A Few Good Men from Philly to Gitmo
Two Philly guys at Guantamano – Can You Handle the Truth?
The real story is actually more incredible than the movie or the play.
The play “A Few Good Men,” as recently performed at the historic Ritz Theater [915 White Horse Pike, Haddon Township, New Jersey [www.ritztheatreco.org (856) 858-5230], has called renewed attention to that still sensitive Guantanamo Bay prison issue that just won’t go away.
As an arch typical military court room drama, the story focuses attention on two attorneys defending two Gitmo Marines charged with second-degree murder in a hazing incident gone wrong.
The 1992 film “A Few Good Men,” directed by Rob Reiner and starring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon and Jack Nicholson, is a classic of its genre that spawned the JAG TV show, and coined the phrase “You can’t handle the truth!” as a modern cliche.
However exciting Aaron Sorkin’s fictional film and the dramatic Shakespieriean theatrical play may be, the real story of two Philadelphia guys at Guantamano is even more incredible, the details of which stretch imagination and their entanglements with the assassination of President Kennedy.
While the U.S. military prison at Guantamano is now infamous, it was hardly an afterthought in anyone’s mind until after April, 1961, when the failed Bay of Pigs invasion made the contractional lease of the Guantamano naval base a point of contention.
For William Szile and John Gordon it was a pivital point in their respective military careers, and for at least Szile, continues to haunt him up to and including today.
Their stories sound pretty close to the fictional incident of the movie and play, as Szile was in charge of the USMC prison at Guatamano when he was ordered to remove the body of a Cuban national, suspected of being a spy, who died suspiciously on the base. It probably would have been an open and shut case against Szile except for the fact that the other marine accused with him was a medal of honor recipient.
Szile was a home grown Philadelphia boy who lived not far from John Gordon, a Harvard educated navy officer assigned to the Pentagon.
Just after the disasterious Bay of Pigs fiasco, ONI assigned John Gordon to Guantamano where he was to direct the efforts of a Cuban national in an attempt to assassinate Castro. He ended up in the Navy psychiatric ward.
Among the records relased under the JFK Assassinations Records Act (of 1992) is a Congressional committee report from Mason Cargill; Subject: JOHN GORDON, which reads: “The following is Gordon’s story. A few days after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Gordon was told he was being transferred from his job in the Office of Chief of Naval Operations to the Navy base at Guantanamo as Base Intelligence Officer. He was briefed by several agencies including the CIA before heading for Guantanamo.”
“At one briefing by officers from a certain office within the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), he was told that there was a Cuban national who lived on our base at Guantanamo and was an employee of the Navy who was willing and able to assassinate Fidel Castro. His name was Alonzo Gonzalez. One of the officers who told him this was Lt. James Carr. Another’s name was Day, although Gordon does not remember his first name or rank.”
“Gordon arrived in Guantanamo about the first of June 1961. He began working with certain Cubans on the base including Gonzalez in a program of guerilla activities within the surrounding Cuban territory. The Cubans would surreptitiously leave the base to engage in sabotage and espionage operations and then return to it. Gonzalez was one leader within this Cuban group. Gonzalez during the month of June and during the month of July spoke several times with Gordon about the possibility of assassinating Castro. Gordon however, came to believe that Gonzalez was a double agent. One reason for this was that a certain cache of weapons outside the base of which Gonzalez had knowledge was discovered by Castro agents only an hour or so after it was placed there. Another reason was that he discovered that Gonzalez was teaching his servant how to fire small-arms.”
“Sometime, in July 1961 Gordon discovered that dynamite had been brought into the base surreptitiously. He suspected Gonzalez of doing this and immediately telephoned the base commander to suggest that Gonzalez be arrested. According to Gordon, less than one hour after his telephone call to the base commander he himself was arrested by the Shore Patrol and placed in the psychiatric ward of the base hospital. After several days at this hospital he was transferred to Charleston Naval Hospital and then to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, finally being discharged from the hospital in October 1961. He said he was characterized as having a problem of situational adjustment. After being discharged from the hospital, he was sent to the Fourth Naval District Headquarters in New Orleans as an intelligence officer. He heard nothing of Gonzalez until approximately 1966 when he saw something in the Philadelphia newspaper that Gonzalez had been arrested by Castro within Cuba.”
“In 1969, Gordon says he wrote to the new Secretary of the Navy requesting an appointment to inform him of the Gonzalez episode. Shortly after writing this letter, Gordon was confined to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for an alleged psychiatric problem. After release from this hospital Gordon retired from the Navy in 1969. Gordon admitted that the only evidence of any CIA connection to Gonzalez, his activities, or the actions on the part of Naval officials in hospitalizing Gordon was the fact that officers in Washington who initially informed him of Gonzalez had responsibility for liason between ONI and the CIA.”
“He also admitted that he had no evidence that any domestic CIA activities were involved in this affair. We advised him that as a result this matter did not appear to be within the jurisdiction of this Commission and suggested that he might get in contact with the Senate Select Committee. About one half hour after Gordon left our office, I received a call from Fritz Schwartz of the Senate Committee Staff stating that Gordon had called him requesting an appointment. I briefly described what Gordon had told us and said that the Senate Committee Staff might want to interview him, although Gordon’s story seemed a little incredible to us. Schwartz said they would probably talk to him today.”
Mary Ferrell, who maintained files on JFK assassination subjects, Comments: “DOB: 8/19/21. POB: Philadelphia (Upper Darby), PA. Son of Irwin Leslie Gordon who was Naval Intelligence. Gordon’s first job was with Reading Railroad. His grandfather had been an executive with Reading Railroad. Social Security Number 726-09-1554 (issued by railroads in lieu of social security numbers – called Railroad Retirement Number). Attended William and Mary 1948-1953. Graduated from Harvard. Joined Navy. Service Number 52-28-50. Married Edna Cox North (granddaughter of Lord and Lady Beckwith), of Leeds, England, March 1954. Gordon was in Pine Beach, NJ, on Mill Creek Road, in 1964. In Morocco in 1956. At Pentagon in 1959 and lived on Dogwood Drive in Alexandria, VA. 1961 at Guantanamo Naval Base. Hospitalized during 1961. 1961 and 1962 at Naval Ship Yard in Philadelphia. 1963 – at Pentagon. 1964 – St. Petersburg, FL. 1965-1967 at 8th Naval District, New Orleans, LA, as Naval Intelligence Officer. 1968-1976 at Framingham, Massachusetts. From 1976 until death at Georgetown, SC. He taught at Coastal Carolina College, a subsidiary of University of South Carolina. Gordon died September 27, 1987…
Since Gordon approached the wrong committee with his information, it doesn’t appear anything was done, despite Gordon’s attempt to seek redemption.
Szili, William A. – USMC.
Szili’s story is even more bizarre, if that’s possible.
Guantanamo prison, Cuba, spies, interrogations, torture, executions, death and denials. Everywhere you go – television, radio, newspapers, internet, Guantamano is the story that won’t go away, a message the meaning of which is still being debated.
Bill Szili is tired of hearing about it, and it irks him that it seems we haven’t learned anything from history.
On September 30, 1961, at the height of the Cold War, Bill Szili USMC, was months away from retirement after a distinguished 12 years of service when he was suddenly awaken at his Guantamano, Cuba barracks. As the officer in charge of the base’s prison, Szili was being called upon to engage in an act above and beyond the call of duty.
Szili’s company commander, Captain Arthur J. Jackson, shot and killed a Cuban while escorting him off the base for being in a restricted area, an ammunition dump. The Cuban, Ruben Lopez, a bus driver on the base, who commuted to his job from nearby Guantanamo City, Cuba, was said to be No. 16 on a list of Cuban spies operating on the base. After being warned against visiting restricted areas, Lopez was caught near the ammunition dump and personally escorted to the gate by Capt. Arthur J. Jackson.
Jackson said that after being escorted from the base, Lopez “lunged” at him, and was shot by Jackson – the impact of the blast sending Lopez over a cliff to a rocky beach 25 feet below. The following day Jackson and Szili returned to the scene of the shooting, with Jackson descending to the beach and covering the body. Two or three days later, after numerous trips to check on the body, they decided it should be buried. At this point, two other officers and three enlisted men became embroiled in concealing the murder. One officer supplied nylon rope to haul the body up the cliff face, another dug a shallow grave on the base side of the fence, while the enlisted personnel helped with the moving of the body.
Arthur J. Jackson wasn’t just another USMC Captain, he had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in combat during World War II, and was one of the most highly regarded soldiers in the military service.
JACKSON, ARTHUR J.
Rank and organizations: Private First Class, U.S. Marine Corps, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Place and date: Island of Peleliu in the Palau group, 18th September 1944. Entered service at: Oregon. Born: 18 October 1924, Cleveland, Ohio. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on the Island of Peleliu in the Palau group, 18 September 1944. Boldly taking the initiative when his platoon’s left flank advance was held up by the fire of the Japanese troops concealed in strongly fortified positions, Pfc. Jackson unhesitatingly proceeded forward of our lines and, courageously defying the heavy barrages, charged a large pillbox housing approximately 35 enemy soldiers. Pouring his automatic fire into the opening of the fixed installation to trap the occupying troops, he hurled white phosphorus grenades and explosive charges brought up by a fellow marine, demolishing the pill box and killing all of the enemy. Advancing alone under the continuous fire from other hostile emplacements, he employed similar means to smash 2 smaller positions in the immediate vicinity. Determined to crush the entire pocket of resistance although harassed on all sides by the shattering blasts of Japanese weapons and covered only by small rifle parties, he stored 1 gun position after another, dealing death and destruction to the savagely fighting enemy in his inexorable drive against he remaining defenses, and succeeded in wiping out a total of 12 pillboxes and 50 Japanese soldiers. Stouthearted and indomitable despite the terrific odds, Pfc. Jackson resolutely maintained control of the platoon’s left flank movement throughout his valiant 1-man assault and, by his cool decision and relentless fighting spirit during a critical situation, contributed essentially to the complete annihilation of the enemy in the southern sector of the island. His gallant initiative and heroic conduct in the face of extreme peril reflect the highest credit upon Pfc. Jackson and the U.S. Naval Service.
When the details of the incident concerning the violent death of a Cuban spy at Guantanamo came to light, Jackson resigned from the Marines Corp and two other officers (Pruitt and Steiner), along with the enlisted men, were forced out. Szili was ousted under a law which “permitted the revocation of the commission of an officer with less than three years active service on the active list.”
Before leaving the service however, both Jackson and Zsili had been held under guard in the psychiatric ward of the base hospital and likewise later at Camp Lejeune, NC, and were required to sign statements verifying they understood that if they ever spoke about the incident, they could face fines of up to $10,000 and 10 years imprisonment under the Espionage and Sabotage Act.
In the end, none appeared before a military or civil court (the shooting having occurred outside the base) and all left with honorable discharges, with Szili being the only one to eventually speak out.
Jackson became a mailman in San Jose, California. On May 1st, 1963, the White House announced 324 Medal of Honor winners would attend Kennedy’s annual military reception the following day. On April 30, Jackson sent a telegram to the President declining the invitation on the grounds that his presence “might possibly be an embarrassment.” This was a reversal of a previous acceptance made before the Gitmo story broke. Salinger, on behalf of Kennedy, replied through a press conference that “We respect his decision. Capt Jackson and his wife will always be welcome at the White House.” Jackson never surfaced publicly again.
Szili returned home to Philadelphia, where he contacted his Congressman, Senator Richard Schweiker, in an attempt get reinstated in the Marines. Schweiker, a Republican Senator, called for hearings on the matter, but after a secret briefing in April, 1963 involving military officers, Navy Secretary, Fred Korth, Marine Comandant General, David Shoupe, and the Chairman of the Congressional Armed Services Committee, the hearings were cancelled.
Szili was working for Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company at the time the story broke in the media (Apr/May ’63). According to newspaper accounts, Szili left the Marines in March, 1962.
In a telephone interview with Bill Kelly [10pm – Friday, August 25, 2006] William “Bill” Szili said he was a former Marine stationed at Guantamano. “Yea, I was the brig warden. I was the brig warden there before I got commissioned. I ran the prison.”
Does he see the irony today? “Yes I do (Laugh). Oh, yea. My first tour of duty at Guantanamo I was a staff sergeant and Castro was still in the mountains and Batista was in power. And then I went and got my commission and went back later.”
As for Castro, Szile says, “He’s giving, six, seven, eight presidents a hard time.”
Concerning Schweiker’s cancelation of the scheduled committee hearing on his case, Szile said, “I don’t know. Schweiker was just an opportunist. Hell no, he didn’t help at all. All he did was to take over the Armed Services Committee when he became a Senator. He just made sure he got in print.”
“I got an honorable discharge, but, yea, I didn’t want to leave. All they wanted to do was to hide this thing. And that’s exactly what they did.”
Having kept it under wraps all this time, I asked Szile if he was still upset about it, to which he responded, “Well, the Commandant at the time was David Shoup and he said, “Time heals all wounds,” and he’s full of shit too.” (Laugh)
What about Fred Korth, the Secretary of the Navy?
“Nobody went to bat for us. I have no idea what happened to anybody. I was held incommunicado for quite awhile. Everybody kind of disappeared. After I left the corps, I…I tried to…keep the family together, you know, took jobs here and there, and finally got into country club management.”
There at Guantanamo in the heat of the Cold War, suddenly his story is actually relevant, “We never learn. We haven’t fought a war to win since World War II.” And Szile says that he has no problem talking about it today. “Anything that gives someone a kick in the ass, I’m all for it.”
Now can you handle that?
[Thanks to Greg Parker and Robert Howard for research assistance on this story]