Father Bernard Bush, S.J., assisted Father James Tupy, S.J., on Alcatraz from 1958-1962 when Father Bernard was a Jesuit theology student. While not yet a priest, the convicts called him “Father.”
Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Los Altos, CA, on June 28, 2013.
Were you ever afraid while on Alcatraz?
No. The convicts liked me. I brought them news from the outside and I wasn’t a guard. I felt protected. The guards were nervous about me being there. While I was in the prison yard, I would look up and they would have their guns trained generally in the direction where I was with the men gathered around me.
What were the convicts like?
They were hard people. Tough. When I got to know them they were friendly but I had no illusions about what their lives had been like before Alcatraz. One prisoner I became friendly with was Paul “Frankie” Carbo who I later found out was a member of Murder, Inc.*
*Murder, Inc. was a name given to a group of contract murderers in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Murder, Inc., was the muscle behind the Mafia.
You were a swimmer and the swimming coach at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School. You said this made you popular with the inmates. Is that just a joke?
Oh, no. They were dead serious about their interest in swimming. They asked all kinds of questions about the water temperature, the currents, the tides, the sharks. The guards told them there were man-eating sharks in the water but I let them know that wasn’t true. Not in the Bay. It was too shallow.
Did the convicts have any pets on Alcatraz?
One convict had a mouse named Stumpy who had no front legs. He was trained when the convict would rap on the table twice, he would run up his sleeve and into his pocket.
While on Alcatraz you became close friends with a prisoner named Larry Trumblay. Can you tell us a bit about that?
One day I was in the recreation yard where the men were playing cards, playing handball, lifting weights and walking around. One man had his eyes closed, sunning himself. He was a tough looking guy. I introduced myself to him and struck up a conversation. I asked him what he did, which you’re not supposed to do since it is against prison etiquette. He said: “They told me I held up some banks.” Later, when I mentioned to Warden Madigan that I had talked to Trumblay, Madigan said: “You’re wasting your time with him.” The warden showed me his “rap sheet”. He had not earned any good time in the years he had been there because he was involved in one scrape or another.
Did you continue to visit with Trumblay?
Yes, I always made a point of visiting with him even when he was in “The Hole.”(The disciplinary cells on Alcatraz called the “TU”, Treatment Unit.) One day he said he’d like to repay my visit. I said to him: “If you come to San Francisco dripping wet, forget it.”
But you stayed friends?
Yes, I have about fifty or sixty letters from Trumblay. Even after Alcatraz closed, we stayed friends. From Alcatraz, Larry was sent to the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, and eventually he was paroled. We got permission from the Attorney General of the United States for him to come to California. So on June 4, 1965, Larry was at my ordination. He gave me something that day to remember him and the boys by. It was an alb**, which he had designed and crocheted in his cell at Alcatraz. I wore it for my ordination and first Mass.
** A special religious garment worn by priests
Now you are a retreat director at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos, what is the main difference in the kind of spiritual assistance you give now versus what you did while on Alcatraz?
On Alcatraz I wasn’t trying to guide or convert, only to be a friend. Now, in my work my conversation is more focused on God.
Father Bernard Bush, S.J., is a retreat director at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos.
George DeVincenzi worked as a guard on the island from 1950-1957 Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in San Francisco, CA, on February 15, 2013
What was your favorite part of the job?
Working in the cell house hospital. It was more interesting. There were dental appointments, medical treatments, sometimes force feeding of inmates. The routine was more varied.
What was the scariest part of your position as a guard?
Yard duty. You were walking around with hundreds of convicts milling around. Convicts sometimes played baseball so they had baseball bats which could be used as a weapon. Fights broke out … like once I was on the yard when Simco went after DogMan. Anything could happen.
Is there anything you miss about Alcatraz?
Nothing. I don’t miss it.
What surprised you most about the job?
When I was on night duty at the cell house I had trouble staying awake. One night I fell asleep at the cell house desk. I was awakened by crumpled pieces of paper being thrown at my head. I looked up and saw that a convict named Jimmy Groves was trying to wake me up. Jimmy was one of the most hated inmates on Alcatraz – a very vicious prisoner who always had a smile on his face. I never did figure out why he decided to help me that night.
Did you ever feel as if the convicts were conspiring against you?
Did it worry you that there were kids living on the island?
No. They were on the opposite end of the island from the convicts. They were behind fences protected by a guard tower.
Were you a guard before you began work on Alcatraz?
No. I came home from the war along with thousands of other young men who were all looking for jobs. I took the civil service test thinking I might get a job in the post office or the customs office. I was pretty surprised when they called from Alcatraz.
What kind of training did you receive?
I had about four weeks of training: in-service lectures, movies, tests, hand-to-hand combat, firearms. After we were trained, our first positions were in more custodial guard jobs like in the guard towers or the west end gun gallery. It took a while before we were allowed out with the prisoners.
What was a typical day like as a guard on Alcatraz?
Very monotonous! Everything was timed down to the minute. It was very repetitious. It drove the guards crazy, just like it did the prisoners.
Was there any guard duty you dreaded?
Up on the yard wall as it was always cold and windy. We had these heavy overcoats that weighed a ton and huge guns. The wind beat at you at all times and they played this cowboy music over the loud speakers that drove me crazy. Plus, it was stressful keeping my eye on the guards down there with all those prisoners.
Were there prisoners you trusted?
Not really. There were some I felt half way comfortable with. Some I held conversations with; others would have nothing to do with any of the guards. You had to be careful though. One day, two FBI men came over on the boat. They went into the warden’s office and when they came out they had two officers in handcuffs. It turns out they had gotten too friendly with some of the prisoners and began bringing contraband in to them. The two officers both got five years in prison. The thing was once you gave something to a con, you were vulnerable because then the con had something on you. The only thing you could do at that point was quit.
Did you play checkers with the Bird Man of Alcatraz?
Yep. It was usually around two or three or four in the morning when I had hospital duty. I only did it when I knew and trusted the officer in the gun gallery because he could see me from there. I didn’t worry about my boss, because I had the key. He couldn’t come into the hospital, unless I let him in.
I never recall winning a game against the Bird Man.
Why did you leave Alcatraz?
There were always stories going around about how they were going to close Alcatraz. I didn’t know if they were true or not, but I was born and raised in San Francisco. I didn’t want to have to move to Leavenworth, Kansas. I tried to transfer to the Customs Department, but Warden Swope wouldn’t let me go. It was only when he was replaced by Warden Madigan that I was allowed to transfer.