Leon George Turrou (Turovsky), a Polish-born naturalized American citizen, attained notoriety in 1938 with his surprise resignation from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The circumstances of his resignation, the angry response of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Turrou’s involvement in a sensational espionage case were front page news for months. Turrou went on to write a series of newspaper articles and a book about the case. Warner Brothers Studios hired him as technical advisor on a major motion picture adapted from his book. This became the first movie to depict Nazi Germany as America’s enemy. It is credited with helping turn public opinion against Hitler and neutrality. Turrou enjoyed a period of celebrity as a lecturer and writer but Hoover actively blocked his return to Government service. He answered all inquiries from prospective employers with derogatory comments. FBI agents filed reports on Turrou’s activities. In 1943 Turrou enlisted in the U. S. Army as a private soldier, eventually achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After WWII Turrou settled in France and became a leader in the American veteran expatriate community. He also was employed by J. Paul Getty as his personal security chief. In 1965 Hoover ended his vendetta by removing the dismissal “with prejudice” entry from Turrou’s records. However, the FBI continues to describe Turrou as a bungler and oath-breaker in its official history.
Turrou was born in Kobryn, Russia (later Poland, now Belarus). He was orphaned as an infant and adopted by a wealthy tradesman. He spent much of his youth travelling around the world living in Egypt, India, China, Japan and Australia. He attended schools in Warsaw, Cairo, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Berlin and London. On March 12, 1913 Turrou arrived at Ellis Island aboard the SS Bremen. In New York he sold newspapers and did various odd jobs. In 1916 he left for France and joined a Polish unit of the French Foreign Legion. While recovering from battle wounds in a Paris hospital he met Teresa Zakrzewski, from Zahacie, Poland (now Belarus). He followed her to China, where she, at that time, lived with her parents, and married. They had a son, Edward, in 1918. Turrou was hired by the Chinese Eastern Railway as a translator and Theresa, whose parents had gone to Siberia, went there to give birth to their second child, Victor (1919). Turrou remained in China.
In the chaos of the Russian civil war, Turrou became separated from his family. With the border closed he was unable to communicate with Theresa. His inquiries at the American Counsel indicated everyone in the little village where she was living had been massacred by the Bolsheviks. Turrou gave his family up for dead. He decided to return to the United States. For a time he worked as a salesman but on April 20, 1920 enlisted in the US Marine Corps. While a Marine he petitioned to become a naturalized US citizen (April 29, 1921), at the same time changing his name from Turovsky to Turrou. He was assigned to USMC HQ in Washington, DC where he translated documents for the Historical Section. Later he was selected for a special mission in France and Belgium to map battlefields where Marines had fought. One of the officers he worked for in Europe, Captain Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr. wrote him a testimonial. (Shepherd later became USMC Commandant, 1952- 1955.) Turrou was discharged in May 1921 for disability, “not in the line of duty and not as result of misconduct, character excellent”. He returned to Europe and joined the American Relief Administration (ARA) serving in Soviet Russia as a translator (chiefly in Moscow) from October 1921 until February 1923.
Upon his arrival in Moscow Turrou made inquiries about the fate of his family. He learned that they were alive and well. They were reunited and on July 13, 1922, Teresa was issued an emergency U.S. Passport in Warsaw, Poland. Turrou and his family returned to America in March 1923 where they settled in Westbury, Long Island, New York. He found work as a salesman and later as a Postal Inspector in New York City.
Turrou applied for a position in the Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, four times during the 1920s. In March 1921 J. Edgar Hoover (then Assistant to the Attorney General) personally interviewed Turrou and strongly recommended him for a translator position, after having him evaluated in 5 languages (English, French, German, Russian and Polish). However, no positions were then available. In July 1923, after his return from Russia, Turrou requested his earlier application be reconsidered. But he was notified in August 1923 that Bureau applicants must be graduate lawyers; Turrou did not have a law degree. In June 1926 he tried again. But in July 1926 was notified that positions were still unavailable. In November 1928 he tried once more. He called on Director Hoover who provided him with new application forms. On December 1, 1928 Turrou was notified that there were no vacancies. Regardless, Hoover ordered a "very complete and thorough investigation" be made of the applicant. This included a records check, interviews with Turrou, his acquaintances and referrals, a visit to his home in Westbury, and an examination of his personal history. Although the investigation was favorable the recommendation was not; Turrou did not have a law degree and no linguists were required. The case was closed on December 28, 1928. However additional recommendations continued to arrive. These included letters from Congressmen John Q. Tilson, the House Majority Leader and Robert L. Bacon, Member House Committee on Appropriations. Alan Fox, Herbert Hoover’s New York campaign manager, also sent a letter extolling Turrou’s volunteer work during the 1928 election. Herbert Hoover was inaugurated President on March 4, 1929. On March 16 Director Hoover notified Turrou of his appointment as a Special Agent.
Over the next nine years Turrou participated in a variety of investigations including bankruptcy, extortion, sabotage and prostitution cases. He played prominent roles in high profile cases, the Lindbergh Kidnapping (1932), the Kansas City Massacre (1933) and the Nazi Spy Ring (1938).
On February 14, 1938 an arrest was made by New York City Police in cooperation with U.S. State Department investigators of an Army deserter posing as Secretary of State Cordell Hull in a bizarre attempt to acquire blank U.S. passports. A search of the suspect’s home uncovered a note with details of an espionage plot, the same plot revealed in a recent tip from MI5 in Britain. On February 19, 1938 the FBI was handed the case (United States vs. Rumrich et alia) and Turrou became chief investigator, using his fluency in German to interrogate suspects and obtain confessions. Hoover and the FBI New York City office chief, Special Agent Reed Vetterli, went public on February 27, 1938 announcing the arrest of three suspects on espionage charges. Several more arrests were expected. Hoover minimized the effectiveness of the spy ring describing its operations as naïve and fumbling. The U.S. Attorney on the case, Lamar Hardy, declined to elaborate. The investigation hit a snag in May when two material witnesses suddenly vanished. On June 1, 1938 Hoover blamed Hardy for their disappearance; Hardy denied any responsibility. Despite this setback the grand jury continued its deliberations and on June 20, 1938 returned 18 indictments including the two escapees who had turned up back in Germany. The same day Turrou resigned from the FBI citing ill-health and a wish to warn Americans about the gravity of the Nazi espionage threat. The announcement by the New York Post that it would soon publish a series of articles by Turrou about the investigation prompted a conference with Hardy. Afterwards Hardy felt sure that Turrou would not divulge anything of a confidential nature. Turrou concurred, saying his stories would “dramatize” material as the inquiry moved along. There was an amicable farewell, with Hardy praising Turrou’s services. The FBI cited an oath taken by agents never to divulge the nature of a case, but admitted that it was unenforceable after an agent resigns. Turrou had surprised his superiors but his resignation was immediately accepted.
On June 22, 1938 the New York Post announced in a front page headline that Turrou’s series would begin the next day. A two-page inside spread (“Ace G-Man Bares German Conspiracy to Paralyze United States!”) provided sensational details of the investigation making clear how effective the spy ring had actually been. Hardy, with the approval of Attorney General Homer Cummings, immediately sought and obtained a temporary injunction against publication. The next day lawyers for the Post, Turrou and the U.S. attorney appeared in Federal district court for a show cause hearing. The Government argued that Turrou’s revelations threatened to undermine the work of the grand jury and overshadow the case. Further, that Turrou’s resignation was not effective until September 20 and he would be in contempt of court if the articles were printed. The Post claimed freedom of the press, and Turrou’s lawyer cited Blackstone’s “Commentaries: Public Wrongs” (1809): “The essential of a free press is that there shall be no previous restraint on it.” There had never been a case in which a newspaper had been restrained in advance. Also, Turrou’s resignation had been effective immediately and he had willingly waived his future rights including pay for three month’s leave due him. A trial on the constitutional issues was avoided when on June 28 the parties agreed to a stipulation that the Post would not begin publishing until after the espionage trial and the completion of the grand jury investigation. On June 30 the FBI announced that Turrou’s resignation on June 20th was rejected and that he was dismissed with prejudice forfeiting all pay and benefits for violating his oath. In his note to the Attorney General Hoover stated: “This action is recommended because of Mr. Turrou’s recent action in arranging to prepare a series of articles for publication dealing with information received by him in his official capacity, such articles to be printed prior to prosecutive action in the Federal courts.” Turrou responded by denying that he had ever taken an oath of secrecy and observing that Hoover himself had personally profited from magazine articles and books based on FBI case files. Hoover, Turrou claimed, was jealous and resented being scooped.
The trial began on October 14, 1938 with four defendants in custody, one already tried and imprisoned in Britain, and 13 in Germany with no possibility of extradition. Turrou appeared as a key prosecution witness. He was attacked by the defense for fabricating evidence, taking bribes and personal failings. The trial ended on December 1, 1938 with one guilty plea and three convictions. The next day Turrou signed with Warner Brothers Pictures to work on a movie version of the case, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.” On December 5th the Post finally began publishing Turrou’s 25 articles, “as told to David G. Wittels,” continuing until January 4, 1939. Turrou’s book version of the Post series, "Nazi Spies in America" was published by Random House on January 27, 1939, and the movie premiered on April 15, 1939. Edward G. Robinson played Turrou's character.
Afterwards Turrou lived off his residuals and lecture fees. He wrote another book, “How to be a G-Man” with Tom Tracy, Robert M. McBride and Company, New York, 1939. When war became likely, Turrou offered his services to Army and Naval intelligence. He also contacted Col. William J. Donovan, the newly appointed Coordinator of Information. All offers were rejected. A letter from Hoover to Donovan dated August 1, 1941 claimed that Turrou was “absolutely and completely untrustworthy”. Hoover had sent similar letters to the other intelligence agencies. Turrou found a job with a private investigation company.
On May 1, 1942 Teresa suddenly died. Both their sons had graduated from Officer Candidate School, and been commissioned second lieutenants, Edward in the Signal Corps and Victor in the Army Air Corps. Both were sent to North Africa. On April 2, 1943, after obtaining an age waiver (he was 47, the limit was 45), Turrou enlisted in the Army as a private in the Military Police Corps. Ribbed as “Pop” in his unit and harassed by his sergeant things did not go well. By chance Turrou ran across an old friend from the FBI, Melvin Purvis. Purvis had also resigned from the FBI (1935) to capitalize on his G-man reputation. Hoover didn’t like him either, but now Purvis was a Lt. Col. in the MP Corps. He convinced Turrou to apply for a commission. It was accepted and Turrou was appointed a first lieutenant. Soon after he was assigned to head a special Criminal Investigation Division (CID) group in North Africa. Headquartered in Algiers, Turrou’s team attacked widespread black-market activities, estimated responsible for the loss of 20% of all American supplies arriving in theater.
On December 12, 1944 Turrou was ordered to report to Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in Versailles, France. He was reassigned to direct operations of the newly formed Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects (CROWCASS). Turrou located nearly 100 American IBM punched-card machines that the Nazi’s had been using to tabulate the progress of their genocide program; a hundred more were shipped in from America. The machines were installed in Paris. The idea was to correlate the millions of POW records with known war crimes. By July 1, 1946 when CROWCASS suspended operations 75,000 war criminals had been apprehended. A backlog wanted list totaled 30,000. But the Soviet Union, which held nearly 7,000,000 German POWs, refused to cooperate with CROWCASS. This proved an insurmountable obstacle to success. But two other factors were even more significant. The immense financial burden had been borne solely by the United States despite the intention that other nations would contribute. And the POWs were being released rapidly, putting them beyond the reach of justice. The 15 million CROWCASS records were shipped to Berlin for storage.
In August 1943 while awaiting orders for his CID assignment Turrou learned that his son Victor was missing in action while on a bombing mission over Italy. In January 1944, Turrou and his son Edward obtained permission to find Victor. Turrou was able to locate the sole survivor of Victor’s B-24, the radio operator who had escaped from a German POW camp. He confirmed that their plane had been shot down by German fighters near Potenza, Italy. Turrou and Edward traveled to Potenza, now in Allied hands, and began a thorough investigation. They interviewed local police, carabinieri, the mayor, the caretaker of a local cemetery, and numerous townspeople. There were witnesses to the crash. They led them to a small cemetery in Ruoti where the nine other crewmen had been buried. 2LT Victor T. Turrou, the bombardier, was identified by dental records. He now rests at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, Plot J Row 2 Grave 62.
On May 24, 1945 Turrou married Anna B. McLester in Tucson, Arizona. They had no children.
Turrou's date of relief from active duty was June 23, 1949 with the rank of Major. Among his decorations were the Bronze Star Medal, the Croix de Guerre w/palm, and the French Legion d'Honneur. He continued serving in the Army Reserve and eventually retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.
While living in Paris, Turrou wrote another book, “Where My Shadow Falls”, Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Co., 1949. It is a memoir of his career in the FBI and his WWII experiences. Included among the extortion, prostitution, and drug smuggling cases are detailed accounts of the U.S.S. Akron Airship investigation in which he went undercover as a communist saboteur, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the Nazi spy investigation.
In the 1950s Turrou became billionaire oil man J. Paul Getty’s personal security expert. Getty wrote in "As I See it", his autobiography, “It is as my friend, ex G-man and longtime French resident Col. Leon Turrou, says: France is all the contrasts that one could wish for in life. There is the glory – and the electric thrill – of Paris at one end of the scale and the placid beauty of the Dorgogne at the other. Between the two is an absolute infinity of shading …” The caption of a photograph in the book showing a gathering of Getty and his associates at Sutton Place, his English estate, identifies Turrou as “his bodyguard”.
Lt Col Turrou served as president of La Confédération Interalliée des Officiers de Réserve (The Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers) from 1960 – 1962. He spent most of the rest of his life living in Paris, France, where he was the long-time commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
For 27 years Turrou repeatedly tried to get the "dismissal with prejudice" characterization removed from his FBI records, writing to Hoover directly and having friends and acquaintances plead on his behalf. In 1943 Turrou's sons wrote to Hoover (without their father's knowledge), before they left for North Africa. Hoover finally relented on May 28, 1965 and despite a contrary recommendation from his own staff, decided to correct the record to show Turrou resigned without prejudice. On June 1, 1965 Hoover sent a personal air-mail letter to Turrou at his Paris address with the news. On June 10, 1965 Turrou replied with an effusive expression of gratitude. Afterwards their exchanges were quite cordial. Turrou spoke out on Hoover's behalf at every opportunity, sending him copies of favorable articles he'd written. However, the FBI continued to advise Government officials to deal with Turrou "in a circumspect manner", noting the previous prejudicial aspect of his dismissal. The official FBI history still disparages Turrou for violating his oath of confidentiality, and additionally blames him for bungling the spy case by allowing 14 of the 18 defendants to escape. This second charge does not appear in Turrou's FBI file or in the trial records. Only two defendants actually escaped during the investigation, and Hoover reproached the U.S. Attorney's office for this. Turrou believed they had been coerced into fleeing by Nazi Gestapo agents operating in New York. The other 12 defendants were not present in America during the investigation and would not have returned after Hoover's February 27, 1938 public announcement.
In 1973 Turrou again offered his services, this time to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was personally acquainted with Lieutenant General Vernon A. Walters, Deputy Director from 1972 to 1976, and wrote directly to him. It is not known if anything came of this, but it is known that in 1976 Turrou served as translator in negotiations between Vietnamese officials and a private group of Americans in a fruitless attempt to ascertain the fate of USAF pilot Capt. Robert L. Tucci, who was shot down over Laos in 1969. Turrou may have been drawn to this mission hoping to repeat the results of his search for Victor. Major Tucci's remains were eventually identified and returned to his family in 2011. He is buried at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, Section 76 Site 1658T.
Turrou died on 10 December, 1986, at the age of 91. He is buried on the outskirts of Paris at the Neuilly-sur-Seine New Communal Cemetery, Rue de Vimy, Hauts-de-Seine, France.
Name listed on American Legion Memorial/Mausoleum