Tracy Bray contacted us recently and wondered if she could bring her father and family for a special visit to the National Archives in Washington. It was a surprise for her father, Harry Edward Neal Jr. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have special meaning to all of us and especially to the Neal family. Mr. Neal’s father, Harry Edward Neal, was the Secret Service Agent in charge of getting those precious parchments into protective custody at Fort Knox during World War II.
Photo of Harry Edward Neal
The Charters had not yet been transferred to the National Archives and were housed at the Library of Congress. Other documents slated for this secret mission included The Gutenberg Bible, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and Gettysburg Addresses, and the Lincoln Cathedral copy of the Magna Carta which had been on display at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.
Agent Neal’s detailed report to Frank J. Wilson, Chief of the Secret Service, is fascinating. An armored truck “under suitable guard” moved the material from the Library of Congress Annex to Union Station where a drawing room and adjoining compartments on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train leaving at 6:30 p.m. on the 26th of December 1941.
A wonderful letter from then Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, captured the emotion of the moment in his letter of thanks to Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury:
“I think you can appreciate what it means to bear responsibility for the safety of these documents in this time. The responsibility has weighed heavily upon me for many months, but never as heavily as on the night when the shipment left the Library of Congress. I suppose it is quite literally true that no shipment of a value even remotely approaching the value of this shipment was ever made in this country. Here in one small group of containers was the documentary history of freedom in our world. When I say, therefore, that I am profoundly grateful for the help you gave us, I am speaking with great sincerity.”
With the help of National Archives staff in Washington, College Park, and St Louis, we assembled facsimiles of records in Agent Neal’s civilian personnel record and Secret Service records from the Treasury Department to present to his family—with the thanks of a grateful nation for his commitment to protecting our history.
2 thoughts on “Special Visitors”
Thank you for taking your time to talk with us. Our grandfather made us so proud and my dad and his sister continue to tell his stories.
This visit to the National Archives in Washington was indeed a surprise to me. My daughters and wife, and granddaughters would not tell me anything except that I should not make any plans for an upcoming specified day. I was told that I had to be ready to leave home at a precise time. On the appointed day, to say I was surprised when we boarded the VRE train in Fredericksburg, is an understatement. We departed the train in Washington, and lo and behold, there were two black vehicles waiting for us. They transported us to the front of the awesome National Archives building where we were met and escorted into the building, which was not yet open to the public. We were taken to the office of the Archivist. It was only then that I became aware of the purpose of our secret trip. It was to honor me by honoring my father, Harry E. Neal, Sr. The Archivist, Mr. David S. Ferriero, had been contacted by one of my daughters, Tracy (Neal) Bray, and as a result, he and his staff had undertaken the process of gathering copies of letters dealing with the transfer of this country’s most valuable and precious documents out of Washington to a place of utmost safety; the underground gold vaults located at Fort Knox, Kentucky. This was deemed necessary because just about three weeks earlier, the Japanese had attacked and destroyed Pearl Harbor. There was great fear at that time that there could be similar attacks of the east coast of America, including Washington, D.C. The Library of Congress had contacted the Secret Service, and asked them for assistance with a very important process being planned. My father was, at that time, the Executive Aide to the Chief, and was selected to be the person to meet with the Librarian of Congress, Archibald McLeish, and his Administrative Assistant, Mr. V.W. Clapp. The meeting, and subsequent plans and procedures undertaken by my father took place on Christmas Day, 1941.
The next day, the plans were carried out, and the precious items were under Secret Service guard, and on their way to Fort Knox. A few years later, when there was no threat of attack, my father undertook the arrangements for the return of the documents to there “home” in Washington.
What else can I say to those responsible for this fantastic surprise visit, except THANK YOU TO ALL INVOLVED. It is most certainly a day I will be proud of, and will never forget. Harry E. Neal, Jr.
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