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James Forrestal: Murder or Suicide? A Long-Lasting Mystery

May 22, 1949 was the date on which the first U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, died. Specifically at 1:50 a.m. As will quickly become apparent, the circumstances surrounding Forrestal’s final hours are swamped in controversy. All that we know with absolute certainty is that in the early hours of the 22nd, Forrestal’s body was found on a third-floor canopy of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland. Did he take a fatal leap out of the window of the 13th floor of the hospital, his mind in turmoil and suicide on his mind? Was it an accident? Or, was Forrestal assassinated? Let’s have a look at this undeniably strange and disturbing affair. April 2, 1949 was the date on which Forrestal was taken to the hospital – for his own good and for that of the U.S. government, too. It was apparent to the doctors and nurses that Forrestal was in a dangerous state. Forrestal suspected – in fact, he was absolutely sure – that dangerous characters were watching his every move.

James V. Forrestal

Who those same characters might have been all very much depended on Forrestal’s frame: sometimes it was Russian agents. On other occasions it was spies in the U.S. government. As for the latter, Forrestal thought it was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Forrestal’s mind was spinning – and far from in a good way. On top of that, Forrestal stopped eating for a while. Not a good sign. It’s important to note that when Forrestal was admitted to Bethesda he was in what amounted to solitary confinement, and the windows of the room were modified so they couldn’t be opened. Notably, when Forrestal’s family inquired why such actions had been taken, Captain George N. Raines, the chief psychiatrist at Bethesda, said it was to prevent Forrestal from leaping out of the windows and killing himself – which, some believe, is exactly what happened on the fateful night that Forrestal’s life met its end.

After a few weeks in the hospital, there was a clear, welcome, improvement for Forrestal. Both the doctors and the nurses concurred. On top of that, his appetite started to return. To the point where – in the presence of Rear Admiral Morton Willcutts, who had come to see his old friend – Forrestal chowed down on a huge steak. It really did appear that good times were ahead. That all changed, however, only two days later. Or, rather, two nights later. Death was just around the corner. It was a death shrouded in mystery. Let’s see what we know for sure about those final hours for someone who held some of the U.S. government’s most important secrets. The man assigned to keep a careful watch on Forrestal was Edward Prise. He was a U.S. Navy corpsman. Such was the length of their time spent together, the pair became good friends. As the night got longer, Forrestal told Prise that he didn’t need a sleeping pill and was going to dig into a book for a while. That too was a good thing. Or, at least, it seemed to be that way. After Prise’s shift was over, he was replaced by another military man, Robert Wayne Harrison, Jr. Forrestal’s end was almost upon him.

J. Edgar Hoover

At some point into his shift, Harrison, Jr. left the room to run an errand. From that point onward, everything very much becomes murky, unclear – and probably something that will never be fully resolved to the satisfaction of everyone. When Harrison, Jr. got back to the room he was shocked to the core to see that Forrestal was not in his bed. And, the room’s windows were open. Harrison’s Jr raced to the window: the cord of Forrestal’s dressing-gown was tied to the radiator near the window. Clearly, the goal was death by strangulation. It turned out, however, that Forrestal’s weight caused the cord to snap and Forrestal fell ten floors to his death; something that absolutely no one could have had a chance of surviving. The official theory is that Forrestal – left all alone in his room – took his own life, possibly in a brief moment when his mind swung back to that dangerous state of depression and anxiety. The big question, however, is: could Forrestal have been pushed? The reason: to make sure he could never, ever reveal what he may have been exposed to in government.

It should also be stressed that at the time of his death Forrestal was in one of his best states of mind of the last few months. Moreover, Edward Prise revealed that Forrestal had told him he would like Prise to take on the job of his, Forrestal’s, personal driver. In other words, Forrestal seemed to be making plans for a good future – and not for the end of his life. Then, there’s the matter of Forrestal’s brother, Henry. On the day of Forrestal’s death, Henry marched into the hospital, demanding that Forrestal be released into his, Henry’s, care. If someone on “the inside” wanted Forrestal dead, then allowing Henry Forrestal to take his brother home would have been disastrous. Forrestal would have been totally out of the control of those who may have wanted him dead; something powerful players may not have wanted. It is, then, rather telling that Forrestal died the night before Henry was due to take his brother back to his house. That’s not all, though: there’s also the matter of why, precisely, Robert Wayne Harrison, Jr., left the room. That was completely against the grain: official orders were that Forrestal was never, ever to be left alone…

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Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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