“Wills on Duty:” The Guard that Discovered the Watergate Break-in

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist in Augmented Processing at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

On the night of June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills was making his usual rounds when he noticed a piece of duct tape covering the lock of the back parking lot door to the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. As noted in the Security Officer’s Log (NAID 304970), he removed the tape, only to return thirty minutes later to find that another piece of tape had reappeared. Wills quickly contacted authorities about his strange observation. The local police arrived at the building and searched each office suite. The police, along with Wills, found five men hiding in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters office. These men were identified as Bernard L. Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord Jr., and Frank Sturgis. All of these men had connections to Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign.

Security Officer’s Log of the Watergate Office Building 1972 Page 50 (NAID 304970)

Wills was born on February 4, 1948, in Savannah, Georgia, and was raised by his mother Marjorie Wills. He dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and joined the federally funded Job Corps program in Battle Creek, Michigan. After completing the vocational training, Wills found employment as an assembly line operator at the Ford Motor Company and then later at Chrysler Motors. Due to severe respiratory health issues, Wills was unable to continue working in these types of factory conditions. He moved around to various southern cities working a series of low-paying jobs before finding employment as a security guard in Washington, D.C.

aerial view of the Watergate, Kennedy Center in background, Howard Johnson is across the street from Watergate
[U.S. v. Liddy] Government Exhibit 1: Panoramic View, Elevations, and Floor Plans of Watergate and Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge (NAID 304965)

His discovery at the Watergate Office Building led to one of the largest political scandals in the history of the United States. The arrest and eventual conviction or guilty pleas of the five men uncovered a series of wiretaps, slush funds, political sabotage, unjustified firings, and even kidnapping, all in an attempt to re-elect the president. Nixon claimed that he had nothing to do with the break-in at the DNC and was able to win re-election by a landslide in November 1972. It was not until the “Smoking Gun” audio tape was released to the public on August 5, 1974, that revealed a conversation between Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman discussing how to prevent the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from continuing their investigation into the Watergate break-in. Wills’ discovery on that night in June 1972 ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon on August 9, 1974.

Resignation Letter of Richard Nixon August 9, 1974 (NAID 302035)

Shortly after the Watergate scandal was made public, Wills left his job as a security guard. He only received a $2.50 a week raise, but was denied a promotion that he felt he was entitled to for his discovery. Wills barely made a living conducting interviews around the country about his role in the political scandal. He did receive some notoriety playing himself in the Oscar award winning film adaptation of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men in 1976 and working with comedian Dick Gregory to promote his Bahamian Diet. Unfortunately after the fanfare died down, Wills struggled for the remainder of his life. He worked a series of random odd jobs, cared for his mother who suffered a stroke, and was arrested for several minor offenses that mostly consisted of shoplifting. In an interview prior to his death, Wills told a reporter “I never received anything for my role in the infamous Watergate Scandal. I have lost faith completely in our current political system.” Frank Wills died on September 27, 2000, in Augusta, Georgia at the age of 52.

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