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Walter Hehmeyer Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
Walter Hehmeyer

Former investigator for the Truman Committee (Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program) and in charge of public relations for the Committee.

Memphis, Tennessee
April 16, 1969
by J. R. Fuchs

See also Frank McNaughton and Walter Hehmeyer Papers finding aid

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 


Notice
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.

RESTRICTIONS
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 It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.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 April, 1972
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

 

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

 



Oral History Interview with
Walter Hehmeyer

 

Memphis, Tennessee
April 16, 1969
by J. R. Fuchs

[1]

FUCHS: Mr. Hehmeyer, I wonder if you would care to begin by giving a little bit of your background: Where you were born and raised, your education and jobs you may have held prior to your coming to the Truman Committee.

HEHMEYER: I was born in New York -- in New York City, and I graduated from Yale. After college I went with a daily newspaper in New Jersey, and I started out as a cub reporter and then became the night editor before taking a job with Cue Magazine in New York, which was starting out then.

FUCHS: In about what year was this?

HEHMEYER: This goes back. Nineteen hundred and thirty-nine. Yes, that was about 1939 I went with Cue. I stayed with the magazine about two years. The National Defense Program was getting underway at that time and my brother, who is an attorney, was then in the law firm of Cravath, De Gersdorff, Swaine and Wood, and he had known Hugh Fulton who had also been with that firm. Hugh was with

[2]

the United States Attorney's office in New York and had just gone down to Washington to become the Chief Counsel for this new committee that was set up headed by Senator Truman. He was getting a staff together and was looking specifically for someone to handle the press relations. Although everybody on the staff was an investigator, my special duties were to deal with the communications media. And I remember Hugh sent me a telegram and said could I come down to Washington to see Senator Truman and he was the first United States Senator that I had ever met. I met him in his office one morning, that was about May of 1941, and it was a spring day like about now in Washington and I went in to talk to him. I was very impressed with his friendliness and his very direct manner. Hugh Fulton was also there and Senator Truman told me, "Well, we're going to have a lot of national press attention and," he said, "we want to be very careful that this doesn't become the kind of committee that's looking for headlines. You certainly are not to be a press agent for the Committee. You are to handle the public relations for the Committee and at the same time be sure that the press gets all the information that we are able to release."

It was a short interview and, as I say, I was very

[3]

impressed with him. A very vigorous man. Alert. Straightforward. He and Hugh Fulton were on their way to Florida on the camp and cantonment investigation; one of the first investigations the Committee conducted. I got a telegram from Hugh Fulton a few days after our interview saying, "Come to work Monday morning." That's how I was hired.

FUCHS: Well, did your brother put you in touch or...

HEHMEYER: With Hugh Fulton. Yes, he put me in touch with Hugh Fulton.

FUCHS: You went to see Hugh Fulton?

HEHMEYER: Yes. I didn't know Hugh and I didn't know Senator Truman, but my brother and Hugh had been colleagues in the same law firm as I mentioned. [Mr. Hehmeyer's brother, Alexander Hehmeyer, has written an interesting letter about the decision by Hugh Fulton to accept the position of Chief Counsel with the Truman Committee. See Appendix I. J. R. Fuchs, HSTL].

FUCHS: Were you particularly interested in going to Washington or looking for a better job or...

HEHMEYER: I was getting restless in New York and things were getting very serious, what with Europe at war -- the defense program was moving along at that time and I was most anxious to get into something like that that would be productive and a real challenge. And I thought the

[4]

background that I'd had in college and journalism qualified me for the job and I guess they did too.

FUCHS: I wonder what Mr. Truman had to offer in the way of remuneration at that time since he said that of the $15,000 that he originally got he was paying Hugh Fulton better than half. That'll leave about $7,000.

HEHMEYER: Hugh Fulton, I think was getting eight to nine thousand and the ceiling for a Senator was ten, so nobody could go higher than ten. We were all very modestly paid, believe me, there at the beginning. However, a standard practice of that time was, and this was the case with the Truman Committee, they had a $15,000 appropriation, but they put a number of their staff people on other payrolls in the executive branch. The idea was that Congress appropriated the money so that if there was a vacancy on some payroll and there was no conflict of interest so to speak, then congressional employees would be placed on executive payrolls. Officially I was with the Housing Administration. I went down there and I was fingerprinted, photographed and so on. And then they assigned me to the Truman Committee. Because on $15,000 they couldn't pay a staff. As you point out, Hugh was getting more than half of that.

[5]

FUCHS: Do you know of any of the others with similar assignments?

HEHMEYER: Yes, there were -- I'm not sure, I think Charles Clark, he was the Associate Chief Counsel. Whether he was on some other payroll or not I don't know. It was not a desirable practice though perfectly legal. Once the Committee got its own money, then everybody was switched over to the Committee payroll. It was just the only way that they could get a staff together on a small Senate appropriation like that. Of course, it raised the question: "Well, supposing some of those agencies were subject to investigation?" But as a matter of fact, the Housing Administration, for example, was not involved directly in the war effort.

FUCHS: Who else was there when you joined the staff?

HEHMEYER: Well, when I got there Hugh Fulton was the Chief Counsel and Charlie Clark was the Associate Counsel, and Matt Connelly was on the staff then, although he was not the Chief Investigator. The Chief Investigator was Henry A. Stix, an accountant and friend of Hugh Fulton's from New York. Another topflight man and another friend of Hugh's was H. G. Robinson who had been with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for about nine years and had worked with Fulton in New

[6]

York in the U.S. Attorney's office; Robby was an outstanding investigator and an accountant. Another man was Peter Ansberry, who was a young attorney in Washington, and another was Herb Maletz -- he may have come shortly after I did, but I was one of the early ones. Rudy Halley came long after that and so did George Meader.

FUCHS: Now Robinson didn't stay too many years along with the Committee, why was that?

HEHMEYER: Why, yes he did, he stayed with the Committee until Hugh left to set up his own law firm..

FUCHS: Oh, is that right?

HEHMEYER: ...and Robby went with him and became the office manager of that law firm. The law firm was centered in New York, but they had a branch in Washington.

FUCHS: Maybe I'm thinking of Maletz, I guess who left...

HEHMEYER: No, Maletz left to serve in the Army for a brief period of time. Various staff members came on after that: Bob Irvin and Joe Martinez and others.

FUCHS: Who was the first one that you named? Before Martinez?

HEHMEYER: Bob Irvin.

FUCHS: Irvin.

[7]

HEHMEYER: He's out in Long Beach, California now. He and I were roommates during Committee days.

FUCHS: I have a list here of a good many of the members but I don't seem to have Irvin or Ansberry.

HEHMEYER: Frank Parks. Frank Parks.

FUCHS: Frank Parks I have.

HEHMEYER: Wilbur Sparks, you probably have them because they are still in Washington.

FUCHS: I see.

HEHMEYER: Now Peter Ansberry was a brilliant young fellow and he -- well, he married a girl with money and he had money too and Peter was a very able guy, he worked on a number of those investigations.

FUCHS: He was an investigator. How long did he stay, approximately?

HEHMEYER: He was with the Committee the better part of this period under Truman.

FUCHS: I do have Irvin here. He started in '42 and served to September '45.

HEHMEYER: He was a lawyer.

FUCHS: I see. Where was he from?

HEHMEYER: He was from Michigan. He graduated from the University of Michigan.

FUCHS: Anything in particular that you might mention about

[8]

him, particular investigations that he handled or anything?

HEHMEYER: He had a great deal to do with the landing boat investigation involving Andrew Jackson Higgins. The Navy was hampering Higgins' efforts to get the Higgins' landing boat into war service, which was really a better designed boat. Far better designed than the Navy model. And there was quite a bit of controversy over him. Andrew Jackson Higgins gave the Committee credit for having opened up that whole thing and put him in business, and, once he got into mass production he had landing boats coming out of people's ears. He was a tremendous man, that Andrew Jackson. He was from New Orleans. And this is a little anecdote here. When Shirley and I got married we were able to get away for a week to go to New Orleans on our honeymoon. And Hugh Fulton said, "Now I want you to call Andrew Jackson Higgins while you're down there." And so we called him and he said, "Oh, yes, I'll have a car at the hotel for you, I want you to come over here and see our operation." This was 1943 in February. We went out there and it was the most impressive assembly line operation of boats that you ever saw in your life. He gave us a personally conducted tour. He was a flamboyant figure, Andrew Jackson

[9]

Higgins, given to violent outbursts of language and temper, but a tremendous driver. Anyway we finally got in his private office and he said, "You're Hugh Fulton's secretary."

And Shirley said, "Yes."

He said, "Here's a pad." We were on our honeymoon! He dictated a long, confidential memorandum to Hugh Fulton and Senator Truman. He said, "This is a good opportunity for me to get all this off my chest."

When we were returning to Washington Shirley was very fearful on the train that somebody might take the memorandum. I said, "I don't think that they could transcribe your notes." And when we got back home she transcribed what proved highly useful and confidential information.

FUCHS: Do you remember the gist of that?

HEHMEYER: I really wish that I could remember. Shirley might remember some of it. Anyway, that was Andrew Jackson Higgins. But Bob Irvin, getting back to him, he did work closely on that landing craft investigation and I would have to jog my memory on others that he worked on; because all of us had a regular caseload of investigations and most of them -- this people don't realize -- most of them never got to the hearing stage

[10]

and never got on the public stage. Mr. Truman said, "If something is wrong, let's get it corrected and not make a big to-do about it because there is a war on here and we don't want a lot of credit." And he was also careful that if we had -- all the investigations that we had going, if we had made those a matter of public hearing or public knowledge, as Senator Truman said, "We'd just become known as a common scold. We'd find nothing right. And that is not our job, our job is to try to quietly correct these situations." And there were many of those, for example, I was assigned to a case which came in through Senator Green's office of Rhode Island. Quite a few of the complaints about inefficiencies or something wrong in the war effort would come through Senators' offices -- through their constituents. And this one came through Senator Green's office from a man by the name of Gazda. He was an inventor and had developed and held the basic patents on the Oerlikon gun, which was a 20mm antiaircraft gun; which was standard equipment with our Navy and the English navy, and Gazda had developed an improved Oerlikon gun. He called it the Gazda gun.

FUCHS: Was the Oerlikon gun the Swedish gun?

HEHMEYER: No. I think he got his basic patents in Switzerland,

[11]

I'm not certain about that. But the basic patents for the gun were held by Gazda. Tony Gazda. And, at the time before Pearl Harbor, he tried to interest the British in the Oerlikon and they were not interested in it, and then he tried to sell our Navy on the gun. And our Navy was not interested in it. He went to Japan -- remember this was long before Pearl Harbor -- he went to Japan and they were very interested in it. He closed a licensing agreement with the Japanese for this 20mm Oerlikon gun -- they took the Oerlikon gun, and then subsequently our Navy and the British navy adopted that gun as a standard weapon.

FUCHS: You mean the Japanese took it?

HEHMEYER: They had it. They had it before Pearl Harbor. Then he started to work on the Gazda gun which had basic improvements in it. The recoil mechanism and other things in it were vastly improved with much more rapidity of fire. This was about 1943 or '44. At the time of Pearl Harbor -- when we declared war on Germany, Gazda was picked up as an enemy alien. He was an Austrian and he was put on Ellis Island. He was a wealthy man. He was put on Ellis Island, but he had friends here in this country. One of his big friends in England was Lord Mountbatten. Anyway, through

[12]

various connections, including Senator Green and the Governor of Rhode Island, who was Howard McGrath. I think that Biddle was the Attorney General, anyway Biddle "sprung him," you might say, from Ellis Island, and he was sent back to Providence where he lived -- Providence, Rhode Island, and a guard was put on him, military guards in civilian clothes. He lived in the Biltmore Hotel in Providence and they even walled up one of the doorways so there was only one entrance and exit. He was watched constantly to see that he only worked on the Gazda gun. This was fine with him, he said, because he was convinced this gun should be replacing the Oerlikon gu