The Story of Billy Sipple: The Price of Heroism

Credited with preventing the assassination of President Gerald Ford, Oliver “Billy” Sipple found his life forever changed as a result of his selflessness.

May 17, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

billy sipple story


An accidental hero, Oliver W. “Billy” Sipple never asked for fame. He was simply in the right place at the right time and did what he said anyone would have done. However, because his actions may have prevented the death of President Gerald Ford, he became a media sensation. Reporters everywhere wanted to know everything about the incredible man that had saved the president. Soon, Sipple discovered that doing the “right thing” would cost him everything.


An Early Life of Service

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It’s estimated that 10% of soldiers who served in Vietnam suffered from PTSD. “Shell Shocked Marine,” Dan McCullin, 1968 photo. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Born Oliver Wellington Sipple on November 20th, 1941 in Detroit, Michigan, the young man who became known as “Billy” struggled with dyslexia and eventually dropped out of high school. He joined the Marine Corps and went on to serve in the Vietnam War. He was injured there twice, the most serious being a shrapnel wound to the head that led to his discharge. The wound left him permanently disabled and with a lifetime disability pension. He was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and struggled with “shell shock,” now called post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent his Fourth of July holidays at VA hospitals, where he knew he could avoid the sounds of firecrackers.


San Francisco was a home for gay activism in the 70s. Vincent Maggiora, 1977. Source: the San Francisco Chronicle.


Adding to Sipple’s emotional stress was the fact that he was a closeted gay man. In the 1970s, homosexuality was far from being accepted in mainstream America. However, in some areas of the country, people were working to change that. Sipple decided to head to San Francisco, where openly gay communities existed and activists were working daily to undo the stigma around homosexuality. He moved in with a merchant seaman whose name has been lost to history and started a new life in the city’s Mission District. Sipple was known as a friendly man who was always willing to help others, active in local causes, and well-known at local bars.


The Event

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President Gerald Ford. Source: The White House.

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On September 22, 1975, President Gerald Ford was visiting San Francisco. Sipple decided to try to catch a glimpse of Ford with about 3,000 other people outside of the St. Francis Hotel. Ford exited the building and headed toward his limousine, waving to the cheering crowd. As Sipple watched, he noticed a woman in front of him, later identified as Sara Jane Moore, lift and level a .38 caliber pistol at the president. Just as her finger squeezed the trigger, Sipple reacted, lunging for her arm. He pushed Moore, causing her shot to miss the president. Instead, the bullet ricocheted off the front of the hotel and smashed into taxi driver John Ludwig, but did not cause major damage. Ludwig, an escapee of Nazi Germany and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, was heavily bruised, but the bullet did not penetrate his skin.


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An AP photo captures the assassination attempt with Billy Sipple on the far left and Sara Jane Moore behind the pole. Source: Deadline.


Moore was quickly taken into custody. Her attempt to take Ford’s life came just 17 days after another woman, Lynnete Fromme, had tried to do the same. Moore later claimed that she tried to kill Ford because she believed America needed change and the only way to achieve it was through violent revolution. She was sentenced to life in prison (though she was released on parole in 2007). Sipple and Ludwig both received letters of gratitude from the president but were never invited to the White House or further acknowledged by Ford or anyone associated with him. Both later admitted feeling disappointed and angry about their treatment, as if they had been brushed off.


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Sara Jane Moore in handcuffs. AP Photo. Source: The Washington Post.


Following the incident, Sipple intended to move on and return to his normal life. He did not feel his actions had been heroic; rather he believed that anyone else in his situation would have done the same. Little did he know, the story—and his life—were about to blow up.



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Harvey Milk sits outside his camera shop in 1977. Bettmann photo. Source: The San Francisco Chronicle.


Within days, someone tipped off the media that Sipple was gay. It is believed that San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk, or someone associated with him, was responsible. The gay community was working hard to show the world that homosexuality wasn’t a crime and that gays and lesbians were just regular people. A perceived hero like Billy Sipple, a veteran, was the perfect poster child for such an effort. Milk was quoted as saying, “For once we can show that gays do heroic things.” Sipple, however, was largely in the closet when it came to his family and friends back home in Detroit and preferred his privacy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t given a choice in retaining his anonymity. Two days after he saved the president’s life, Billy Sipple was outed in the press when the San Francisco Chronicle reported on his sexuality.


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Cover of the San Francisco Chronicle, Sept 23, 1975. Source: the San Francisco Chronicle.


If his parents had known that their son was gay before the press coverage, they had never acknowledged it. His father and two brothers endured taunting from coworkers, and his mother was bothered incessantly by neighbors, harassed on account of her son’s sexual orientation. They quickly went from being the family of a hero to the family of a gay man. Reporters contacted the family repeatedly but didn’t want to talk about Billy’s military history or even his effort to save the president—they were focused on the drama of his sexuality.


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Billy Sipple tells his story to reporters after the incident with President Ford. AP photo. Source: Radiolab.


Billy felt horrible that his family was suffering because of him and flew to Detroit to try to explain that he had never intended for the situation to unfold the way it had. Unfortunately, his arrival only caused more tension, and he ultimately ended up estranged from his parents. When his mother passed away in 1979, his father made it clear that he was not welcome at the funeral.


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Oliver Sipple. Source: All That’s Interesting


Back in San Francisco, Sipple decided to take a stand against the media. He felt that it was his right to keep his sexual orientation private and that members of the media had violated that right. He filed a $15 million lawsuit against seven news organizations, accusing them of invasion of privacy. The lawsuit dragged on for five years and was eventually dismissed on appeal. The court held that since Sipple had become a news item, his sexual orientation was part of the story and could be reported on. Though his argument was dismissed, the ethics questions raised by Sipple’s case are still fodder for legal education and discussion today, particularly in journalistic arenas.

An article from the San Francisco Examiner mentions that Sipple has been active in gay politics. September 25, 1975. Source:


Sipple and those in his circle couldn’t help but wonder why he was never further acknowledged by the president. Usually someone who had performed such heroics was invited to the White House or, at the very least, to meet the commander-in-chief for a personal “thank you.” Some believed Sipple was intentionally ignored by the president because he was gay and Ford did not want to associate himself with a controversial issue. Regardless of the reason behind it, the snub was always a disappointment to Sipple.



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A scene from the aftermath of the assassination attempt outside the St. Francis Hotel, NARA photo. Source: California Sun.


As his fame slowly receded, Sipple was left with a broken life. According to his brother, he eventually reconciled with his family, though his sexuality was not something that was ever discussed, just accepted. However, his mental and physical health declined over the following years. He drank heavily and his military physique ballooned to almost 300 pounds. He found himself in need of a pacemaker.


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Sipple frequented San Francisco bars. Gary Fong photo, 1979. Source: The San Francisco Chronicle.


While drinking, he still frequented many of the gay bars in San Francisco where he had become a fixture before the event that changed his life. When intoxicated, Sipple often expressed regret at grabbing Moore’s gun—regret not for saving Ford’s life but for the attention that the incident brought him.


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A letter signed “Jerry Ford” was Sipple’s prized possession. Source: RR Auction.


On February 2, 1989, Oliver “Billy” Sipple was found dead in his bed by a friend who went to check on him. The letter from President Ford was still framed on the wall of his run-down apartment. His cause of death was listed as pneumonia, and he had visited the VA hospital for breathing troubles recently. Sipple was only 47 years old. He was laid to rest at Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco.


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Billy Sipple’s headstone. Source: Military History Fandom


Would Billy Sipple’s life have ended differently if not for the heroic actions that saved a president? Can blame be assigned for his physical and mental deterioration and early demise? The ethical considerations loom large in this case, and history cannot be undone. However, Oliver “Billy” Sipple can be remembered and acknowledged today as someone who reacted selflessly in the moment and was taken advantage of unfairly. The cost of doing the right thing is sometimes hard to bear and, in the case of Billy Sipple, far too high.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”