It’s been almost 69 years since I joined the Navy, and 65 years since I was last associated with naval cryptographers of any sort. I’m here because I’m a survivor, not because of the small role I played in COMINT. I’m also here to pay tribute to the legendary Pacific War cryptographers who have passed on. And even those of my own generation with whom I worked closely in communications intelligence, they too are gone. I hope I speak for them. I was in active service in the Navy from early 1942 to 1946. My first duty consisted of language training, followed by duties in general intelligence as a junior officer. Work in communications intelligence began in 1943 and consumed 2 1/2 years. Bit player though I was, I nevertheless was at the very hub of Pacific War intelligence — section GZ-1 of FRUPAC, Station HYPO under the Op-20-G umbrella. I was engaged in work that was often classified as TOP SECRET ULTRA. There was no higher classification. That meant working in a room alongside and under the direction of men whose names resonate in history, names many of you know. I will speak of them later.
When Ed Carey and I were speaking a couple of months ago about the possibility of my being here tonight, I was doubtful I’d be able to say anything meaningful to such a dedicated and knowledgeable audience. I told Ed that while I knew every step that took me into FRUPAC, I am still astonished that those steps were there to take. I told him it probably had to do with an unusual background of growing up in the Far East — it had an effect upon a youngster. Ed said, “Tell your story. Childhood, boyhood — the effects of living in the Orient — the Navy and WWII efforts — anything to do with cryptology/cryptography and FRUPAC — issues between CINCPAC and the DC group, especially the Midway coverage. A tall order. I can only do a little.
It happens I’ve been writing this story a chapter a month for almost a year. The pieces are being published in a small Vermont magazine. Where they’re heading, I have no idea, but next year we may think about going between covers as a book. Of the first eleven chapters, only the one currently in preparation has gotten to the FRUPAC stage— radio intercepts, traffic analysis, recoveries and translation. It’s rather slow going. The first chapters deal with my earlier years, with events and experiences, nothing to do with the Navy.
If I follow Ed Carey’s suggestion, don’t worry. I’ll only skim over a few subjects in my early life and promise we’ll soon get to what you want most to hear — communications intelligence as experienced by one young man. I was born in Newark, New Jersey in January 1921 — and shortly after left for the other side of the world. (I have nothing against New Jersey— I went to college there and married a New Jersey girl.)
Of course, my parents had something to do with my leaving. My father was an educator, an independent school administrator. He learned of an opening in the Philippines for a headmastership of Brent School, a private American school in Baguio, a town nestled in the beautiful forested cordilleran mountain range of north-central Luzon. It was the summer capital and residence of the American Governor General, the Philippines then being an American colony.
I lived there from being very little until I was 13 1/2. Now you take a kid and put him in such a place and surround him with natural wonders and wildlife of every description, it’s going to have an effect.
Giant insects and spiders, foot-long centipedes, a cobra living under my bedroom floor, birds of every description, a pet mongoose who rode around my waist under my sweater, and a pet monkey—a totally undisciplined native macaque. The monkey lived in an outside cage, but occasionally was allowed in the house for me to play with. One day we were romping from room to room and he flew into the dining room and launched himself onto a wicker chandelier over the table. The light fixture swung and the ride was so exhilarating, he lost sphincter control and sprayed the entire table. That was the end. He went to live in a local zoo.
I only mention bits from a child’s life to emphasize the effect tropical wildlife and nature had upon me. By 10 years old I was a naturalist and wanted to be one the rest of my life. Good fortune has allowed just that, and I have been a research, teaching, writing, exploring biologist right up into my last years. There was only one departure: my four-year stint in the Navy that figured hugely in a life of a very different sort.
One other effect of living in the Philippines: We all have Filipino friends, but most of them are lowlanders — Ilocanos, Tagalogs, Visayans — who predominate in this archipelago of over 7,000 islands. They’ve had a 400-year close relationship with Western culture, much of it under Spanish rule before we took over in 1898.
But we lived amongst mountain people, the Igorots. Never conquered by Spanish or Americans. Tribes of Bontocs, Ifugaos, Kalingas were less than a generation removed from head-hunting days. They were admirable people, sturdy, dignified, certain of their place, and architects of one of the wonders of the world — entire mountainsides transformed into stupendous rice terraces. I was, and am still, an admirer.
From them I learned at an early age that human cultures can be vastly different from our own, yet retain a nobility deserving of respect and understanding. It was a lesson I have cherished throughout my life, and helped me understand a wartime enemy who often operated and functioned within a very different framework from what we in the West know and expect. Brent School’s campus survived during the war and was used as a Japanese military hospital. It’s a flourishing school again today. And Baguio is where General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who with his remaining troops had retreated into the hills, finally surrendered to American forces at the war’s end.
In 1934 we moved to Japan where my father became the headmaster of the American School in Japan, in Tokyo. It was American in curriculum with a mostly American faculty. But the student body was something else. Tokyo, capital of the Japanese Empire, was filled with consulates and embassies of every country in the world. There was no other qualified foreign school in the Tokyo-Yokohama district, or in much of Japan, so children of many nationalities were enrolled in the American School.
The international flavor of the school affected all of us. One day in manual training class a Pakistani boy stuck a drill into an Afghani’s arm — the Afghani was the ambassador’s son, while the Pakistani was the son of a minor official in what was then an Indian state. A minor international storm erupted with one official lodging a formal complaint against the other. In my class, or within a year on either side, were those who eventually became widely known. A girl of English extraction, Joan DeHavilland, was already smitten by the theater during her school days. She later changed her name to Joan Fontaine, and as a major Hollywood star she won several Academy Awards.
Oleg Troyanovsky was the son of the Soviet ambassador, and a very popular guy in our high school crowd. After the war he became Soviet ambassador to Japan, then Soviet Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1977-1986) where he was known for being urbane, pleasant, cultured, very bright and very effective.
Bongs Amara Kridakara was a Siamese prince (now Thailand) who much later also became an ambassador for his country. (He must have been a bit uncomfortable when in January 1942 Thailand threw in its lot with Japan and declared war on the United States.) And Herawati Latip was of nobility from Celebes, now Sulawesi. She also achieved international recognition. Karl Schrecht, a German classmate with whom I ran in track, was a good friend. Some days he took off from school and we wondered if he was a Hitler Jugend in training, but never knew. We heard later he died at Stalingrad, but it was not confirmed.
Hajime Onishi, another classmate in 1938, was several years older than the rest of us, but fitted in wonderfully. We had great times at the Shibaura skating rink and bicycling around the city. Haj impressed us, for he was already an accomplished pilot, and in those days with no private planes allowed, no international flights, it meant only that he had military wings. After our graduation in 1938, Haj went to Carnegie Institute of Technology in the U.S. at the expense of his government. I saw him a few times in New York City before he returned to Japan in 1940.
I was never able to track down Haj after the war. No idea if he survived. We old Japan hands did hear one thing, however. The initial unconditional surrender was arranged to be held in MacArthur’s headquarters in the Philippines. Fourteen Japanese emissaries flew to Ie Shima near Okinawa in two “Betty” (Mitsubishi G4M) medium bombers, painted white with large green crosses on the fuselage. It was said Hajime Onishi piloted one of them, but I’ve not been able to verify that.
Every one of us at the American School, without exception as far as I knew, accepted the others. Our high school “gang” was as mixed a lot as the United Nations today — and we were united. And in subsequent life, in war and peace, that sense continued. Enemies were enemies, but they were people first, and sometimes friends.
We lived on a military street, a minor thoroughfare between downtown and the Yoyogi Parade Ground a mile up the road. A few military vehicles traveled along it every day, and troops, usually recruits in training, came marching along singing in cadence with a bugler. I can’t remember the words, but that blasted tune still sticks in my mind after 75 years.
In 1939 I was invited to work weekends at Tokyo Imperial University’s Misaki Marine Biological Station near Aburatsubo. This was situated at the end of the Misaki peninsula that separated Tokyo Bay and its huge Yokosuka Naval Base, from Sagami Wan, or bay, where naval maneuvers frequently took place, and where the USS Missouri anchored for the final surrender ceremonies in 1945. The lab room I used looked out over the water and on several occasions I watched very large naval vessels steaming close by. I didn’t have a camera, but intelligence work could have begun right there. If I had been seen however, it wouldn’t have gone well. On the Emperor’s birthday, I think in 1938, I went out on our front lawn to watch what must have been the world’s largest air armada pass overhead. Mile after mile, stretching from horizon to horizon, planes were precisely aligned in an intricate aerial tapestry. Hordes of small fighter planes (Claudes mostly, for the Zero was not yet in production); transports; torpedo planes; dive bombers; medium bombers; four-engined bombers; float planes; twin-engined flying boats; and great four-engined flying boats the size of Pan American Clippers. The ground trembled with their thunder.
A year or two later while an undergraduate at Rutgers University, my classmates joked about the shoddy construction of Japanese planes and ships and vehicles — that they wouldn’t stand a chance against American products. They said Japanese men were constitutionally incapable of being proper pilots — something wrong with their eyesight or balance. When I told them of my experience, they either didn’t believe me or thought I was unpatriotic.
With no thought to what the future might hold, a curious circumstance involving two men and a boy occurred during the time I lived in Japan. Americans and Canadians enjoyed a lakeside summer retreat in north-central Japan — Nojiri-ko, Lake Nojiri, nestled in pristine mountain country in Nagano-ken, Nagano prefecture being the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The Nojiri Yacht Club held a regatta for several dozen sailboats every August, and because I was an ardent sailor, I always competed. Two other competitors intersected my life several years later.
Kai Rasmussen, an American Army captain, attended the Tokyo School for language instruction attached to the U.S. embassy. The other skipper, Glen W. Shaw, a writer, scholar and outstanding student of Japanese literature, spoke the language like a native. I’ll come back to these two men shortly and tell why the association seems curious in the light of place, time and chance. Upon graduation from the American School in Japan my several options for going to college in the United States had to be scrapped one after the other as conditions worsened in Europe.
First choice would have been taking the Tran Siberian Railway to Leningrad, then another line to Paris. But Poland was about to be invaded, having refused the Germans access to the Danzig Corridor, so that route was out. The next option would have been to sail to Europe aboard the British P & O Line’s Rawalpindi — I visited her on her last visit to Yokohama before my trip. But then she was converted into an armed cruiser for Britain’s Royal Navy. Those of you familiar with naval exploits in WWII may remember the Rawalpindi’s heroic sacrifice in the North Atlantic when taking the initiative and attacking two German battle cruisers.
The search for transportation ended with a month-long trip on a modern high-speed Japanese freighter, the Komaki Maru, which took me from Yokohama through the Panama Canal to New York City. It was the happiest ocean voyage I’ve taken, filled with adventures and friendship.
But international rumblings were noticeable. A day or two out of San Pedro in California, we were warned by an American destroyer racing alongside that we had “accidentally” entered into the midst of U.S. Pacific Fleet maneuvers. As we left the Komaki Maru’s officers were busily taking photographs. As they did again when going through the Panama Canal — they seemed unusually interested in the locks and their machinery. Several years later I learned of the giant I-400 class submarines that carried two or three float-plane bombers expressly designed to destroy the Canal. They could have and would have, had not the huge undersea vessels been used as supply ships to support the beleaguered Japanese garrison on Guadalcanal. So that far-away island campaign had unforeseen consequences upon the larger war. Consider what it would have been like had the Canal been eliminated in the early days of the Pacific War.
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, in my third year of college in the U.S., I was in my room when I was called to come downstairs. Others were clustered around a big console radio listening to eyewitness reports from Pearl Harbor. We stayed there most of the day, for the airwaves were filled with terrible news.
Every person in the room but one was of like mind: they were angry and vengeful. I was the other one. It was as though a bitter, tragic divorce had occurred between two parents whom I loved. I was instantly committed to one, instantly condemned the other, and yet there was great sadness to think that such a thing had come to pass. The next morning I was again called to come downstairs to the lounge. This time two strangers were waiting, large serious men dressed in dark suit and tie. They introduced themselves as FBI agents and needed to talk with me in private. They wanted to determine whether I posed a threat to the security of the United States. I wasn't an enemy alien, but I had lived in Japan and that made me suspicious in their view. Ten minutes into the questioning they were neither impressed nor worried and left for more promising interviews. My fraternity brothers were awed, however, that someone in their midst had awakened the FBI's interest and that I had been reached within 24 hours of Japan's attack. I must have entered FBI lists as soon as I stepped off the Komaki Maru that had brought me to New York from Yokohama three years earlier.
I wasn’t naive. I knew hostilities were possible with the United States’ determined sense of what was right in their concern over Japan’s aggression in China — and Japan’s aggressive, provocative militancy on the other. I had seen how nationalism and militarism had arisen in Japan, a country already at war with China for most of the years I lived in Tokyo. And I knew how Japan was encroaching upon Southeast Asia for essential oil and rubber reserves.
If Japan didn’t pull out of China, the United States and England would place an embargo upon the Empire’s trade cutting off their newly acquired Southeast Asian raw materials. This the Japanese couldn’t accept, so war was their only option.
And now to come back to my two sailing companions of 1938 on Lake Nojiri: Kai Rasmussen, the U.S. Army attaché in the pre-war American Embassy, and Glen Shaw the American scholar of Japanese language and culture.
A month after Pearl Harbor I was contacted by Kai Rasmussen, by now a colonel in charge of the Military Intelligence Service Language School in Minnesota. He wanted me to enroll. I hesitated.
And within a short time Glen Shaw called and asked if I was interested in joining the Navy. I gave him an enthusiastic yes. We met a few weeks later in the Hotel New Yorker. After a short exchange, he sent me into the next room to meet CMDR Albert E. Hindmarsh, founder of the Navy’s Japanese Language School in Boulder, Colorado. It was a program similar to that of Rasmussen's in the Army, but longer and more intensive. We were to undergo rigorous training to become officers in Naval Intelligence.
CMDR Hindmarsh found me acceptable and gave me a mimeographed slip of paper stating I was a Naval Agent and permitted to wear civilian clothes. I had no idea what a Naval Agent was, and neither did my draft board, who suspected it was a hoax and said I was prime draft material. I hung onto that piece of paper for dear life. I have it still.
Now pause to consider this: Shaw and Rasmussen, essentially unfamiliar with one another in 1938; both destined for top jobs in U.S. Intelligence during WWII; both summertime sailing competitors racing in the same small boat class on a remote Japanese lake against an American teenager — who later would begin his career in Intelligence with one of them. Now that is curious.
©2010 William H. Amos