Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Admiral Roscoe Henry Hillenkoetter: Pearl Harbor Survivor to CIA Director

There were twenty commanding officers of the USS Missouri during the course of her career as an active ship. Three of them served as commanding officer twice, one witnessed the signing of the Instruments of Surrender, and one went on to be the first director of the CIA. 

Admiral Roscoe Henry Hillenkoetter wanted to be a baseball player when he grew up, but his appointment to the Naval Academy changed the course of his life. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri on May 8, 1897 and graduated from the United States Naval Academy, class of 1920. In 1918, during WWI, he served as a Midshipman on the USS Minnesota (BB-22) earning him the WWI Victory Medal. In 1932 he was sent to Nicaragua where he served during the Banana Wars and specifically the Second Nicaraguan Campaign. He was there to help facilitate with the elections happening in Nicaragua at the time. For his actions in Nicaragua he was presented the Nicaraguan Medal of Merit.

Later in the 1930s Hillenkoetter served at the American Embassy in Paris as an Assistant Naval Attaché, and in 1940 was appointed as the Naval Attaché in Vichy, France. His time in France is where he really developed his knowledge of Naval Intelligence. One interesting story of Hillenkoetter’s time as attaché took place not long after the Nazi’s marched into France. Hillenkoetter and assistant to the American Ambassador , Robert Murphy were instructed by Ambassador William Bullitt to pay a formal visit to the German Provisional military governor, Generalleutnant Bogislav von Studnitz. As luck would have it, Generalleutnant von Studnitz set up his headquarters at a hotel across the street from the U.S. Embassy. Hillenkoetter and Murphy had only been expecting to meet with the Generalleutnant for a few minutes, but to the benefit of the Americans, the general had previously ordered champagne from the Crillion’s excellent cellars and was in a mood to answer all the questions the military and naval attachés had. Hillenkoetter was able to use the intelligence gathered from Generalleutnant von Studnitz to help the allies before the U.S. had entered the war.

In the summer of 1941 Hillenkoetter left France and joined the crew of the USS West Virginia (BB-48) as Executive Officer. Ironically, he and his fellow sailors and military service members were the first to be impacted by America’s fractured intelligence apparatus, because the USS West Virginia was in port at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. On that fateful day the USS West Virginia was moored outboard of the USS Tennessee (BB-43) at berth F-6. Since the USS West Virginia was moored outboard the ship was hit badly by Japanese torpedoes and only through the courageous and quick actions of the West Virginia crew was the ship prevented from capsizing like the USS Oklahoma (BB-37). Hillenkoetter was the most senior surviving crewmember of the West Virginia and received the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during the attack.

In October 1945 Hillenkoetter assumed command of the USS Missouri (BB-63), the famed surrender ship. In the spring of 1946 the Missouri was chosen for a diplomatic assignment to Turkey to repatriate the body of Ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegun. Ambassador Ertegun had passed away in 1944 while posted in the U.S. but due to the war it was unsafe to return him any sooner. Normally a cruiser would be chosen for this type of mission, but the Missouri, being one of the largest battleships ever built by the U.S. and the surrender ship, showed the strength of the U.S. to the Eastern European countries. Not only was the Missouri to repatriate the Ambassador, but the U.S. government had intended to demonstrate the U.S.’s resolve against communism. During this cruise the ship visited Istanbul, Athens, Rome and Algeria. While on board the Missouri the crew drew a picture of him riding on a magic carpet, which we proudly house in our museum collection.

In 1947 Hillenkoetter was appointed the first director of the newly established C.I.A., where he served for three years. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950 he decided to return to active duty. Hillenkoetter was given command of Cruiser Division One, with his flagship being the USS St. Paul (CA-73). While serving in the Korean War he commanded the naval gunfire which covered the South Korean advance up the east coast almost to China; then commanded the Marine evacuation southward again from Wonsan and Hungnam; and later commanded the Navy’s recapture of Seoul’s west coast outlet, the port of Inchon.  Hillenkoetter served as the Commander of Cruiser Division 1 in the Pacific from October 1950—August 1951. He was promoted to Vice Admiral on April 9, 1956 and served as Inspector General of the Navy until his retirement on May 1, 1957. After his retirement he was on the board of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena from 1957-1962. Hillenkoetter died on June 18, 1982 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Admiral Hillenkoetter’s naval career was out of the ordinary in many ways. He fought in three wars, served as an attaché in France during a crucial time, survived one of the most devastating blows to the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, and had the opportunity to set up the CIA which has helped to keep the U.S. safe from international threats for the past 70 years. Though he was only on the USS Missouri for a short while, his legacy will continue to inspire others who visit the famous surrender ship through our exhibit dedicated to him on the second deck.

By guest blogger: Megan Plaumann, Archival Assistant 

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