|Ben Plymale |
official Boeing portrait, early 1960s
In many ways, my grandfather’s life was typical or unremarkable – he had a wholesome upbringing, he was a WWII veteran, he went to college, regularly attended church, had a family, had friends, was financially successful, had a 30-year career with Boeing. It was his career with Boeing though that brought about most of the events that will be discussed in this post. His brilliance and aptitude allowed him to advance steadily in the company; he was a low-level executive by the 1960s and a vice president by the 1970s. It was also his rise in ranks in the company and specialization in defense systems (specifically ballistic missiles) that allowed him to be highly involved with something he was passionate about: politics and the Republican Party. He had a position as a deputy secretary of defense in the Pentagon under Richard Nixon and remained active in Boeing-US government relations throughout the 1970s. His ultimate achievement occurred when he was hired by Ronald Reagan during his campaign for president in 1980 and worked for him into 1981. It was while working on Reagan’s team that he wrote Reagan’s original defense spending budget. Because of his technical and political expertise and level of involvement with defense spending planning, my grandfather was indirectly responsible for much of the US military-industrial complex that happened during the 1970s and 1980s. That in itself is a little mind-blowing. (During the Reagan presidency, the US was apparently spending more than $30 million dollars an hour on defense.)
It was during my grandfather’s time as a Boeing executive and Pentagon official that he also became involved with several scandals including: having a secret family, (supposedly) helping to cover up a murder and being involved with a national security breach by stealing a top-secret Pentagon record intended for the President and destroying evidence and impeding official investigations. Perhaps there was even more that we will never know about.
|Ben with my grandmother and their first child, 1950|
Ben Plymale was born in 1926 in Oregon. His father died when he was a baby, and his mother raised him and his sister by herself. As a result of his upbringing, Ben apparently had a somewhat lonely and independent childhood. Many have speculated that this brought about much of his later behavior – including his sometimes rough, sarcastic and abrasive behavior towards others. He was a gifted child: was in the Boy Scouts, took piano lessons, and excelled in school; winning awards for perfect attendance, penmanship and fingerprinting. He was also a curious and gifted child – he liked to take apart electrical objects just so that he could see how they work. It was during his youth though that he exhibited some of his future tendencies to do whatever he wanted. In high school, he was enrolled in an ROTC program, but was kicked out because of a cheating scandal. He also frequently got in trouble as a youth for petty crimes.
After high school, he entered the Navy at the tail end of World War II and served for 2 years, and was primarily stationed on Guam. He returned to Oregon and attended the University of Portland where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Physics and Mathematics. The same month, he married my grandmother and they moved to Seattle where he began attending graduate school at the University of Washington. In 1950, he quit graduate school to accept a job offer working as an engineer for Boeing. It was during his first ten years with Boeing that he helped to develop the Minuteman missile program.
Ben was a brilliant engineer and “a pioneer in radar, missile guidance and multiple war-head technology” and frequently authored technical works about the subject. His first research paper ("Nutation of a Free Gyro Subjected to an Impulse") was published in 1955. Apparently fellow executives “turned to him for advice on budgets and research, praising him as Boeing’s resident Buddha of strategic thinking.” He “could cut through technical bullshit in a matter of seconds.” His aptitude and reputation enabled his meteoric rise to power within Boeing.
In the mid-1960s, my grandparents had been married for over 15 years and had a family of four children and lived together in a house in the Mount Baker neighborhood in Seattle. They had known each other since high school and apparently had a relatively happy marriage. They had also helped support each other through difficult times, including the death of two children as babies and financial strain in the early years of marriage. It was during the 1960s though that Ben began to stray from the marriage. As a manager at Boeing, Ben had his own secretary and soon began to have an affair with her – a young woman who I will call “Margaret”. Things became more complicated though when she got pregnant, in early 1964. Their daughter was born in October 1964.
|newspaper article about the car accident that brought |
Ben's secret family out into the open, January 1966
Meanwhile, after Margaret quit her job as his secretary, Ben began having an affair with her replacement – Susan. Coincidentally, Susan and Margaret knew each other – they had grown up together in a small town in Montana. Somehow though, he was able to compartmentalize his life and was able to keep his wife and two girlfriends secret from each other – for a little while. Then the s**t hit the fan in January 1966. Ben and Susan attended a late night party together and decided to drive home after perhaps having a little too much to drink. They were in a serious car accident late that night on January 8, 1966. Luckily, nobody was seriously injured but they were both hospitalized and an article about the escapade somehow made the newspaper.
It was as a result of the car accident that all three women found out about each other. The story is that the EMTs and the hospitals assumed that Susan was his wife, and was thus Mrs. Plymale. When my grandmother and Margaret were informed of the accident, they both rushed to the hospital and both introduced themselves as Mrs. Plymale [Margaret considered herself his wife]. After some confusion at the hospital, they all apparently found out what was going on and my grandfather’s infidelities came out in the open. My heartbroken grandmother made the decision to file for divorce – it was eventually finalized in January 1968. Ben decided to marry his girlfriend from the car accident, Susan. He and Susan were married 6 days after his divorce was finalized. They remained married until his death.
Although my grandmother found out everything, they managed to keep the secret family from their children. My mom and her siblings had no idea they had a half-sister until Ben died and his obituary mentioned the other mystery child.
|newspaper article about the death|
of Mary Lou Paisley, May 1968
Ben’s best friend was Melvyn Paisley, a colleague and fellow executive at Boeing. In the late 1960s, Melvyn lived on a farm in Kent, Washington and was married to his second wife, a younger woman named Mary Lou who enjoyed painting as a hobby. Then on May 8, 1968, Mary Lou’s dead body was discovered in their home in suspicious circumstances. She was found in the bathroom, lying face down and her head was surrounded by towels laced with carbon tetrachloride, a toxic cleaning fluid that she used to clean her paint brushes. The story that Melvyn gave was that she had gotten drunk and she took sleeping pills the night before and then accidentally asphyxiated herself with the cleaning fluid. There was a police investigation and an investigation by the coroner. Her death was officially ruled an accident and the matter was officially dropped.
Despite the cause of death ruling, the matter was not dropped entirely; mostly because Mary Lou’s sister didn't believe the official version of events. It became clear that there was more to the story, and the possibility of a cover-up and a murder became plausible. Twenty years later, when Melvyn was being investigated for separate corruption charges while working in the Pentagon, the case was reopened by King County. It became clear that there were many inconsistencies and inaccuracies with the autopsy report, including the fact that the report found no traces of alcohol or sleeping pills in her system and the fact that the coroner who performed the report also worked for Boeing and somehow kept the report from review by his boss, the head coroner. There was also the revelation that not long before her death, Mary Lou had discovered or speculated that Melvyn was having an affair and had hired a private investigator to follow her husband. (Seven months later, Melvyn married the woman he was having an affair with.)
Also damning was that – according to phone records – after Melvyn discovered his wife’s body, the police was not the first number he called. The first number he called was his attorney and the second was his best friend, Ben Plymale. Then that morning, my grandfather’s wife Susan went over to their house to clean it before the county authorities arrived. Susan apparently cleaned or threw away what the investigators assumed was vital evidence. That afternoon the investigators also noted that a fire was burning in the fireplace, which they remarked as unusual because it was May and not cold outside. The inference was that some evidence was probably incinerated in the fire.Although the investigation was reopened in 1988, no additional charges were ever filed and Mary Lou’s death still remains classified as an accident. However, given the circumstantial evidence, it is likely that there was more to the story. Was Mary Lou Paisley was murdered? If so, my grandfather and his wife were directly involved with covering up the crime. Interestingly, for decades after the fact, the case of Mary Lou Paisley was used an example by the King County Sheriff’s Office as an example of how not to investigate a crime scene.
National Security Scandal
|part of a 1979 newspaper article about the national security breach|
that Ben was involved in
In March 1978, Ben got his hands on a top-secret memo about US missile operations that was intended for the President. Part of the process to get the memo to Boeing was transmitting it over a telephone fax line; which was especially dangerous because apparently the Soviets were at the time routinely monitoring US telephone lines to and from US-defense contractors.
In this case, it was Ben’s own boastfulness that got him in trouble. In a meeting with a Pentagon official who helped draft the memo, he discussed the memo in such great detail that it immediately set off red flags. An investigation was opened and Ben and five others were investigated for the national security breach.In addition to the breach itself, Ben and others were also implicated in trying to cover up the crime and impede official investigations. Specifically, Ben was implicated in lying, destroying evidence, planting fake evidence, and not cooperating with investigators.
Amazingly, there were no formal charges ever filed and nobody was ever prosecuted for what was surely criminal activity. My grandfather though did lose his security clearance and was demoted from his job at Boeing (although they eventually gave him his old job back and reinstated his security clearance).
|Ben (right) meeting with newly-elected Congressman Norm Dicks (left)|
and another Boeing executive (center), 1977
Ben was a staunch Republican and remained involved with Boeing-US relations, even after his security breach scandal in 1978. In spite of his past, he remained a key nationwide expert in strategic defense systems and many relied on his expertise. Then after the presidential election of 1980, Ben was hired by Ronald Reagan’s team to work on the transition team and later for his administration. He was specifically hired by Reagan to identify where additional defense dollars should go. According to some, Reagan’s decision to hire my grandfather was a perfect example of many of the ethical problems with the Reagan presidency. There were also other examples of how my grandfather was involved with corruption at Boeing and at the Pentagon. For example, in 1977 a former Boeing employee came to Ben with evidence that other employees were using Boeing funds for prostitution and other illegal activities. Ben purposefully turned a blind eye to this information, destroyed the evidence given to him, and took no action to root out the corruption.From 1980 to 1981, Ben took a leave from Boeing to work on Reagan’s transition team as the deputy head at the Defense Department [Pentagon]. His primary role during that time was as co-chairman of Reagan's Defense Budget Committee. Ben’s crowning achievement during that time was writing Reagan’s original defense budget. Then in early 1981, to Ben’s disappointment, he was not chosen to continue serving on Reagan’s administration and he returned home to Boeing where he was once again appointed as a Boeing vice president. He was in that role when he died several months later.
Careless Health and Dramatic Death
Ben was something of a hedonist and did not take care of his own health. He was a notoriously heavy drinker and a chain smoker. During his DC days, he was often known for meeting colleagues for what he called a “gin lunch”, when he would drink 4 or 5 glasses of gin before going back to his office to work on some report. His habits caught up with him as he suffered from a heart attack and contracted lung cancer. Yet Ben was persistent and successful at most everything he did. He stopped drinking, started eating healthy and began jogging regularly. After having one of his lungs removed, he had also beaten lung cancer.
One of Ben’s greatest passions was fishing. In August 1981, Ben went on a fishing trip to rural British Columbia, Canada. In true form to his cavalier attitude towards life, he neglected to take his required oxygen supplies with him. His single lung began filling with fluid and he realized he was dying. After a dramatic helicopter ride, he died on the steps of the tiny hospital in Bella Bella, BC. He was 55 years old.
Some have speculated that if Ben had not died when he did, he would have eventually wound up in prison. Later during the 1980s, much of the corruption in the Pentagon came to light and many were eventually prosecuted – including his close friend and coworker Melvyn Paisley who served 4 years in prison.As mentioned above, Ben died before I was born, but my family frequently talked about him. My family though did not know about or pay attention to the more notorious parts of his life, instead focusing on him as a family man. In late 1989, when I was entering kindergarten, my grandfather’s Boeing records were being subpoenaed and reviewed by a federal grand jury investigation into Pentagon corruption.
Much of the above comes from the 1995 book When the Pentagon Was For Sale by Andy Pasztor, in which Ben features prominently.