a


bargain with someone, and it was the public's business, and the people who wanted to take another look, that was too bad. It was the public that was at stake. That was the way he felt about things.

My own estimate is that he did indeed, and the Committee indeed, did make a very important contribution. There have been numerous works, numerous authors, many articles, writings by Mr. Truman himself and others, detailing the work of the Committee, which is now many years in the past. I believe that full credit is still lacking to this work that Mr. Truman carried out. To carry this forward, at a time when the public was demanding to win the war, was not always a popular thing to do. And yet, he persevered and through his sincerity and his fairness he carried through the work of his Committee until he left as chairman, to my recollection, without a single


dissenting report, which is a remarkable record. There were nine Senators, as I said earlier, and it was divided along the Democratic majority of five and four Republicans. Mr. Truman ran this in a wholly nonpartisan way. He had divided up the work of the Committee into subcommittees, three or four in nature, and divided them roughly according to subject, and invariably they brought in a unified and unanimous report on whatever they were doing, and that stands to the credit, not only of Mr. Truman, of course, but of all his colleagues.

So, I think this may be a little background as to the kind of man Harry Truman was, and that activity which took him out of relative obscurity as a junior Senator from Missouri to nationwide prominence. It was no small factor in the opinion of most observers in his selection ultimately as vice-presidential


candidate; but it was not a desire for publicity that motivated it. This is, I think, worth thinking about, but he did not do it. The Committee's first appropriation, as I recall, was for $15,000. Anyone looking at today's dollar and today's sums would consider that it was a modest sum. True, but it was somewhat scaled in proportion to his approach. He was a modest man; he sincerely thought that he would not need a tremendous sum. He thought, however, that the job would get larger, but he said, "Well, if we can't do anything with $15,000 we can't do anything with $50,000. So let's see where we can go. There's enough trouble I know around, I'm not looking for trouble. It's coming in my office every day. Let's see where we can go with this money. If we're going to set an example of economy, the place to begin is right here in this office." Well, of course, the job was much bigger -- very


soon developed well beyond that figure. I can't remember at the moment what the appropriation totaled during the life of that committee, which as I recall, extended on into '46 and possibly a little into '47. In any event, I believe the total sum of something in excess of a half million dollars was appropriated for the work of that committee during its lifetime. Well, set against the saving of 16 billion, that's a pretty good return on your money. I think everyone connected with that, and historians since have agreed that this was a unique piece of work, a committee totally dedicated to this objective, and on many, many occasions deliberately avoiding the opportunities for full publicity. It's a remarkable little piece of history, I think.

FUCHS: Can you cite some examples of cases where he might have tried to get a lot more limelight and resisted the temptation?


ABBOTT: The Committee did this repeatedly. One I can think of right here in this town, San Francisco, was an allegation that there was an enormous gambling operation going on at the Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard. This operation conducted in the bottoms, the lower reaches of some of the ships which were in here for repair, battle damage out of the Pacific. The carriers were particularly a good place for this kind of activity, as the Committee later discovered, because they had multi-decks and it took a long while to get down to where things were going on. But I believe at one time, the instance that I had in mind, the battleship Pennsylvania was in here for extensive repair and it was out at Hunter's Point over a period of weeks and months. The Committee did find very solid evidence that this gambling was going on, amidst a very small group of thousands of shipyard workers, but


it was disrupting morale to a degree, not the least of which was, I suppose, the losers who didn't bring home any pay.

FUCHS: What kind of gambling was it, do you know?

ABBOTT: Just crap games, mostly crap games that could be folded up and put out of sight fast if necessary, but had this word gotten out widely I think it would have been damaging because it was something of an incongruous situation -- here was the Navy spending millions and billions of dollars for this; ships were desperately needed to return to sea duty as fast as possible. It could very easily have been a sensational story and one that, as I think back, could not have helped anything, particularly troops who were then out in the Pacific by the millions and in Europe by the millions. But the Truman Committee made its investigation, confirmed the allegations as


being substantially true, went back to the Secretary of the Navy, and to the local naval officials who, frankly, had not known of its existence. The situation was corrected. I think my recollection is accurate that there was never any public mention made of this; but it's not too usual to find politicians, war or no war, willing to pass up such an obvious publicity chance as this one. There were other examples of this kind. They were -- not so much gambling, there were always charges that there was wasted manpower, and very likely there was. It was impossible to put together a war effort of the size the United States did in 1941 and '42 without wastage. Admiral Frederick Horne, a very senior officer of the Navy who was our officer to report to, Admiral Horne, with 42 years experience in the Navy, was not a man to be easily rattled. He cooperated with the Truman Committee and directed his bureau chiefs and all others


coming under him, which was almost everybody except Admiral King, the Chief of Naval Operations, and the Secretary of the Navy himself. Admiral Horne once went before the Committee and several Senators attacked him with this wastage, particularly an overabundance of supplies then piling up at Pearl Harbor. By this time the production lines were really rolling and we were sending out everything in huge quantities. Someone said: "Admiral, don't you know that there are billions of dollars of supplies and things, from every indication, that are not needed."

And Admiral Horne said, "Well, I don't deny for a moment that there are billions of dollars worth of materiel out on Pearl Harbor and elsewhere in the Pacific. In fact, from some of the reports I've read, I'm surprised that Oahu doesn't sink out of sight some night just from the sheer weight. But I just have to resolve


the balance in favor of giving the commanders what they say they need, and at the same time, I'm fully aware that you gentlemen are interested, as I am, in saving. So where we can cure the waste, we're doing it, but we're not going to stop short. I can't be, after this service in the Navy, I just cannot be surprised that people are over ordering. That's putting it mildly." There was no man more committed to winning that war and helping the Truman Committee.

But there are all kinds of human relationships bound up in this. It was a fascinating kind of experience for me, and I think for my two, colleagues, because you were dealing basically on the one hand, with dedicated Naval officers who were senior for the most part, no one certainly below the rank of captain, and extending on up to the Secretary and the Assistant Secretaries; and naturally, no one likes to be told in any walk of life that he isn't doing


an efficient job, and when you put wartime and the extraordinary pressures with that and come in and say, "You're not doing a good job," from the Navy's point of view, very often they were prone to somehow blame myself or Lieutenant Tolan or Captain Kennedy for bringing in the bad news. I once said to Tolan, "Well, we're something like the ancient messengers who came to the king with bad news, only in those days they chopped off the head of the messengers who brought in the bad report. So far, we've escaped that. But we'll be lucky if we don't get out to some remote island in the Pacific one of these afternoons. If we bring in any more reports that a bureau chief or someone else is doing a poor job, we might very well find ourselves far away from here." Some days that appeared to be a very desirable prospect.

On the other side of the coin, if we


returned from the Navy empty handed to the inquiring Senators we got an equally frosty reception; so it was something of a no man's land. It has some interest, I suppose, because it illustrates that human relationships are paramount at almost every facet of human activity, and, once again, Mr. Truman was well aware of that, but he didn't let that sway him from his duty. We had one or two unfortunate examples, again unpublicized. We had a senior admiral in the Navy who was assigned to the Caribbean Sea Frontier (I think it was called then), and he was a man who had spent his whole lifetime in the Navy, from his Academy days. He used the facilities of the Navy to build a very plush house for himself some distance removed from the ample quarters already provided for him, and it became the Committee's unpleasant duty to bring this to the attention of the Secretary and the man


was demoted and sent off to an insignificant post. Mr. Truman said he felt deeply sorry for this man, but he said, "I also feel sorry that this man would, in a sense, betray a trust. That's what hurts me more than seeing this man go down."

FUCHS: Who was this? I mean, it's part of the record.

ABBOTT: I don't recall his name. I cannot think of his name at the moment. This is part of the record, but I can't think of his name at the moment. I may get it later.

FUCHS: Do you recall who was assigned to this investigation of gambling at Hunter's Point?

ABBOTT: I have the impression that the investigation was carried out at the direction of Rudolph Halley, who was then the Associate Counsel. Mr. Halley died some years ago. The staff people, the names don't come to mind. Maybe you could make a note to ask Harold Robinson


if he can recall. It could have been Walter Hehmeyer; it could have been someone on that order.

FUCHS: They sent someone out there, I imagine.

ABBOTT: Yes, they had had people. And they also had had -- you see, they got a tremendous volume of mail all the time. Once the existence of the Truman Committee became known, they just received tons of mail, some of it was malicious, some of it was inaccurate, some of it was partially correct, but here and there, there were bulls-eyes, you know, there were big mistakes made.

FUCHS: Would they send one of the liaison men of the Navy to the site of such an investigation?

ABBOTT: Not at the outset. The Committee's method was to work within, from its own resources.

FUCHS: But the Navy wouldn't send you out there?


ABBOTT: The Navy would send us if there was to be an official investigation, or in some instances, we would accompany an investigator. However, our function was confined, for the most part, to making sure that the Committee got proper cooperation. Our reason for being out here, for example -- I accompanied the Committee here on the investigation of the gambling -- my function here was to make sure that the local officials, the commandant of the 12th Naval District, and the captain of the Naval Shipyard, and other appropriate officers, would recognize who and what the people were, and so we had the problems of identification and working with our own people in the Navy to make sure the Committee got the information it was after and was not impeded in this effort.

FUCHS: I was wondering if you were involved directly


in this?

ABBOTT: I came here on that occasion.

FUCHS: Now would normally, either you or Tolan, but not both of you go to a particular area?

ABBOTT: Well, for the most part, one of us would go. Occasionally, there would be a thing where the Committee would send possibly one or two -- they were understaffed, of course, by this time, because the volume of their work had grown so fast and had enlarged so much, that they had an inadequate staff. And very frankly, I think they didn't care or place too much trust in the investigations conducted by the Navy itself, human nature being what it is. Mr. Fulton, who was the Chief Counsel, once said to Captain Kennedy in a half jocular fashion, "John, every time we investigate somebody down there, it seems to me it results in a promotion." He said, "That is


when you people do the investigating, and sometimes when we do it. I don't know just how this works. I think we better go ahead and go together on some of these things so we can each arrive at our own ideas of the truth. But maybe it would be best if we didn't ask you to do it all yourself." So, they would send a man out, or a couple of men, depending on the size of the job. They didn't have too much staff. Or they would come down even to the Navy Department in Washington and the customary and approved procedure was for the Committee to send a letter stating the complaints, saying they would like to have one of their investigators come down and talk over the general situation with either the chief of the bureau or a department, or whoever it might be. It was then our job to go to the officer of that particular division, whether it was the Bureau of Aeronautics, the Bureau of Ships, or Bureau of Ordnance, tell


them what was being said, and arrange for an interview and arrange for a time, all of this with the idea of keeping some kind of system so that both the Navy and the Committee were fully informed and knew what was going on within their department. So, our job would be to meet the investigator, whether it would be Mr. Robinson or Mr. Hehmeyer or some of the other Committee personnel, and go along with them to the particular place within the Navy where trouble was, or where the trouble was alleged to be; then just see what developed after that. I may have mentioned earlier, the Committee, where it could be cleaned up, or where it could be corrected, where it was found to be valid, in almost every instance, they were perfectly agreeable to leaving things in an executive session status. If they were satisfied that the Navy knew about the mistake and were taking steps to correct it, that was the end of it. If they didn't, then


Mr. Truman's ultimate weapon, as he said, was that "We'll just have to go to full public hearing, because we'll have to take this to the people and decide whether you're right or we're right." And he did this with great restraint, as I said at the outset of the discussion. It was not what he was really interested in. He wanted to get the job done, in short. He wanted to get that money saved and he wanted that war to be shorter, and he knew that the longer it took to make something because of inefficiency or waste of money or manpower, the more you were lengthening the war. So his bedrock reason for all of this commotion was to shorten the war and to make it less costly to the American taxpayer, and thereby shorten and lessen the loss of life. But that was my insight, and my major insight into Mr. Truman as a person. I did come to know him fairly well. I had not daily contact by any means. Most of my associations and contacts in


the ordinary course of affairs were with the counsel or with the investigating staff, with an occasional Senator presiding at an executive session; sometimes Mr. Truman would come in and customarily he presided at full sessions. Occasionally, he would take a subcommittee himself and go somewhere. But I did come to know him and respect him and get some insight into his philosophy and his remarkable grasp of not only American history but of world history, and his firm belief in the democratic system. I gained a great respect for him. I think that everyone who came into contact with him, naval officers and civilians, and others, got that same respect, perhaps not admiration, perhaps dislike in many cases, because of treading on toes, and wartime tempers; but no one doubted for a moment that he wasn't totally sincere and honest in his approach and his dedication to this objective. So I, over the years, gained more and more respect


for him. In, I believe, if my dates are right (and you can correct me), but it seems to me that we mentioned this previously, Mr. Truman left the Committee as chairman in the summer of 1945, or perhaps earlier than that...

FUCHS: In '44, after he was nominated.

ABBOTT: Forty-four, I'm sorry. Yes, it was in the summer. So he resigned as chairman and I didn't have much personal contact with him after that. I did continue my own work with the Committee. I believe Senator Mead of New York succeeded him as chairman, and the Committee's work went on much as before. In 1946 I was nearing the end of my own naval service and being a Reserve officer, wanted to get back to a civilian career, and so I was anxious to be on my way. By then it was more than four years of service and I was asked to fill a temporary spot in the office of the Secretary of the Navy,


then Mr. [James] Forrestal, who had succeeded Frank Knox, upon Mr. Knox's death, I think, in 1944, Mr. Forrestal having been the Under Secretary. That would be February, 1946 until about June, I served in that capacity, the point of this being that Mr. Truman visited the Navy Department, then as President of the United States, on two or three occasions, but I was naturally flattered that he did recognize me. I had gone up another notch by this time, and I had three stripes of commander and he said, "If you stick around long enough, you'll have that stuff up to your elbow there." I said I couldn't wait that long.

So, he was very pleasant. He came over, the Secretary asked him over to a luncheon, and by that time, the controversy over the merger of the Armed Services was in full cry. Mr. Truman never did really dislike the Navy, but he didn't know


much about it. He had been an Army man as is very well-known, and an infantry man at that, and he approached this whole question of merging, again, with an idea of economizing, and saving money. He was not a penny pincher, but he just had a fundamental belief that you could do things in the military service an awful lot cheaper than the way it was being done, and I suppose this has gone on since time began, an argument over whether wars are waged on an efficient basis; but in any case, Mr. Truman was on the side -- or so it seemed in the Navy, at least, he was heavily on the side of the Army in the merger, particularly the Air Force, which was by then underway with a full scale effort to achieve independent status for itself, Cabinet rank. The Navy strongly suspected that the vehicle for this was to unify the Armed Services and place everything under one Secretary of Defense. There was an enormous undercurrent.


The Navy Department was seething in those days, as the Air Corps began its great propaganda, as the Navy called it. The battle really was between the naval aviators, the Naval Air Force, or the naval arm, and the Army Air Corps, which wanted two things. They wanted equal status because they had always considered themselves the country cousins of military aviation in the United States. The Navy had always had the glamour because of the carriers and, according to the Navy, great superiority of their flyers, and better training and so on. So this competition went up and down the board with respect to ships, more carriers, planes, etc. Mr. Forrestal, I've always thought, carried out his duty. He was deeply dedicated to the Navy. He felt that it would be a good idea to have Mr. Truman over for a luncheon and a little closer contact with the Navy. And Mr. Truman, I believe he had gone over (you can


probably correct me), but it's my impression that he used the cruiser Augusta to go to Potsdam, and made that crossing there and back, and I'm not sure that, at least outwardly, it did very much for the Navy's cause. I think everything went well, and he was well treated, but it seemed to the Navy that he spent all of his time in the chow line with the enlisted men and he wasn't getting the benefit of the arguments that the Navy should stay the way it was, above all, not going for this unification plan.

So, as I say, I had two or three encounters with him. I was not in the line of fire in any way. But I believe I irritated some of the senior officers present at that luncheon because Mr. Truman did recognize me, as I said, and stopped the reception line to talk for two or three minutes, not because of anything I had to say, but he wanted to recall some of the i