It was March 1, 1932, a balmy day in Princeton, New Jersey. I was seventeen, a high school student preparing to enter the university, where my father was a professor of military science and tactics.
The telephone rang, and it was an administrator at Princeton, informing my father that Col. Charles Lindbergh had just called to say that his infant son had been kidnapped. Lindbergh had said that his house in nearby Hopewell was full of police and many other people and had asked if the university could lend him ten or twelve cots to accommodate some of them. The administrator had turned to my father for help because he thought that the ROTC program might have some extra cots. This was indeed the case, and my father promised to send them over right away.
An earnest Corporal Boyd, a proficient truck driver but otherwise no competition for Albert Einstein (soon to be resident in Princeton), was directed to load all the available cots into a truck to be delivered to the Lindberghs. If the cots were to arrive in Hopewell that evening instead of Atlantic City or Philadelphia, a more astute presence was indicated. So I found myself in charge of Boyd and the truck and the cots.
Although Hopewell was only eight or ten miles from Princeton, I had never been there. After consulting a map, Boyd and I ventured out along a sparsely populated road into the black night. We arrived at our destination with only one wrong turn, which I assured Boyd was a planned shortcut. The sidewalks were already rolled up and the citizenry presumably snug in their beds, but we found a filling station open and got directions to the Lindbergh house, which was on top of a hill.
Coming around the last bend on the long, winding road, we emerged from the dark into a scene of utter confusion. Portable spotlights had been set up around the perimeter of the front yard, illuminating a swarm of men in various costumes: policemen of several descriptions, reporters with snapbrim fedoras and notebooks, and a considerable number of characters who seemed to have no purpose but to stand and gawk. Someone with an air of authority demanded to know what we wanted, and when we told him, he motioned to us to go into the house through the wide-open door.
We were greeted inside by Lindbergh himself. Although he looked haggard and distraught, he was the soul of courtesy, which I found remarkable under the circumstances. At his direction we began to carry the cots one by one up the stairs to the second floor. At the head of the stairs, in direct view from the landing, was the nursery, with toys spread around. What held me transfixed was the crib. A blanket was pulled back, and the depression made by a tiny body was clearly visible. The window was open, and the top of a ladder could be seen through it. Evidently the crime scene had been deliberately left untouched. I could hear Corporal Boyd catch his breath and mutter to himself, “Oh my God.”
We passed on with our first cot and set it up in a large room that seemed to be some sort of recreation area. Mrs. Lindbergh came to the doorway to see what we were doing. She did not speak but managed a tight little smile. Like her husband, she looked distraught. She was obviously making a valiant effort at self-control.
Lindbergh asked me if I wanted him to sign a receipt for the cots. In the haste of getting our expedition under way, no one seemed to have thought of preparing one. I realized that in the peacetime Army receipts in triplicate were necessary for anything and everything, and unless I obtained one, there could be repercussions all the way to Washington. On the other hand, I didn’t have the heart to force this grief-stricken father to wait while I wrote out something for him to sign. So I said that wouldn’t be necessary, and we departed. I must confess it occurred to me that a receipt signed by Lindbergh at such a time could be a valued souvenir, albeit a somewhat gruesome one, but I quickly put this unworthy notion behind me and we headed back to Princeton.
The following day one of the New York newspapers carried a story about a “mysterious visit by a machine gun truck which labored up the long hill to the Lindbergh house.” The only mysterious thing about that was, What is a machine gun truck?