As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the William M. Rigdon transcript.
Opened January, 1972
Oral History Interview with
July 16, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: All right Commander, we are recording, and to begin let's refer historians to your very excellent book, White House Sailor, and many of the questions that we would normally cover in an interview like this, if they are looking for those answers, they can go to the book and find what you have had to say about it at that point, but just to begin this morning, would you tell me a little bit about your background; where were you born and where were you raised, and what are a few of the positions that you have held?
RIGDON: I was born in Statesboro, Georgia. That's a small town about fifty miles northwest of Savannah. I was raised there, and went to school there. About a year and a half after I finished high school I enlisted in the Navy, and the Navy took care of the
next thirty years of my life.
HESS: They did a good job of taking care of that thirty years.
HESS: All right. And then since your Navy career what have you done? You've been associated with...
RIGDON: I retired from the Navy in August 1953. Then I attended Cornell--the school of hotel administration at Cornell--for one year. I came back to Washington in July '54, to take a job as executive secretary of the Virginia Hotel Company, which although a corporation, is really the Willard estate. I am referring to the Willards who built and operated the Willard Hotel here for many years.
By the time I had joined the corporation, both Mr. Willard and Mrs. Willard had died and the members of its board of directors who ran it were mostly bankers and lawyers who didn't have the necessary time to give to details. I personally knew several members of the board and one of them prevailed on me to change my chosen career--second career--from hotel man to managing this hotel company. It was not an operating company, but sort of holding company. I was
with them for about four years. When one of the principal stockholders sold her interest, it became a one-woman affair. I didn't think I would like that arrangement, so I left there and went to work with two members of the board of directors who were attorneys. I've been with them ever since, but I am leaving them at the end of this month. I'm going to try retirement again.
HESS: Are you going back to Georgia?
RIGDON: No, I have to stick around Washington for a couple more years. I had this operation on my neck and the doctors want to watch me for...
HESS: For a little while.
RIGDON: A little while longer. And since I had the operation at the naval hospital here, it's much better that I just stay here until they release me, which I hope will be in another couple of years.
HESS: Fine. Now, your duties as Assistant Naval Aide are fairly well down in your book, but just briefly, what were your duties as Assistant Naval Aide during the years that you spent in the White House?
RIGDON: I was the administrative man for the office and that explains why I was there so long. As you probably
know, the White House is loath to make changes as long as everything is going well. It was this reluctance to change horses as long as everything was going well and not that I was the only man who could have done the work that I stayed on so long. I stayed on almost eleven years. Actually, I had had only one predecessor.
When World War II broke for us, President [Franklin D. Roosevelt foresaw a lot of travel and he wanted a male secretary who could be able to accompany him anywhere and everywhere that he might go. A young fellow by the name of Frank Terry was the first one to serve in the job as Administrative Assistant to the Naval Aide. President Roosevelt promised command of the Battleship Iowa that was under construction to his then Naval Aide, Captain [John L.] McCrea, and Terry asked to go to the Iowa with McCrea. McCrea, with whom I had served in another battleship previously, very kindly thought of me and had me ordered to Washington to relieve Terry.
I came to the White House during the Roosevelt days, and my duties were strictly as an assistant to the Naval Aide when we were in Washington. But on the
road, my principal duties were taking care of the President's mail and his clerical needs. Sort of like Topsy, those duties grew and grew. As we traveled more and more I assumed, or was assigned, additional duties. On almost every trip, I seemed to acquire new duties.
President Roosevelt was quite a Navy man and any chore that the Navy could do, he had them do. We were responsible for coordinating all his travel. We had to assemble the staff that we were going to take with us. For instance, stewards, or messmen as we call them in the Navy, cooks, photographers, and various other personnel, as you can see from the roster of the President's party. Not all those chores were mine, but many of them were.
HESS: Did you work closely with Dewey Long the transportation--I believe he was transportation man.
RIGDON: He was White House transportation man. There were times when we had to arrange our transportation through Mr. Long, but there were other times when not even Mr. Long was cut in on our plans--I mean, they were so secret that not even...
HESS: On the secret trips he wouldn't be utilized. Is that right?
RIGDON: That's right. By the time Mr. Truman came in, they had started taking newsmen along. I think the last trip President Roosevelt made we picked up three newsmen, or representatives of the press services, the International News Services, the Associated Press, and the United Press...
HESS: Was that on the Yalta trip?
RIGDON: Yes. On our way back from Yalta, we picked them up in the Mediterranean. They didn't know where we had been or what the President had been doing. They were told only to check in with General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower and that he would see that they were at the right place at the right time to join the ship for the return voyage.
But what I was leading up to is that by the time Mr. Truman came in, the very first trip that he made, he did take some press along in the ship. And as a matter of fact, Mr. Long went along to be on hand, had it been necessary to elaborate on or change those plans.
For most of the Key West trips, the staff was sent down to Key West by Navy planes. the President, of course, used the Air Force plane, and Dewey Long arranged for
the newspapermen to go down in their own chartered plane. Our rail travel, of course, was all arranged by Mr. Long, even our secret travel. Mr. Long was a very important fellow in those days, but there were times when he was told only what he had to know and nothing more.
HESS: What were your duties in relation to the Williamsburg? When President Roosevelt was there he had the Potomac, was that right?
HESS: What were your duties in relation to the two vessels, the Potomac and then later the Williamsburg?
RIGDON: I was just the Naval Aide's mouthpiece, you might say. Most of the time he would give me the details and it would be my responsibility to get them to the commanding officer of the Williamsburg. Generally, the Naval Aide would give him the general plan and I would have to pick up from there and arrange the details, such as delivery of mail and passengers joining after the ship had left Washington. Quite frequently the President would invite guests who could not get away in time to leave with him, and we would have to arrange to have them flown to certain spots where the ship could pick
them up. The Naval Aide's office, or the Assistant Naval Aide would have to arrange for the delivery and pick up of mail, and we also took care of urgent requests made by the ship. Quite frequently they would need this or that. They were pretty good about preparing for these trips, but the best of us sometimes overlook something. Frequently they would send up a request by wire for us to get this article or get this person and send them down.
HESS: Now Donald MacDonald was the captain of the Williamsburg for a while. Is that right?
HESS: Were there other people who were the captain, or was he the captain for the...
RIGDON: Oh, no. The Williamsburg had a number of captains. There was Captain John H. Kevers, Commander William A. Bartos, Captain Charles Freeman, Captain Edwin S. Miller, and Commander Donald J. MacDonald. Kevers was the first skipper of the Williamsburg. He was the one who act