Those Other American Heroes

Origins

Japanese Temple

In the 1880s, scores of Japanese citizens made their way to the Hawaiian Islands and the western United States.  Amazingly, they arrived after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Federal law prohibited Hawaiian plantation owners from hiring much-needed laborers from China, but nothing was to preclude them from engaging the Japanese.  About half of the Japanese workers arriving in Hawaii eventually made their way to California, Oregon, and Washington.  Within twenty years, around 100,000 Japanese had made their migration across the Pacific.  This migration would not have happened without the permission of Japan’s Meiji Emperor, of course, but by 1924, Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and the western states exceeded 200,000.  By 1920, around 40% of the population of Hawaii was Japanese.

The question is, why would so many Japanese want to immigrate to a land so foreign to them in language and culture?  One explanation is that the Japanese government pushed many of its citizens out of their own country.  The Meiji period was one of rapid industrialization and modernization.  The only people suitable for such a shift were educated individuals willing to open their minds to a new way of living.  But there was also a monetary cost to modernization — costs imposed on Japanese farmers in the form of high taxes.  In the 1880s, more than 300,000 Japanese farmers lost their farmlands because they could not pay the Meiji taxes.  When information arrived in Japan that Hawaiian pineapple producers needed laborers, it set into motion “netsu” fever — immigration fever.

Japanese who were of a mind to immigrate realized that if you snooze, you lose.  Hawaiian plantation owners offered the unbelievably high wages of $30.00 a month.  It was no sacrifice to the plantation owners, of course, who also had the advantage of circumstances that precluded the Japanese from forming labor organizations.  Initially, the immigrants were mostly men who, without women, became a lonely, unhappy lot in Hawaii.  This problem was solved when plantation owners devised a plan for “picture brides.”  Picture brides were encouraged by the Meiji government because — well, in Japan, women have limited roles.  Besides, the “picture bride” scheme fits somewhat nicely with Japanese traditional (arranged) marriages.

Institutional Discrimination

If the American people weren’t happy with Chinese folks, the die was cast when waves of Japanese people began moving to California, people who, in the eyes of that translated Oklahoma farmer looked the same as Chinese.  In 1906, the San Francisco School Board excluded 93 Japanese students from attending public school.  They should, instead, attend “Chinese schools.”  Japanese parents first tried to change the mind of school board members, who were under pressure from the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL).  The goals of the AEL were simple enough: end Japanese immigration.  When the school board refused to reconsider their idiotic ruling, Japanese parents kicked up a fuss, prompting diplomatic problems in Washington.  President Theodore Roosevelt supported the Japanese, although not because he disagreed with racial exclusion, but because he was trying to broker a peace deal between Japan and Russia.  Eventually, San Francisco rescinded their segregation order, which enabled Roosevelt to negotiate a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Japanese government to stop issuing exit visas to Japanese laborers.

Today, school segregation might seem appalling, but in 1906, some Japanese (or other Asians) might have been just as happy with that arrangement as were the whites.  Asians value their culture and wish, whenever possible, to preserve it.  The formation of Chinese or Japanese districts in California wasn’t something simply imposed upon them by whites.  In 1906, Asians preferred their own company and still do.  A considerable section of the Westminster section of Orange County, California, now caters to Vietnamese.

In 1913, California’s legislature passed the California Alien Land Law.  The Webb-Haney Act prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning farmland or possessing long-term leases over it.  The law applied to Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean immigrants — although the law was aimed directly at the Japanese farmer.  Of course, limiting land ownership to people eligible for citizenship does appear reasonable even if the average Joe living in California didn’t care who owned the land.  But white farmers cared.  They preferred not to compete with Japanese farmers for a share of the agricultural market — and wealthy white farmers and industrialists have a tremendous influence in California politicians.

If there was any question about institutional discrimination in 1920, the federal government put that issue to rest with the Immigration Act of 1924.  The Act was a combination of three federal laws that included a process of excluding Asians through quota limitations, by country, and through the creation of the US Border Patrol to enforce those limitations.  The Japanese government was not particularly happy with the Immigration Act of 1924, but there was little they could do about it beyond adding this irritation to a growing list of complaints about American policies.

The federal government doubled down on the Japanese-American population on 19 February 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered 127,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps.  Around 112,000 of those people lived on the west coast.  Roosevelt, by executive order 9066, ordered all of them to surrender to the War Relocation Authority.  The federal government took most of those on the west coast to about a dozen internment camps located in California, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Utah.

According to some (perhaps, even, many) proof of white racism in the United States was the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.  There may have been racialists in the Roosevelt administration, and indeed, there probably were, but Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to act pursuant to the Alien Enemies Act (1798, amended) was legal — and prudent — on 12 December 1945.  Under this authority, the President may apprehend, restrain, imprison, or deport any non-citizen enemy of the United States.  President Roosevelt exercised this authority by issuing Executive Proclamations 2525 (Alien Enemies-Japanese), 2526 (Alien Enemies-German), and 2527 (Alien Enemies-Italian).  

As for interning citizens of the United States, Executive Order 9066 does not mention any person whatsoever.  It merely asserts the following: “Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national defense utilities […] authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the military commanders […] to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent […] from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave, shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War […] may impose in his discretion.”

Were the President to intern only Japanese-American citizens, then we could make a reasonable claim toward racist policies of a white president toward Asian citizens of the United States, but in fact, citizens of the United States of Japanese, German,[1] and Italian ancestry were interned throughout the United States during World War II.[2]

The War

In 1940, there was no shortage of Americans who spoke fluent German, and there was no shortage of people who understood German culture.  However, one article in early 1942 claimed that no more than 100 non-Japanese persons could speak Japanese with any fluency, and none of them understood Japanese culture.[3]  This is an essential aspect of language proficiency because culture often dictates linguistic nuances and facial expressions while speaking.  It wasn’t long after the United States entered into World War II that the War Department realized that Japanese language specialists would become vital to winning the war against Japan.

Here’s what the War Department did know: that, beginning in early December 1941, Imperial Japan had handed the United States and its allies one major defeat after another, from the Japanese Navy’s attack at Pearl Harbor, to tossing the United States out of the Philippines. Japan’s assault was so sudden and unexpected that they destroyed nearly all MacArthur’s aircraft while they were sitting on numerous airfields. Japan also caused the British, French, and Dutch empires in Southeast Asia to fold like a deck of cards, and then on top of all this, the Japanese Empire threatened India, Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, and the West Coast of the United States.  Everyone living in California expected a massive Japanese invasion following Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo.

American field commanders were desperate for information about Japanese intentions.  Only one group of people in the United States could help answer these questions: Japanese-Americans.  Despite the wholesale internment of Japanese-American citizens, there was not a single instance of any Japanese citizen acting against the United States’ interests in time of war.  None.

Still, until May 1942, the concept of using Nisei (the children of Japanese-born parents) as language interpreters, translators, and interrogators was untested.  The United States created the Fourth Army Intelligence School to test this hypothesis.  The initial results were so successful that the War Department stepped up the training of Japanese-American intelligence specialists.  The success in using Japanese linguists also led the War Department to employ Japanese as all-Nisei combatants in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and 100th (Independent) Infantry Battalion.

On 1 May 1942, the first 40 Japanese-American intelligence specialists (and two officers) graduated from an old, dilapidated hangar at the Fourth Army Intelligence School at Crissy Field.  But these graduates had no idea what awaited them after graduation — and neither did the War Department.  When orders finally arrived for these young men, they still didn’t know where they were going.  In a few weeks, the Navy would win two important sea battles, but only barely.  A few weeks later, Marines would land on Guadalcanal, but their hold on that god-forsaken island would remain tenuous for nearly half a year.  In mid-April 1942, even before class graduation, Army Lieutenant Colonel Moses W. Pettigrew, Head of the Eastern branch of the Military Intelligence Division, allocated one officer and five Nisei language specialists to the US 37th Infantry Division.  However, the division commander would only accept them once Pettigrew certified that these men were reliable, useful, and trustworthy.  Colonel Pettigrew had no hesitance in doing that.

But Pettigrew was hesitant to offer Nisei linguists beyond his capability to provide them.  Forty recent graduates weren’t many, considering the size of the battlespace.  In that first class, of 58 enrolled Nisei, only 40 graduated.  The washout rate was even worse for Caucasian officers.  Of 36 officers who volunteered for the course, only two graduated.  It was a situation that forced Pettigrew into making tough choices about where to send his limited number of Nisei.  One Caucasian officer and eight Nisei went to MacArthur’s headquarters in Australia.  One officer and three Nisei ended up with the US 37th; six Nisei went to New Caledonia.

None of Pettigrew’s graduates went to Hawaii.  The Military Department of Hawaii didn’t want any Japanese-American soldiers, no matter what their specialty.  In fact, after the start of the war, the Selective Service Board of Hawaii suspended inductions of Japanese-Americans, even after 2,000 Nisei were already serving in uniform.  Most of these men ultimately ended up in the 100th (Independent) Infantry Battalion.  Still, in the meantime, as Army and Navy commanders struggled to meet the growing demand for Japanese language specialists, a couple of thousand Nisei in Hawaii found themselves performing engineering tasks and guard duty assignments.

In April 1942, the Army’s Military Intelligence Division dispatched Nisei Masanori Minamoto to Bora Bora, where he was assigned to the 102nd Infantry.  Since Minamoto had no intelligence tasks and no prisoners to interrogate, the Army assigned him to drive a truck.  Driving trucks, standing guard duty, and digging ditches are all these young specialists did through 1942; no one was sure what they were supposed to do.  Occasionally, their commanders tasked them with translating Japanese magazines, books, and letters confiscated by residents — but beyond that, there were no “mission essential” tasks for them to perform.

In August, two American submarines carried a Marine raiding party to Makin Island in the Central Pacific to discover Japanese intentions.  One of these Marines was Captain Gerald P. Holtom, who was born and raised in Japan.  When the Marines returned to Hawaii, they had large quantities of captured Japanese documents, including Japanese plans, charts, orders of battle, and top-secret maps indicating air defenses, military strengths, methods of alerts, types of material, and so on forth.  What these Marines did not bring back with them was Captain Holtom; he was killed and left behind on Makin Island.

The Marines had a handful of men who could speak Japanese when they went ashore at Tulagi and Guadalcanal, but no Nisei.  While the Marines did capture a few prisoners, they could not extract any useful information.  The Marines might have taken a few more Japanese prisoners, but at this point in the war, Marines were in no mood for it, and Marine officers had yet to learn the value of interrogating prisoners rather than shooting them.  It wasn’t entirely the Marines’ fault.

On 12 August, the 1st Marine Division intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frank B. Goettge, led a combat patrol behind Japanese lines to capture enemy prisoners.  Accompanying the patrol was First Lieutenant Ralph Cory, a Japanese language officer.  Goettge and his Marines walked into a murderous ambush and had to withdraw.  Goettge and Cory were among the wounded men the Marines, out of necessity, had left behind.  Upon returning to friendly lines, the surviving Marines told their story of Japanese soldiers executing the wounded Marines in a most grizzly fashion.  The account spread throughout the command, which convinced Marines that the Japanese were untrustworthy, treacherous bastards.  Afterward, combat Marines were not inclined to take any prisoners.  This attitude was not lost on the Army’s Nisei linguists; they tended to give the Marines a wide birth.

Six additional Nisei intelligence specialists arrived on Guadalcanal between September-November 1942 (and several more school-trained Caucasian officers).  On Tulagi, Marines discovered a list of call signs and code names for all Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) ships and airbases.  The G-1 flew this information to Noumea, where Nisei worked for several days to translate it.  The primary translator, Shigeru Yamashita (California born but raised in Japan until the age of 19), testified to the task’s difficulty but stated that everyone realized the importance of their work and every Nisei wanted to prove their loyalty to the United States.  This is undoubtedly true, but the Marines and soldiers in the forward areas didn’t know that.

The only good Jap …

Captain John A. Burden was born in Japan and rated as an excellent speaker of Japanese.  The Army sent him to New Caledonia with three Nisei translators.  There was little work for translators on New Caledonia, but elsewhere, field commanders were begging for Japanese language specialists.  Despite this demand, Captain Burden languished on that isolated island.  In December, Admiral Halsey visited with the US 37th Infantry Division.  During his visit, the Division G-2 commented, “Sir, I understand you’re looking for a Japanese Language Officer.”  Admiral Halsey replied, “They’re driving me crazy for one, but I don’t know where to find one.”  The G-2 then introduced Captain Burden to Halsey, and the following day, Burden was en route to Guadalcanal.

On Guadalcanal, Burden found two Marine officers and five enlisted men working as interrogators.  Of the seven Marines, only one had any proficiency in the language.  To test their ability, Burden had each Marine interrogate every POW, but at the end of the day, the only information they had was the POW’s name and rank.  What Burden learned was that none of these Marine really understood Japanese.  Burden sent them back to the line.  When he interviewed the POWs, there almost wasn’t enough paper to write down all these prisoners had to say.

On 17 December, the US 25th Infantry Division joined the 1st Marine Division and Army Americal Division on Guadalcanal.  It wasn’t long before Captain Burden noted that soldiers were as reluctant as the Marines to take prisoners.  Burden heard one regimental commander berating his men for bringing in prisoners.  He told his men, “Don’t bother taking prisoners, just shoot the sons of bitches.  The only good Jap is a dead Jap.”  The standard excuse for not bringing in prisoners was that they were “shot while trying to escape.”  Eventually, Burden convinced regimental and battalion commanders of the value of Japanese interrogations and translating documents.  Afterward, field commanders promised ice cream and a three-day off-island pass to anyone who would bring in a live prisoner.  Within a short time, Captain Burden was processing an astonishing amount of information, and what Burden learned from this was that the Japanese were nearly manic in their penchant for writing things down.

Conclusion

Early in the war, the War Department saw propaganda value in forming and maintaining segregated units, generally divided into African, Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Japanese units.  Thus, during 1942, the War Department organized the 1st Filipino Infantry in California, battalion-sized units of Norwegians, Austrians, and Greeks.  Henry L. Stimson complained to Roosevelt about such formations.  He wanted to Americanize the U. S. Army, not segregate it.  Roosevelt demurred, essentially telling Stimson, “I must be the one to determine the advantages, if any.”  So, at the end of November 1942, the War Department decided to form a Nisei regiment.  In announcing the new unit, the always political Roosevelt said, “No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry.”  The first Nisei volunteers reported to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for training in April 1943.  The catalyst for this entire process was the initial graduates of the Fourth Army Intelligence School.  The Nisei of military intelligence may not have assaulted the German machineguns in Italy, but there is little doubt that these Japanese language experts saved American lives by providing critical information to field commanders on their march across the Pacific.  The definition of someone who saves lives is … hero.[4]

Sources:

  1. Connell, T.  America’s Japanese Hostages: The US Plan for a Japanese-free Hemisphere.  Praeger-Greenwood, 2002.
  2. De Nevers, N. C.  The Colonel and the Pacifist: Karl Bendetsen, Perry Saito, and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.  University of Utah Press, 2004.
  3. Glidden, W.  “Internment Camps in America, 1917-1920,” Military Affairs, v.37 (1979), 137-41.
  4. Harth, E.  Last Witness: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans.  Palgrave, 2001.
  5. Krammer, A.  Undue Process: The Untold Story of America’s German Alien Internees. Rowan & Littlefield, 1997.

Endnotes:


[1] According to the 1940 census, 1.2 million persons identified as being of German birth; 5 million persons claimed German-born parents; 6 million persons claimed one parent born in Germany.  A large number of these people had “recent connections” to Germany.  The numbers involved and their political and economic influences explain why there was no “large scale” relocation and internment.  However, an estimated 12,000 German-American citizens were interned during World War II.

[2] German-American citizens were similarly interned during World War I.

[3] Life Magazine, September 1942.

[4] This work was prepared as a collaborative effort with Mr. Koji Kanemoto, whose family endured the indignity of Roosevelt’s internment policies, and whose father served in the U. S. Army Military Intelligence Service.

Japanese-Americans and the Military Intelligence Service

Last week, commenting about Our Secret Fighting Womenmy good friend Koji Kanemoto reminded me of one of his earlier blog posts relating to a former member of the Military Intelligence Service during World War II.  In his comment, Koji mentioned a gentleman he met some years ago, a Japanese-American veteran of the war who served, as did Koji’s father (post-hostilities), in the U. S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service.  The man’s name was Grant Ichikawa.  His wife, Mildred (called Millie), also served in the Army’s MIS during the occupation of Japan.[1]  Both have since passed away.

Koji’s comment reminded me of his own family’s story.  If ever there was an American tragedy on the scale of the American Civil War, the Kanemoto family story is its modern version.  In brief, Koji’s grandfather, Hisakichi, migrated to the United States from Japan in the late 1800s and took up residence in Seattle.  He and his Japanese wife produced four sons: Yutaka, Hisao (who died in infancy), Suetoro, and Koji’s Dad, Koso.

In the 1920s, as was the custom in the Japanese-American community back then, Hisakichi’s three sons returned to Japan to visit their ancestral home in Hiroshima to learn Japanese.[2]  Koso Kanemoto returned to the United States before hostilities broke out with Japan in 1941.  Suetoro, for whatever reason, delayed his return to the United States until it was (quite suddenly) too late.  The Imperial Japanese Army conscripted Suetoro for service in World War II.

Koji’s father, Koso, having returned to the United States before Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, soon found himself and his family in an internment camp in California.  So much for the “land of the free.”  Eventually, Koso enlisted in the U. S. Army.  Because of his Japanese language skills, the Army assigned Koso to military intelligence.  He worked as an interrogator of repatriated Imperial Japanese soldiers and translated at hundreds of war crimes trials in Quonset huts during the occupation period.

Ultimately, however, Suetoro (who by 1944 was a senior NCO) was killed while fighting US forces in the Philippines.[3]  After the war, Koji’s father resumed his life in Southern California.  He passed away, aged 99 years, in 2018.  The final tragedy was that Koji’s father had little memory of his younger days in his later years.

The Kanemoto family story, while unique, was not entirely one of a kind.  A gentleman I met while stationed in Japan experienced similar circumstances.  His name was Ted Kobayashi, and you can find his story in my earlier post, All about Honor.

In addition to the preceding information, this week, I’m offering a link to one of Koji’s posts, which I found quite interesting.  It’s part of America’s story that few people know.  Feel free to leave Koji a comment on his blog, Masako and Spam Musubi.

Endnotes:

[1] Per U. S. Army Military Intelligence records: Yamamoto, Mildred S. (Ichikawa)

[2] Ironically, most of the Nisei’s assigned to Military Intelligence that were fluent in Japanese had Hiroshima as their ancestral home.  A number of these people had family members who perished in the atomic bombing of that city.

[3] Many Japanese-American U. S. Army veterans assigned to military intelligence duties in the Pacific War, later agonized over the possibility that their work in intelligence-gathering and analysis may have contributed to the death of their family members fighting on the Japanese side.


Pete Ellis —Oracle

EGA Black

Until the advent of World War II, most individuals receiving commissions in the Army or Navy came from privileged backgrounds.  Likely as not, military service was a family tradition or the result of family influence; this is how many officers, such as George Patton, George Marshall, and Mark W. Clark were able to attend military academies.  People with meager incomes did not send their children to prestigious schools.  Then as now, responsibility for the purchase of uniforms and equipment fell upon those gaining a commission, purchase their own meals, and subject themselves to a certain social protocol.  Few could meet these expenses who did not have independent means.

There were exceptions to the silver spoon, of course.  Although Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley came from low-income families, their demonstrated brilliance during the entrance examinations to Annapolis and West Point helped to propel them forward as a commissioned officer.  Eisenhower would have accepted an appointment to Annapolis had he not been “too old” to receive a navy appointment.  He therefore accepted an appointment to the USMA[1].

In the Marine Corps, many famous officers were educated in civilian colleges and universities, and sought a commission subsequent to graduation.  Holland M. Smith, for example, was an attorney before receiving a Marine Corps commission.  Alexander Vandergrift received a commission while attending the University of Virginia.  Smedley D. Butler came from a family with significant political influence, Lewis B. Puller, Sr., attended the Virginia Military Institute.

Earl Hancock Ellis began his career as a Marine by enlisting as a private in 1900.  Within twelve months, Ellis had achieved the rank of corporal making him eligible to take an examination for a commission to Second Lieutenant.  Ellis received his commission in December 1901.

In spite of his reputation for brilliance, Ellis began to demonstrate some disappointment with life as an officer early in his career.  After receiving his initial training as a newly commissioned officer, the Marines ordered Ellis to the Philippines, where he served as the Adjutant of the First Regiment.  It was there that he wrote, “I think that this is the laziest life that a man could find — there is not a blamed thing to do except lay around, sleep, and go ‘bug house[2]’.  But all the same, I am helping to bear the white man’s burden.”

Subsequently ordered to command the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Kentucky, flagship of the Pacific Fleet, Ellis gained experience in fleet exercises, maintaining cordial relationships with foreign navies, and conducted visitations to Singapore, China, and Yokohama, Japan.  He returned to the United States in 1904 and received his promotion to first lieutenant in March of that year.  In the following years, Ellis served as a staff officer at Marine Barracks, Washington DC and as quartermaster at Mare Island, California.  During this period, he formed a warm friendship with Major George Barnett who, in a few short years, would become the 12th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

From 1906 to 1907, Ellis served as the Recruiting Officer in Oakland, California and Des Moines, Iowa.  Following another tour of duty at Mare Island, Ellis returned to the Philippines, this time serving as Adjutant of the Second Regiment, then commanded by “Hiking Hiram” Bearss.  Promoted to captain in 1908, his new commander, John A. Lejeune, commanding the Fourth Brigade, assigned Ellis as a company commander.  After Ellis attempted to liven up a boring dinner party by shooting water glasses sitting on the dinner table; Lejeune returned Ellis to administrative duties.

Ellis again reported to the Navy Yard in Washington for duty in May 1911, requesting assignment to aviation duty shortly thereafter.  Then Commandant William Biddle suggested that he attend the Naval War College instead.  After completing the year-long course, the Naval War College sought to retain Ellis on their staff of lecturers.  Ellis subsequently served as an intelligence officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, serving under then Colonel George Barnett.  He was particularly engaged in the planning of exercises involving the new Advance Base Force.  Barnett rated Ellis high in this assignment.

In February 1914, Barnett became the Commandant of the Marine Corps and soon thereafter, appointed Ellis to the joint Army-Navy Board to study the Defense of Guam.  After the outbreak of World War I, it was common to sight German and Japanese warships operating in the Marianas Islands.  This became a concern to Ellis.  In March, the Marine Corps assigned Ellis to the staff of Guam’s governor designate, Captain William J. Maxwell, USN; Ellis’ duties included that of staff secretary, intelligence officer, and chief of police.  It was at this time that Ellis began to display outward signs of acute alcoholism.

Captain Ellis returned once more to the Navy Yard Washington to assume duty as one of the Commandant’s aide-de-camps.  Colonel John Lejeune, who served as an assistant to the Commandant, had Ellis assigned to his staff.  In August 1916, the Marine Corps promoted Ellis to major —one-week before US involvement in World War I.  Barnett initially disapproved Ellis’ request for duty with combat forces, assigning him instead to help establish a new Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia where he also served as an officer instructor at the school for commissioned officers.

Barnett, who had persuaded the Secretary of War to involve the Marines in World War I, dispatched the Fifth Marines to join the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).  When the War Department additionally ordered the Sixth Marines to France, Colonel Lejeune received orders to join the AEF and he took Major Ellis with him.  Colonel Lejeune discovered the AEF somewhat of a mess.  Upon arrival, Lejeune found himself attached to the 64th Brigade, 32nd Division.  Ellis’ initial assignment was as Adjutant, Wisconsin National Guard; he was later assigned to a French division.  Lejeune was able to persuade Pershing to form a Marine Brigade around the Fifth and Sixth Regiments under his command; when approved, Ellis became the Brigade Adjutant.  When Lejeune later assumed command of the Second US Division, he assigned Ellis the additional duty of Division Inspector.  Major Ellis is credited with the planning of the St. Mihiel (Champagne) Offensive, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and the attack and capture of Mont Blanc.  Senior officers attributed the success of these operations to Ellis’ brilliance in planning, aggressive tactics, his personal courage, and his resourcefulness under demanding conditions.  Brigadier General Wendell Neville recommended Ellis for accelerated promotion to full colonel.  While Ellis never saw that promotion, he did receive the Navy Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de Guerre, and Legion d’honneur Chevalier.

Ellis returned to the United States in November 1919.  Within a few months, however, Ellis found himself hospitalized with diagnoses of deep depression, delirium, and neurasthenia —all of which stemmed from his acute alcoholism.  In these days, the Marine Corps was much like a fraternal organization.  Most officers knew one another on a personal basis.  Additionally, military authority did not recognize alcoholism as a serious disease; it was, rather, seen as something of a character flaw.  It was a condition prompting friends and superiors alike to cover up the problem.  Foremost among these friends of Pete Ellis was John A. Lejeune, who had been covering up for Ellis since his shooting demonstration in the Philippines.

Medical authorities returned Ellis to full duty in April 1920 and within a few weeks, Ellis reported to Brigadier General Logan Feland in Santo Domingo where Ellis helped to form the Guardia Nacional.  It was a short-lived assignment, for within a few months, both Feland and Ellis received orders to report to Marine Corps headquarters.  Lejeune assigned Ellis to head the intelligence section within the Division of Operations and Training.

During this assignment, Ellis prepared an essay regarding the details of military and civil operations required while eradicating subversives and insurgents.  He titled his report “Bush Brigades,” and although later printed in the Marine Corps Gazette (March, 1921), its controversial nature caused authorities to initially pigeonhole the document.

Toward the end of 1920, General Lejeune and his senior staff began to focus on contingency war plans in the event of hostilities in the Pacific against Imperial Japan.  Revising War Plan Orange, which implemented the study of the Marine Corps’ role in amphibious operations, Major Ellis produced the prophetic document titled, Operation Plan 712: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia.  The underlying notion here was that in the event of hostilities between the United States and Japan, Marine Corps Advanced Base Forces would support the United States Naval Fleet.

The Territory of Hawaii constituted the only support for the U. S. Navy due to a lack of adequate facilities in the Philippines and Guam.  Ellis was convinced that Hawaii would become a primary target for Japanese attack.  Moreover, Japan had already occupied the Marshall, Caroline, and Palau Islands[3], which flanked the US lines of communication in the region by more than 2,300 miles.  Ellis concluded that Japan would initiate the war, and furthermore, that Japan would remain close to their own territorial waters until encountered by the United States Fleet.  Along with these predictions, Ellis anticipated great losses to the Marine forces during an amphibious assault.  He advised war planners to avoid blue-water transfers, suggesting instead finalization of task force arrangements before leaving base ports.

Major Ellis concluded:

  • A major fleet action will decide the war in the Pacific
  • The US Fleet will be 25% superior to that of the enemy
  • The enemy will hold his main fleet within his own defensive line
  • Preliminary activities of the US fleet must be accomplished with a minimum of assets
  • Marine Corps forces must be self-sustaining
  • Long, drawn out operations must be avoided to afford the fleet its greatest protection
  • Fleet objectives must include adequate anchorage
Ellis 002

In April 1921, Lieutenant Colonel Ellis submitted an official request to the Commandant of the Marine Corps to conduct a clandestine reconnaissance mission to the Central Pacific.  At the same time, he submitted his undated resignation, in order to prevent embarrassment to the United States should his operation turn out to be a less than completely clandestine affair.  Shortly afterward, Ellis was back in the hospital for additional treatment.

On 4 May 1921, Acting Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., approved Ellis’ request —but this was not a simple matter of giving Ellis a thumbs up.  By this time, Ellis was a highly rated American intelligence officer.  Ellis had to convince the entire command structure of the Marine Corps that his was a worthy plan with a high likelihood that the plan could be carried out.  Additionally, the Office of Naval Intelligence had to concur, along with the Chief of Naval Operations.

As part of his cover, Ellis became a sales representative with the Hughes Trading Company, owned by a medically retired Marine officer that Ellis had known since 1902.  Thus cleverly disguised, Ellis visited relatives in Kansas, proceeded to San Francisco, and shipped to New Zealand and Australia aboard the American President Lines in May 1921.  He arrived in the Far East in September 1921, and was again hospitalized in Manila, now adding dysfunctional kidneys to his other alcohol-related issues.

After his hospitalization in Manila, Ellis traveled to Yokohama, Japan where he arranged for authorization to travel to the mandated islands.  Unfortunately, Ellis’ drinking problem was getting worse by the day.  At one point, Ellis disclosed details of his mission to an attending physician in September 1922.  The physician immediately met with the local Naval Attaché, who, acting on the instructions given to him by the Ambassador, ordered Ellis to return to the United States on the next ship.  Ellis ignored these orders, cabled for $1,000 from his pay account, and shipped out for Saipan.

Ellis’ days were by now numbered.  Not only were agents of Naval Intelligence keeping tabs, so too were Japanese intelligence agents.  It is at this point that one should wonder, “Is there anyone in the Far East who did not know what Colonel Ellis was up to?”  From this point on, Japanese officials kept track of his every move.  They no doubt watched him as he prepared detailed maps and charts of Saipan, of the Carolines, Marshalls, Yap, and Palaus.  They followed Mr. Ellis to Kusaie, Jaluit, the Marshals, Kwajalein, Ponape, Celebes, and New Guinea.  While in Koror, Ellis met a Palauan woman whom he married, but the fact is that Ellis was getting worse by the day.

Japanese police were called to investigate a looting in the home of Mr. William Gibbons, a friend of Colonel Ellis.  As it turned out, Ellis looted the man’s home, looking for whiskey.  Later that day, sympathetic Japanese police delivered to Ellis two bottles of American whiskey, which he promptly consumed.  The Japanese knew how to deal with a drunk. The next morning, May 13, 1923, Colonel Ellis was dead and all of his maps, all of his papers were confiscated by Japanese authorities; none of those has ever been seen again.

Normally a story ends with the death of its main character, but not so with the story of Pete Ellis.  In Early July 1923, the U. S. Navy sent Chief Pharmacist Mate Lawrence Zembsch to retrieve Ellis’ body and return it for proper burial in the United States.  Chief Zembsch had previously treated Ellis, so he would be able to positively identify the body.  Chief Zembsch traveled to Palau via Japanese steamer, returning to Yokosuka on August 14, 1923 babbling incoherently.  In his possession was an urn that allegedly contained the remains of Colonel Ellis.  Chief Zembsch had been heavily drugged.  By the end of the month, Zembsch had improved to the point where he could answer questions.  On 1 September 1923, Zembsch’s wife arrived early for her daily visitation.  She intended to stay only until lunch, after which investigators would begin to question Chief Zembsch about his trip to the Palaus.

As Mrs. Zembsch prepared to leave her husband, at 11:42 AM on 1 September 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, transforming the Naval Hospital into a pile of splinters.  Chief Zembsch and his wife perished.  What did remain was a small urn in a security vault of the hospital, a small note taped to the outside reading Ashes of LtCol Earl H. Ellis, USMC, died Palau, 12 May 1923.

Ellis 003

The story of Colonel Pete Ellis is interesting, but also disappointing.  In spite of his brilliance as a planner, he was not a very good spy.  The officers who sent him out to do this kind of work, including one preeminent officer who lectured all Marines about leadership, knew that Ellis was physically and mentally unsuitable for doing it —and yet, he allowed Ellis to proceed.  A Tokyo news dispatch tends to support my proposition: published in mid-May 1923 the report stated, “Colonel Earl Ellis of the United States Marine Corps was accidently killed in a prohibited area of the Caroline Islands.”

Some believed that the whiskey provided to Ellis had been poisoned, including Brother Gregorio Oraquieta, SJ.  He stated that it was his understanding that the Japanese poisoned Ellis while residing on the Palau Islands[4].  The fact is, it probably did not matter whether the Japanese poisoned him.  Lieutenant Colonel Pete Ellis had been a dead-man-walking for a very long time.  Now we must ponder whether this fiasco made the lives of occidentals living under Japanese authority in Micronesia more difficult.

Notes:

[1] My blog-friend friend “Christian Soldier” will positively hate reading this.

[2] “Bug House” is a term used for stir crazy.  Ellis’ comment may be our earliest indication that he was prone to calm his restless spirit with intoxicating liquors.

[3] As a member of the Triple Entente, Japan began to occupy the Northern Marianas in 1914.  At the conclusion of World War I, many formerly German-held islands in the Pacific were entrusted by the League of Nations to Japanese control as the “South Pacific Mandate.”

[4] Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, Thomas E. Devine, Richard M. Dailey, American Traveler Press, 1987