When Jim Kirby fingered the lapel of his jacket recently in the foyer of his current residence at Laurel Crest, he pointed out that the pin affixed there indicates his career as an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation; seamlessly, his mind traveled back to the 1950s when he was assigned to a New York City-based squad of 100 men — many of whom were there for counterintelligence. Even though Jim turned 90 in September, he clearly and accurately recalls his role in the well-publicized capture of one of the most notorious KGB agents and Soviet spies embedded in America at the time. The spy, captured in 1957, was born Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, but adopted the alias he became famous for: Rudolf Ivanovich Abel. A historical drama thriller about how Abel was exchanged for captured American U-2 pilot Gary Powers is the subject of a new Tom Hanks movie, Bridge of Spies, set for release Oct. 16.
Jim’s sons, Thornton and Mark, plan to take their nonagenarian father to the film, even though he does not particularly enjoy visiting the cinema. Jim played an integral real-life part in the Cold War and relates that a movie cannot capture the heightened anxiety that he and fellow FBI agents felt at knowing they had their hands on a man who had been a real threat to national security. Even though 58 years have passed since that early morning of June 21, 1957, his emotions prickle with memories.
“I was in New York a total of 14 years working for the FBI,” says Jim. “The Communist Party was riding high while I was there. We were all on high alert. Our main focus was investigating communism and Soviet espionage in America.”
Jim remembers the wee hours of a spring morning when Abel was arrested as if it were yesterday. He pulled up in one of five squad cars to the Hotel Latham in Manhattan, and two of his fellow agents pushed their way into Abel’s room. They found a sleepy Abel as well as spy accouterments, including a cypher pad, a hollowed-out pencil and microfilm. Jim says Abel was stoic and tight-lipped about his activities in the United States. It is known, however, that he used a hollowed-out nickel to send messages; thus, Abel’s case became known as the Hollow Nickel Case.
He was convicted of three counts of conspiracy as a Soviet spy and sentenced to 45 years imprisonment at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in Georgia. Yet, he served just a little more than four years of his sentence before he was exchanged for Gary Powers on the now-famous Glienicke Bridge in Germany, which was a border crossing during the Cold War between the Eastern Bloc and Western powers. Media sources dubbed it the “bridge of spies.”
It is stories like these on which Thornton and Mark grew up. They consider their father a true American hero, one who came home some nights injured from a scuffle with a criminal. One whose dress, speech and conduct were strictly monitored by his superiors — and most importantly, by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director from 1924 until his death in 1972.
Jim said he met Hoover in person once. “It was a privilege to meet him, and he talked to me for an hour and a half,” he says. “There was a controversy between Bobby Kennedy and him at the time, and he told me he was going to put Bobby Kennedy in his place. He was a great man though, very concerned about not wasting taxpayer money, and he kept honesty and integrity in the FBI; but, we were scared to death of him.”
Hoover’s dogged determination to keep communism out of America and to flush out any Soviet spies meant that Jim and other FBI agents had to learn the ins and out of espionage. “I knew New York City better than I know Columbia,” he says. Often, he would have to follow a suspected spy all over Manhattan, sometimes miles on foot, watching what they called “dry cleaning,” which meant that the suspected spy would slowly enter and exit stores to determine if he was being followed. It was Jim’s job to ascertain if the spy met with another spy, or even an American, and to keep tabs on activity.
“The lengths that the Soviets would go to in sending messages was impressive,” says Jim. “We had ways of detecting what they were up to. We learned that they bought a building across from the United Nations and lined all the walls with lead so they couldn’t be surveilled.”
Jim started off not as an FBI agent but first as a soldier in the infantry in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. He then became a lawyer, with the sole purpose of applying to the FBI. He wanted to continue serving his country, but not in the military; in the 1940s and 1950s, Hoover’s G-Men (slang for government agents) were popularized in black and white movies. At the time, the FBI only accepted practicing lawyers and accountants. According to Jim, the FBI needed people skilled at gathering evidence that could be useable in court. “They have very high standards of employment, and there are reasons for that,” Jim says.
Although Jim was also assigned to Milwaukee, Chicago and other field offices, he says New York City was the “hot” office. Hoover made certain that all agents did their time there. Jim, and others, were always in potential danger — much like those agents involved in counter-terrorism there today.
“The KGB was vicious,” he shares. “But if we could get informants, they were the most beneficial to the FBI. We were always looking for them, and we used our intuition and skills to know who might be a good informant. We tapped phones. Intelligence gathering is dirty business. You don’t play with kid gloves.”
Besides gathering information on potential spies, Jim worked on various cases. At one time in New York City, he says there were three kidnapping cases which occurred simultaneously. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Hoover insisted that all agents be on high alert. There was a fear that each presidential successors may be assassinated down the line.
Jim has been widowed for 16 years, but his admiration for the way his Charlotte handled being an FBI agent’s wife is still evident. He says she would meet him at the door some nights when he was bruised and bleeding from an incident and mend him — knowing that he might not be able to divulge much information. They met at a Baptist church in New York City when she was 13 years his junior. They were walking on Park Avenue a few months later when they discussed marriage. However, she became frustrated and considered not marrying him because she was uneasy with the fact that he could not tell her all that he did within the Bureau. He promised he would try to get transferred to a different division, but she told him not to transfer — that she would trust that all would be okay. Just that gesture, he says, endeared him to her.
Thornton was born in New York City. By the time Mark was born a few years later, Jim had transferred to Columbia, received his graduate law degree and was involved in his fourth career as an instructor, traveling around his home state of South Carolina teaching law to city, county and state law enforcement officers and FBI agents. He retired in 1991, with a Concurrent Resolution by the members of the State’s General Assembly expressing appreciation for his teaching of more than 6,000 individuals involved in some aspect of law enforcement. Also for his efforts, he has been awarded two Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest honor, recognizing lifetime achievements and contributions to the state.
So enamored were his boys regarding their father’s choices of careers that both followed in Jim’s footsteps. After attending the University of Virginia and then University of South Carolina School of Law, Thornton became a health care attorney and Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives. He is currently president and CEO of the South Carolina Hospital Association, which oversees activities on behalf of the state’s 92 hospitals — including policy development and legislative advocacy.
Mark, who resides in Greenville, thought of little else as a boy than to be a military man and an FBI agent like his father. “What two things could be more exciting for a kid than to be a soldier or a secret agent,” he says. “I got to be both.” Mark graduated from West Point Military Academy and served five years as an Infantry Officer in the Army. He then served two years in Alaska and two and a half years in the 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Benning, Ga.
Mark says he grew up not only hearing exciting stories from his father, but also knowing the name Rudolf Ivanovich Abel. So when he walked into the FBI Academy at Quantico in Virginia for the first time, he was amazed to see the display case that documented Abel. “People only generally know the story of the swap (which is featured in the movie) but what they don’t know is the significance of what the FBI agents did, and the fact that Abel is considered a hero in Russia.”
Mark learned to speak fluent Russian and has spent the better part of his career in Russia and Eastern Europe. He has worked in 26 different countries as an FBI agent.
During his career he has met former KGB agents who spoke admirably of Abel, even citing that he was the “best they ever had” as a spy. “But I was able to joke with them and tell them that my dad helped arrest the ‘best they ever had.’”
Mark says that he and his father talk about the FBI — in generalities. “We can’t and don’t talk about specifics,” Mark says.
Jim adds, “He does not tell me all he does, and I do not ask.”
“The most important thing my dad taught me was that our primary responsibility is to do our duty where we can — to serve publically,” says Mark. “That was the big take away.”
Jim says the greatest aspect of working for the military, the FBI, and then as a law enforcement instructor has been laying his head on his pillow each night knowing he worked hard to help protect lives.