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Opened January, 1972
Oral History Interview with
December 9, 1969
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Mr. Leva, to begin would you tell me a little about your background?
LEVA: I was born in Selma, Alabama on April 4th, 1915. I was educated in the public schools of Selma, Alabama and I attended the University of Alabama from which I graduated in 1937. I graduated there in the school of commerce and business administration, and I then attended the Harvard Law School from which I graduated in 1940. At Harvard I was note editor of the Harvard Law Review and after my graduation I was law clerk to Mr. Justice Hugo Black of the Supreme Court. I went from there to a position on the legal staff of the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply, and when the Division of Civilian Supply was transferred to what was then the Office of Production Management, I transferred with the Division and became Counsel for the Division of Civilian Supply. Later, just before
Pearl Harbor, the General Counsel of the Office of Production Management, which by that time I think had been changed to the War Production Board, the General Counsel, Mr. John Lord O'Brian, made me counsel for the Automotive Branch of the War Production Board with the result that immediately after Pearl Harbor, I was sent to Detroit to assist in "converting the automotive industry to war production."
I found Detroit a somewhat frustrating experience and renewed an application I had previously filed for a commission in the Navy. I was commissioned in the Navy four or five months after Pearl Harbor and went on active duty in the Navy in the middle of 1942. I had my naval training as an ensign at Tower Hall, Northwestern University, Chicago, and went directly from there to sea duty with the amphibious force. I was originally navigating officer of a landing ship, LST, and subsequently became executive officer of the same landing ship, LST 386. Our ship participated in landing operations in Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Normandy and after the Normandy operation participated in transporting ammunition and other supplies across the channel for a period of months and
at that stage the ship was given to the British under lend-lease and the crew came home.
When I came home I was assigned in December of 1944 or January 1945, to the Bureau of Ships of the Navy Department. I served out the remainder of my time in uniform in the Bureau of Ships, and, in the course of that service, I met the Counsel to the Fiscal Director of the Navy, who asked me to take his position when he left, and I then became Counsel to the Fiscal Director of the Navy, who was Wilfred McNeil, in early 1946, I believe.
HESS: What were some of your duties in that position?
LEVA: It's hard to remember very exactly. My predecessor as Counsel to the Fiscal Director was Frank Lincoln, who at a much subsequent stage was Assistant Secretary of Defense and Comptroller. My impression is that Frank Lincoln had built up a rather wide scope of duties in the position of Counsel to the Fiscal Director. Many of the duties had nothing to do with legal duties as I would know them. As a result, after a very short period, I was given the double designation of Counsel to the Fiscal Director, and t also served as Deputy Fiscal Director of the Navy. I really served more as
Deputy Fiscal Director and as McNeil's alter ego than as counsel. In the capacity of counsel, however, I was a member of the Office of the General Counsel of the Navy which was an office that Mr. [James V.] Forrestal had set up early in the war to handle procurement matters and I , therefore, came in contact with my legal hat with all of the Navy's civilian lawyers, and with my non-legal (I hope not my illegal), hat, with the various bureau chiefs because the chiefs of the various bureaus; the Bureau of Ships, Bureau of Ordnance and so on attended a meeting which Secretary Forrestal held, as best I can recall, once each week, and the Fiscal Director of the Navy, Mr. McNeil, attended that meeting also and he took to taking me with him and then when he was away I represented him at the meeting. So I was really functioning in two different circles; the legal and the naval-administrative.
I remember particularly, and I guess here we get into '46 because I don't remember the date exactly--when the atomic energy experiment was performed at Bikini Atoll, Mr. McNeil accompanied Mr. Forrestal to Bikini and I believe that the meetings in Mr. Forrestal's absence were conducted by Under Secretary [John L.]
Sullivan and I represented McNeil, and then Forrestal and McNeil went on around the world which took longer in those days than it does now. So that I would say that my duties were quite a hodgepodge. They included the legal duty of advising the Fiscal Director on what was proper and what was not proper within the scope of his responsibilities and how to handle various matters of a fiscal and fiscal-administrative nature but they also went far outside the legal in many other spheres.
HESS: Before we get into our questions about Mr. Forrestal I would like to ask you a couple of questions about your war experiences. You mentioned the major landings, Sicily and Anzio and Normandy. Which of the landings did you find to be the roughest, the, to use a...
LEVA: Well, there's no question about which was the roughest for our ship. Salerno, which you didn't mention...
HESS: Which I didn't mention.
LEVA: ...was far rougher than any of the others. We had a relatively quiet landing in Sicily. We landed with the combat waves at a small town, Licata, on the American beaches.
Our LST was fixed up in a very peculiar fashion for the Sicily landing. We had steel landing mat on the deck and we carried four Piper Cubs for artillery observation and they were to fly...
HESS: You were an aircraft carrier.
LEVA: We were an aircraft carrier at that point, and the Piper Cubs were to fly off and do artillery spotting and if they were lucky they could find a place to come down. As it happened, since the small boats were in first, the LCVPs, and since the combat was--the combat landing went very well. The first highway inland was seized very early and all the Piper Cubs got down and all of them got down safely. I think all of the pilots were later given the Silver Star, not so much for what they ran into as for what they might have run into. Licata was--the Sicilian landing at Licata was in July of '43. We went to the Sicilian landing from Lake Bizerte which is where we were based in North Africa waiting for the landing. We had had a number of air raids before the landing because the Germans still had considerable air power available at that point in mid-forty-three. But Sicily, relatively speaking, was quieter than the landings that came later. We went
back to Bizerte and we based on Lake Bizerte again for the landing at Salerno which was September of '43.
The announcement of the surrender of the Italian Government to the allies was made the night before the landing as we were approaching the Gulf of Salerno and I think it probably resulted in all of the crews thinking this would be a much easier landing. That may have had something to do with the difficulties at Salerno, but I think the principal difficulty at Salerno was the fact that the fighter planes that we then had could remain over the area, I think, only about ten minutes. They just didn't have the legs to fly there, fight, and go back to their bases in North Africa. And, as a result, we didn't have the air cover that we were to have in later affairs. Also the Germans apparently knew where we were coming and dumped a lot of floating mines into the Gulf of Salerno.
Also, in the Salerno operation, and in this respect it was unique in all those I participated in: The powers that be had decreed that the LSTs, which were 327 feet long, would land ahead of the small boats. So we were landing at night, in the dark, nine hundred
miles away from our bases, and the mine sweepers were supposed to sweep to within two and a half miles of the shore so as not to give away our position by sweeping further towards land. We were making our beaching run and we were going along all right and we got about a mile and a quarter off the beach in the unswept area, our bow lookout called out there was a floating object and just about simultaneously, the floating object detonated and we blew a hole about forty-eight feet long in the side of the ship. We couldn't beach in that condition, or rather we couldn't unload equipment. We did try to beach, we went ahead and ran into the beach, partly because we didn't know whether we were going to sink or not and that seemed about the best place to go. But when we hit the beach, the water was between nine and ten feet deep at the bow and we couldn't unload anything as it developed.
When we then tried to check on the situation, one of our engines had blown out, the other seemed to be about to go out, the gyrocompass had blown up, but we could still limp off the beach with the one engine, so we requested instructions from the flagship which told us to come out where she was in the middle of the
gulf. It was just coming up dawn at that point and we did go back to where the flagship was and then unloaded our equipment into smaller craft, LCTs as a matter of fact. So, that was by all odds the roughest landing we were in. Anzio, relatively was quieter and Normandy was the quietest of all because by Normandy the Germans had no air power.
HESS: When did you first meet Mr. Forrestal?
LEVA: I can't pin that down accurately. I think that I first met Mr. Forrestal at one of the meetings that I have just described; that is, one of Mr. Forrestal's weekly meetings with the chiefs of the various naval bureaus at which I either accompanied Mr. McNeil or substituted for him in his absence, and I don't have any vivid recollection. But my recollection is that I did meet Mr. Forrestal for the first time at one of those meetings and then I just sort of drifted in and out of those meetings over a period of six or eight months and got to know him progressively better.
HESS: And when did you become his special assistant?
LEVA: After I had been working as Mr. McNeil's counsel and deputy for about a year I was asked by Mr. Forrestal's
personal counsel, who was at that time John Connor, who had been a year ahead of me at Harvard Law School and who had been a good friend of mine since my law school days, I was asked by John Connor whom everyone refers to as Jack, if I could take his job as counsel to Mr. Forrestal so that he, Mr. Connor, would be free to leave the Navy and take a job that had been offered him as secretary and counsel of Merck and Company, the pharmaceutical house. And I told Jack Connor that that sounded interesting even though I had been already overdue in my intentions in practicing law, but I said, "You know it's one thing for you to offer me a job but does Mr. Forrestal want me in this?"