Secret Service agent in charge of the White House detail during the Truman Administration.
September 20, 1988
Niel M. Johnson
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened August, 1991
Oral History Interview with
JOHNSON: Mr. Rowley, I'm going to begin by asking you to tell us when and where you were born and what your parents' names are.
ROWLEY: I was born in the Bronx, New York on October 14, 1908. My father was James J. Rowley; my mother's maiden name was McTeague--Bridget Theresa McTeague. Both of them were immigrants from Ireland. They met in New York City and were married in Manhattan. We lived in the upper Bronx, as we called it, around Fordham Road where the university is, in that general area.
JOHNSON: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
ROWLEY: Yes, I have a brother, a Jesuit priest, and a sister.
JOHNSON: What's his name?
ROWLEY: Father Francis Rowley, S.J., and my sister is Marge Borise. Of interest though, the parish we entered, when we moved up to the upper Bronx, was Our Savior Parish, whose pastor was the famous Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th. And of further interest is that when he returned from World War I--it was a rainy Sunday and there was a parade coming up Washington Avenue towards the church--all of the parishioners were outside the church waiting for him. And also there, on horseback, was General Bill Donovan. Remember Colonel Bill Donovan?
JOHNSON: Wild Bill?
ROWLEY: Yes. I mentioned that for the reason that during the early part of World War II I ran across him aboard the Potomac when he was the guest of President Roosevelt. I happened to be on duty on the aft deck of the presidential yacht, and he came out one morning and we got talking. I mentioned to him that I remembered when he came up Washington Avenue with Father Duffy and the retinue. He was very much interested. Then, years later I ran into him overseas when I did the advance work for the conferences abroad.
JOHNSON: Oh yes. We'll want to get into that a little bit. Were you educated in the public schools there?
ROWLEY: No, I went to a parish school, run by the Dominican Order.
JOHNSON: What are the names of these schools that you attended?
ROWLEY: It was the Our Savior School, parochial school. Then I went to George Washington High School and finished the term. I went to that public high school because they had a good baseball team, which was an inducement in those days. At the end of the semester, on June 30, 1926 my brother and I, both of us, had jobs downtown, lower New York--he in the Federal Reserve and I in a brokerage firm--when about 11 o'clock in the morning I got a call from Father Pigott, Assistant Pastor of Our Savior's Church. He said, "I want you to get your brother and come and see me in the rectory." We couldn't imagine what it was. So we got to the rectory and when he had us sit down, he said, "The reason I asked you to come here first was that your father was killed this morning." And he said, "Your mother is in complete shock, so I wanted to prepare you for it."
JOHNSON: What was you father doing? What was his occupation?
ROWLEY: He was with the highway department, the City of New
JOHNSON: There was an accident on the job?
ROWLEY: Yes. My father was checking the deterioration of an overpass when the railing gave way under his weight. His assistant reached out and tried to save him, and hold on to him, but he was a little heavy and he couldn't. He almost pulled the man over. That's the way it was described to me. So that meant that now I had to go to work. But fortunately, in New York City you had night high schools.
JOHNSON: Now you are the oldest child?
ROWLEY: Yes. I finished up at what was called Fordham Evening High School. It was housed in the regular day high school. So I went there and got my diploma, and then enrolled at St. John's University in Brooklyn. I went there for two years and studied science. At that time I was working for the New York State Banking Department on liquidation work for banks that closed, particularly the bank I was working with at the time.
JOHNSON: What year would this be?
ROWLEY: In 1930 the bank closed. So I had six years of liquidation work. Of course, with the Depression on,
they had to cut costs and those of us who were single were released. They held the people who were married and had responsibilities with children. So I finished two years of social science and then quickly entered law school. I wanted to be sure to have the tuition, because my sister and I had to support one another.
JOHNSON: What law school was this?
ROWLEY: St. John's University. And so I received my LLB there in 1936 and my masters degree in law in 1937.
JOHNSON: You had already learned a lot, at least about banking, and banking procedures, and banking regulations through this liquidation work you were doing.
ROWLEY: Yes. At that time stockholders of a bank were responsible for any problems a bank had, in that they could be assessed on their stock. It was quite a hardship for those who held stock in a bank.
JOHNSON: That got you acquainted with currency and currency laws, counterfeiting possibly. Did you have any exposure to counterfeiting problems at that time?
ROWLEY: No. I was in the Credit Department. First, I worked as a messenger, and then I went into the Credit Department and handled the files, and then, one day,
they had me analyze financial statements and so forth. Eventually, after a year, I was out doing credit investigative work.
JOHNSON: After your law school, you law work is done, you moved into what position?
ROWLEY: I was out for six months, and one day I had luncheon with a vice president that I used to visit in connection with my work in Brooklyn. I'll never forget. This Mr. Hickey, the bank vice president, said to me, "What are you going to do?" And I said, "Well, I don't know." He said, "Did you ever think about joining the FBI?" I said, "No." He said, "These fellows are in here every day." He said, "You know a lot about this business. So I said, "Yes." Of course, I'd worked on liquidations. I'd worked on embezzlement and bankruptcies and things of that nature. Some time later I dictated an application to the FBI, to my sister. She typed it all up and I sent it to J. Edgar Hoover. A few months later, there was a call to take an exam down in the New York office, which I did. Then the next thing I heard from my references was that they were investigating me.
JOHNSON: You're still living in the Bronx at this time?
ROWLEY: That's right, yes.
JOHNSON: What year are we talking about here, that the FBI decided to hire you? What year was that?
ROWLEY: That was in '36.
JOHNSON: You came down here to Washington to work for the FBI then?
ROWLEY: Yes, for training school.
JOHNSON: How long a training period was that with the FBI?
ROWLEY: Twelve weeks in those days.
JOHNSON: Twelve weeks. Where was their training school located?
ROWLEY: The Department of Justice Building at the time. They didn't have Quantico in those days.
JOHNSON: So then as soon as your training is done, you get assigned as an agent?
ROWLEY: Yes. Special agent. I was assigned to Charlotte, North Carolina.
JOHNSON: Were you the only agent in Charlotte?
ROWLEY: Oh, no, we had several agents in Charlotte.
JOHNSON: And you were there how long?
ROWLEY: About six months or eight months, and then I was
transferred to Boston. After Boston, I left and went down to New York. Then I ran into friends of mine that I hadn't seen for years at a restaurant one night, and they wanted to know what I was doing. I said I had been in the FBI. One of them had worked for the Secret Service.
JOHNSON: What's his name, this fellow?
ROWLEY: Frank Lyons. He had his law practice in New York.
JOHNSON: So he had been in the Secret Service, and now he brings your attention to the Secret Service.
ROWLEY: That's right.
JOHNSON: And this is what, 1938 or '39?
ROWLEY: This was '38 because I was appointed in October of '38.
JOHNSON: Into the Secret Service.
JOHNSON: Is that just kind of a simple transfer or do you have to take training again?
ROWLEY: Oh no, I had already resigned from the FBI.
JOHNSON: Did you have to go through retraining again?
ROWLEY: No. They had training, but I had all that training from the Bureau.
JOHNSON: I went through the FBI headquarters the other day, and that was the first time I've had their tour. I did ask them a question about coordinating with the Secret Service. I guess they get into everything but counterfeiting of currency and bank notes and that sort of thing; that's still reserved for the Secret Service. Of course, the Secret Service started long before the FBI was founded. What was your first assignment; what kind of cases, or problems were you to work with when you started out with them?
ROWLEY: Well, I had a variety of cases. One case dealt with Social Security identification cards. Apparently, a lot of people went in in those days and applied for cards giving different names, and a lot of merchants were defrauded by their identification. They would only make partial payments when purchasing expensive items. I worked with a New York City detective, and eventually we located one suspect and brought him before the U.S. Attorney.
The U.S. Attorney released him on his own recognizance. There was a question of whether we had jurisdiction. At that time, the Social Security Administration didn't have any investigative
organization. But in any event, that was an interesting experience. Then I was on maybe one or two counterfeiting cases. Then I was assigned to Utica, New York. I wasn't there very long when I was transferred to Washington.
JOHNSON: From Utica, New York.
JOHNSON: When you're here in Washington, with the Secret Service, on your first assignment, where were you stationed and what was your headquarters?
ROWLEY: In the main Treasury Building. Worked out of the Treasury Building for a month or so, and then I was transferred over to the White House.
JOHNSON: So you're assigned to the White House in . . .
ROWLEY: In 1939.
JOHNSON: Way back in '39. So you worked for Roosevelt.
JOHNSON: You did go over to Africa, you said, to prepare for the Casablanca conference and you flew this route that a later airplane flew and crashed . . .
ROWLEY: And the President flew that too.
JOHNSON: And the President flew that same route later on?
ROWLEY: I think it might have been a non-stop; it was on Pan-American, a Pan-Am seaplane.
JOHNSON: Of course, that was his first flight across the ocean.
JOHNSON: Do you remember the circumstances? Were you the first airplane with the White House Secret Service people to fly to Africa?
JOHNSON: What was that route again? Where did you start?
ROWLEY: Well, we started from Washington, D.C. We took one of those four-motored planes, a DC-4, and flew to Miami. Then we flew to Trinidad, from Trinidad to Berlin, and Berlin to Natal, where we refueled.
By the way, after taking off from Natal, we're in the air, and all of a sudden I smelled some odor. I'm looking up and they had sort of a canvas ceiling. I could see this liquid-like water coming out, and so I called to the crew chief. I said, "I don't know, but something's leaking here." So he got hold of the pilot
and he came in and took a look at it. He said, "Turn off any radios and stop smoking," and so forth. He flew around off Natal. We found out later that the cap wasn't on one of the fuel tanks and the fumes were coming from that. So we flew around for some time to exhaust as much fuel as we could, and the pilot came in for a landing. As the plane started to taxi down the runway, some of us started jumping off. But anyhow, the sergeant who was in charge of the crew slept with that plane from then on; he never let anybody touch the plane.
JOHNSON: All right. So then you got on over to Ascension Island, which you said was a secret at the time; it wasn't publicized that that was an airfield?
ROWLEY: That's right.
JOHNSON: And then on over to Dakar, in Africa?
JOHNSON: And then on up to Casablanca?
ROWLEY: They called it British West Africa then, on the Gambia River, and then up to Marakesh where we were met my General Clark and General Grunther. They said, "We'll let you use our plane." There were four of us, and we got in his plane. He said, "See if you can beat
our time." His plane was a bomber.
JOHNSON: You had to check out the place where the others were going to meet?
ROWLEY: We had to set up security perimeters. We worked with General Patton and his staff.
JOHNSON: Now this other plane that crashed that I was telling you about; you heard about that while you were there in Africa? You heard that that plane had crashed? [In January 1943, an American airliner, with 35 persons aboard, crashed in Dutch Guiana, killing all aboard. Among those on board were two FBI agents, 12 Army officers, and two representatives of the U.S. State Department.]
ROWLEY: That's right. In the jungles, after they took off from Trinidad.
JOHNSON: Were these people also coming to help provide security?
ROWLEY: Well, I don't know what they were doing. We had no word on that.
JOHNSON: Well, one of J. Edgar Hoover's right-hand men, the one in charge of the New York office and an expert on sabotage, was one of the victims that was on board that airplane. Did you ever see any evidence, or hear any rumors, that it might have been sabotaged, that
ROWLEY: No, but it was a natural conclusion, you know, that it went down there. Subsequently, Tommy Harmon's airplane went down in the same general area.
JOHNSON: That's what you said, but he managed to get out.
ROWLEY: Yes. He hacked his way out.
JOHNSON: Was he by himself in a fighter plane?
ROWLEY: Something like that, yes.
JOHNSON: About this plane that crashed in January 1943, there was an Army investigation apparently. Did you hear anything about the results of an investigation on that plane that crashed?
ROWLEY: No. No, you see, I became involved in my current assignment. I was a member of the advance teams.
JOHNSON: So you did advance work for all of the conferences of Roosevelt, beginning with Casablanca?
JOHNSON: Then, of course, when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, he was in Warm Springs, Georgia. Were you there?
ROWLEY: That's right, yes.
JOHNSON: You were there in Warm Springs?
ROWLEY: Yes, with Mike Reilly, head of the White House detail, and with other agents. What happened down at Warm Springs was that we were supposed to have a picnic, and I was going to lay out with the Marine captain the security around this picnic area. I get a call from Mike Reilly. He said, "I want to see you, come over to the cottage." So I got over to the cottages and went down to the house. He said, "Come on, walk up the path with me." He said, "Don't say anything, but the President is gone." I said, "What do you mean, gone?" He said, "He's dead." I said, "What?"
We had to handle that situation delicately because what they were doing was trying to get Steve Early, locate him, and try to get Mrs. Roosevelt. They didn't want word to get out prematurely; they wanted to give them a chance to come down. So Mrs. Roosevelt came and landed in Atlanta and then motored in.
JOHNSON: Had you met Truman by this time, as Vice-President?
JOHNSON: You hadn't met him?
ROWLEY: No, that was George Drescher and two or three
JOHNSON: Where was your office here in the White House? Where were you located?
ROWLEY: In the West Wing. Right as you come into that office there, there used to be a huge lobby, with a big, round Filipino table with oxen heads. I was in a little office, as you came in, to the right.
JOHNSON: But during the Truman period was that where the Secret Service people had their main quarters in the White House?
ROWLEY: Yes, that's where I was. The chief of the Secret Service was still over in the Treasury Department. That's where the headquarters of the Secret Service was located.
JOHNSON: In '46, you became supervising agent, I believe, but when Truman became President you were, what, assistant to the . . .
ROWLEY: No, I was head of one of the shifts. Then I was appointed to what we call "agent in charge of the White House detail."
JOHNSON: Some of these articles have numbers, just approximate numbers, of Secret Service men who were on detail at the White House. Do you recall about how
many there were that were on duty there at the White House when Truman became President?
ROWLEY: I would say maybe 15.
JOHNSON: Three shifts, 24 hours, seven days a week.
ROWLEY: No, you had days off in those days.
JOHNSON: Yes, but I mean there was somebody on duty at the White House all the time.
ROWLEY: Oh, yes, 24 hours a day, exactly.
JOHNSON: I suppose as soon as Truman came to the White House for the oath of office, that night, he had Secret Service people there.
ROWLEY: Yes, that was Drescher.
JOHNSON: And Drescher was the one up here, at the White House?
ROWLEY: That's right.
JOHNSON: And was he in the room there where Truman was taking the oath?
JOHNSON: So when did you get up here then; what was you first day with Truman?
ROWLEY: Right after the funeral of President Roosevelt.
JOHNSON: Let's take an example. Truman, on one of his first trips, went out to Olympia, Washington to visit Mon Wallgren and then went down to San Francisco.
ROWLEY: Yes, I did the advance at both places.
JOHNSON: In Olympia or San Francisco?
ROWLEY: I did both of them, yes.
JOHNSON: What would be entailed in that? Typically, what would be involved in doing advance work for a presidential trip like that? What would be your duties?
ROWLEY: Well, the first thing, I went out to Olympia and met Governor Mon Wallgren and worked out the details with him. I left somebody in charge to work out the details with the State Police. Truman was to be a guest at the residence of the Governor. I had a plane assigned, and I flew down to San Francisco and then I worked with our office there. I got together with Colonel Means of the Army security, who incidentally was from Missouri and knew Truman, and the San Francisco Police. We went over all the details for the places the President would visit. For example, he stayed at the Fairmont Hotel, and there would be a
motorcade. Then, after a few days there, I went back to Olympia to see how the arrangements were progressing. Then I flew back to San Francisco. The President landed at Hamilton airfield in San Francisco.
JOHNSON: You had the airplane the Sacred Cow, and usually it seemed that he and White House people, staff, would fly in the Sacred Cow and then another plane behind them would have the newsmen, and even some Secret Service men, along with these newsmen.
ROWLEY: That's right.
JOHNSON: But there would be Secret Service men in the Sacred Cow as well, I suppose.
ROWLEY: Well, yes, in case there were any problems where it came down to evacuation, and so forth.
JOHNSON: Well, who or how many did that leave at the White House?
ROWLEY: The White House Police.
JOHNSON: The White House Police then took over duties . . .
ROWLEY: Well, just the normal duties about the White House.
JOHNSON: Normal duties. As long as the President wasn't in the White House, you didn't have to be there.
ROWLEY: That's right, well, especially when we were away with the President, like when he went for a week, say a Christmas period, to Kansas City. But in my office, you had the secretaries there who kept in touch with us. Then, too, you must remember we did not have too many agents in those days.
JOHNSON: I have a letter here from Edward McKim who was, for a short time, administrative assistant to the President. The letter is to Fred Canfil. McKim claims that a Secret Service group went to Kansas City in May of '45 and then the report came back to him about some kind of delinquency and so on. There's no follow-up on this, and I just wonder what this flap was about. He claimed that there was some kind of misbehavior and that the Secretary of the Treasury may be taking disciplinary action. Did you ever hear anything about this little incident, or whether there was anything to this?
ROWLEY: I was in Washington, so I didn't know.
JOHNSON: This was in May, about a month after he became President. I didn't know whether there was anything to this, or whether you recalled anything about it, but you weren't there in Kansas City you're saying.
Also there's a little memorandum here, from the President to the chief of the Secret Service at the
White House, which says that someone on duty refused to call, or allow her to call, the house for verification. It says, "Miss Murray is an old friend of the family and merely wanted to leave a box of candy for Mrs. Truman. It seems to me that Mr. Frederick should be transferred." Do you recall that incident at all?
ROWLEY: No. What date is that?
JOHNSON: This is January 28, 1946.
ROWLEY: George Drescher was in charge, wasn't he?
JOHNSON: I suppose at that point, yes.
ROWLEY: Miss Murray.
JOHNSON: She was a friend of the family. According to the President, the agent was overreacting or something; they wouldn't accept a package from her, or call. What was the normal practice? Say if somebody came to the White House and wanted to leave a package, or
ROWLEY: Well, we would process it first. We eventually got those x-ray machines. You know that was one of the responsibilities, to check them if they didn't know who they were. You wanted to ascertain the identity and the reliability of the individual.
JOHNSON: How about mail that came to the White House, I
suppose to the mailroom?
ROWLEY: That's right, and it was turned over to us.
JOHNSON: You took a look at all of the mail?
ROWLEY: Yes, right. We were building up a department, which is now called the Protective Research Department.
JOHNSON: You assigned two or three Secret Service people to do this?
ROWLEY: Yes, and we sent it to a field office to identify the person, if it was really serious, and so forth.
JOHNSON: Did you ever intercept any package that had something dangerous in it, to the President; to President Truman?
ROWLEY: No. We've come across things that had spikes and hairpins and stuff like that. I think Mike Reilly's book devotes some time to that, which would answer a lot of your questions [Michael F. Reilly (as told to William J. Slocum), Reilly of the White House (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947)]
JOHNSON: There's a story that Truman, you know, liked to take his early morning strolls.
JOHNSON: And the first time he did that, he just went marching off and I guess the Secret Service people had to run after him to catch up with him.
ROWLEY: They weren't forewarned, yes. I wasn't there that time. I was assistant to Drescher.
JOHNSON: And they'd have to be fast walkers too.
ROWLEY: Yes. You had to get up early, because he came out at 6 o'clock or 6:15 a.m.
JOHNSON: Do you remember who it was that usually walked with Truman on those strolls, which Secret Service men?
ROWLEY: Well, initially, it was Drescher. When Drescher left, when he was assigned to the Baltimore field office, and I was appointed in charge of the detail; then I walked with the President.
JOHNSON: You did.
ROWLEY: I walked with him every morning for a month--my wife can tell you--getting up at 5 o'clock, especially in the winter when it was so dark, and you get down there and it's still dark.
JOHNSON: Where were you living at that time?
ROWLEY: In Chevy Chase.
JOHNSON: So you had to get up and get down to the Blair House.
ROWLEY: Yes, it was no trouble at that time, but Truman would be out at 6:15. He never retraced his steps. It was amazing; each morning it was a different route, and if a traffic light caught him he'd go with the green light. You couldn't get a fix on him, if anybody wanted to try something untoward.
JOHNSON: Well, apparently people began to expect to see him; they kind of grouped around to see him. Then you started taking him out farther from the White House to do his strolls. Do you remember that?
ROWLEY: Oh yes, but it was the President who decided the route. One day we walked right up to Union Station from the White House. He was living in the Blair House then. You know where Union Station is? Up near the Capitol.
JOHNSON: Oh, okay.
ROWLEY: Well, anyhow, we were passing the entrance, and coming out of the entrance were a lot of the Government people coming in to work and so forth. Among the people was Phil Murray, the labor leader, who saw the President, and they exchanged greetings. So we got talking. I never started any conversation with the
President unless he started it first. So he said something, and I said, "Well, a lot of historic events happened here at Union Station. I understand from our agents, when the President, President Hoover, was leaving office, and the agents that were assigned to him escorted him to the train, he got on the back of a private car, and immediately after the train pulled out, he waved good-bye. It was rather sad, because the agents were dropped, and he had no security." I said, "It was something that the agents always talked about." He didn't say anything; I would say we walked a city block before he said something. "Well," he said, "I'll fix that, Jim." Shortly after that, he appointed Hoover to some special assignment.
JOHNSON: Of course, the Potsdam Conference was Truman's first, and only, summit conference with Stalin. Were you there at Potsdam?
ROWLEY: I did the advance at Potsdam.
JOHNSON: At the Cecilienhof?
ROWLEY: That's right. Well, the Cecilienhof was where the meeting took place; that's the old Prince's residence. The houses or residences were in Babelsberg. General [Major General Floyd] Parks was the commanding general there, and that area was where the motion picture
industry was located, so it's quite a nice area. A number of houses were assigned and it was my duty to look the houses over and so forth. Some of General Marshall's staff were there--the military. Of interest, I couldn't find anybody when I got there who really knew about the meeting arrangements. I landed in Paris and I called Bob [Robert] Murphy, who was Ambassador, and he was going up to Berlin, so he wouldn't be available. Finally I found out that an admiral that I worked with in Hawaii when Roosevelt went and met the admirals and General MacArthur, that he was there, so I went to see him.
JOHNSON: This was Admiral . . .
ROWLEY: Admiral [Vice Admiral Robert Lee] Gormley, and he still had the same aide that he had that I worked with. So I called up and said to him, "I'm having a tough time here trying to find out...." He said, "I'll straighten that out." So he called the Air Force and the Army, and all, in for a meeting in his staff room. A lot of them had ideas, on this and that. He listened and he said, "Gentlemen, I think we had better listen to this young man." So then I went on, and from there on I had no trouble. But the reason I'm citing all of this is that the one that worked with me was Colonel Jim Blair who later became Governor of Missouri.
JOHNSON: Oh yes, sure.
ROWLEY: Remember he died of monoxide; they left the car running when they came back from a dinner.
JOHNSON: He was the one that you were working with over there?
ROWLEY: He was there and he was responsible for the quartering and so forth. So I worked with him and told him what we needed.
JOHNSON: How about the Russians? If anybody was security conscious, I suppose they were, for Stalin.
ROWLEY: Oh, they were. They had the whole place set up because they were in that area. The President and staff were located by a lake. On the lake was a little island, and the Russians wanted to take care of it. I said, "No, we'll use American troops there. We'll take care of it because that's our responsibility." They didn't push too hard, so that's what we did. That detail had a lot of sharp, young American soldiers.
JOHNSON: How many Secret Service people did we have there, would you say, at Potsdam, that were working with you?
ROWLEY: Oh, I don't know. You would have to look up the records. Three of us were on advance, and then [Floyd] Boring was there . . .
JOHNSON: But you did have to coordinate with the Soviets' security people?
ROWLEY: Oh, I had a meeting all of the time with the Soviets.
JOHNSON: You had to work through a translator?
ROWLEY: Yes, through a translator. Some of them could speak English; a lot of them knew English and they pretended that they couldn't. Colonel Jim Smith was the Provost Marshal; I worked with him.
JOHNSON: Everything went smoothly, or did you have any hang-ups, any problems?
ROWLEY: Well, you remember Churchill was defeated and you had to wait until [Clement] Attlee was briefed and he came to the meeting. Stalin pretended he was sick, and Truman said, "If we don't have a meeting tomorrow, I'm going home." And Stalin got well real quick.
JOHNSON: So no problems with the Russians while you were working with them?