Secret Agent 711

Some Background

In August 1775, following hostilities between the colonists and British troops in Massachusetts, King George III declared the American colonies in rebellion.  The declaration prompted Congress to assemble a Continental Army under General George Washington.  Ten months later, in June 1776, Richard Henry Lee proposed a Congressional resolution calling for independence from Great Britain.

As the independence movement gained momentum, Congress convened a five-member committee to write a formal public statement to justify its declaration of independence.  Committee members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson authored the first draft, and after making a few suggested changes, a second draft was submitted to Congress on 28 June 1776.[1]  Congress debated the proposed resolution on 1 July.  Two states opposed the resolution, two more signaled indecision, and New York abstained.  Delaware broke the tie vote the next day, and the two states that opposed the resolution shifted to favor it.  The final vote on 2 July was 12 to 0 in favor.

After the vote, a few members of Congress wanted yet another look at the resolution, which resulted in further modifications.  Congress approved the final draft on 4 July 1776.  The Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America went to press on 5 July.  Congress ordered 200 copies.  On 8 July, the declaration was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia.  New York agreed to support the statement on 9 July.  The official “original” was signed on 19 July, except that some members were absent, so the signing continued as the remaining members became available until 2 August.

No one in Congress celebrated the Declaration of Independence.  The mood was subdued; everyone understood that they had performed an act of high treason, and everyone realized the punishment for high treason was death.  Benjamin Rush later recalled that as congressional representatives signed the document, everyone believed they were signing their own death warrant. 

We celebrate our Independence Day on 4 July.  One day prior, British General Sir William Howe led the British Army ashore on Staten Island, New York; the hostilities that had begun in Massachusetts continued as part of the New York and New Jersey Campaign (July 1776-March 1777).  Howe drove Washington’s Continentals out of New York but erred by over-extending his reach into New Jersey.  General Howe could not exert complete control over both.  The best he could do and did do was maintain control of New York harbor.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

General Washington

General Washington was unable to hold New York, but neither was he finished with Howe.  Throughout his failed campaign, Washington received unsolicited intelligence reports from individual patriots.  After evacuating the Continental Army from Brooklyn Heights, General Washington asked William Heath and George Clinton to set up “a channel of information” on Long Island. 

Heath and Clinton began looking for volunteers for clandestine operations.  One of these volunteers was Captain Nathan Hale.[2]  Soon after signing on for secret service, the somewhat full of himself Hale traveled to New York City under an assumed name.  Unfortunately, not everyone is well-suited for espionage; Nathan Hale was one of these.  The British quickly unmasked Hale and almost as speedily executed him for high treason.

General Washington learned a valuable lesson from Hale’s execution, not the least of which was that for a secret mission to succeed — well, it must remain secret.  He also learned that volunteer spies simply wouldn’t do.  What he needed was a well-organized, discreet, professionally managed “secret service.”

After Hale’s execution, which historians claim deeply affected Washington, he decided that civilian spies would be less likely to attract attention than military officers.  Washington turned to William Duer to recommend someone to lead this effort in New York City.  Duer recommended Nathaniel Sackett.  However, Sackett was hesitant to take risks, and his intelligence (though worthy in some instances) took too long to produce.  Washington soon replaced Sackett with Captain Benjamin Tallmadge, Hale’s classmate at Yale.

In early 1777, Colonel Elias Dayton of the New Jersey Militia established a spy network on Staten Island.[3]  Colonel Dayton’s system eventually tied in with another, known as the Mersereau Ring.[4]

Following their victory at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, the British occupied the city of Philadelphia on 26th September.  General Washington thereafter focused much of his espionage efforts within the city of Philadelphia.  Washington recruited Major John Clark, a wounded/recovering veteran of the Battle of Brandywine, to accomplish this.

In August 1778, Lieutenant Caleb Brewster of Norwalk, Connecticut, volunteered to provide General Washington with intelligence.  Washington found Brewster’s initial report quite helpful, so to expand Brewster’s usefulness, Washington appointed General Charles Scott as Brewster’s handler and tasked him to find additional spies, if possible.  Captain Tallmadge became General Scott’s principal assistant.  As it happened, both Tallmadge and Brewster were acquainted with Abraham Woodhull of Setauket (Long Island); Tallmadge suggested that Brewster recruit Woodhull to help channel information through the network.

Abe Woodhull was probably an ideal spy because he was a convicted smuggler.  Tallmadge may have reasoned that if the British suspected Woodhull of smuggling, it was unlikely that they would also suspect him of espionage.  Woodhull was in prison when Tallmadge made him the offer: his freedom in exchange for working for Tallmadge.  Once Woodhull agreed to the arrangement, Washington arranged his release from prison with Governor Jonathan Trumbull.  To protect Woodhull’s identity, Tallmadge gave him an alias: Samuel Culper, Sr.

Tallmadge and Scott had differing views about the best way to run an espionage ring.  Scott preferred single-mission agents — men he could send out on a mission, afterward returning to Scott with a full report, and whom he could then assign to subsequent missions.  Captain Tallmadge had a different idea: he wanted stabilized agents to collect information and pass it along (via courier) to Scott’s headquarters.  Both methods were effective, and both ways were hazardous.

After Scott lost sixty percent of his “single mission” agents, whom the British captured and executed, General Washington reasoned that since Tallmadge had not lost a single agent, his method of collecting and transmitting secret information was “best.”  When General Scott resigned his post, Washington replaced him with Tallmadge.

Woodhull/Culper proved his ability in October 1778 by providing Washington with valuable information about British activities in Philadelphia.  To assist him, Woodhull recruited his brother-in-law, Amos Underhill.  Underhill and his wife Mary (Woodhull’s sister) ran a boarding house and pub catering to British soldiers.  British soldiers do two things very well: they drink a lot, and they talk a lot.  Underhill’s initial problem was that Washington thought his initial reports were too vague.  It wasn’t enough to listen to what the British soldiers had to say; Washington expected Underhill to validate what they said, as well.

The process of conveying information to Brewster was dangerous, complex, and time-consuming.  When Brewster had information for Tallmadge, it was hand-carried from Staten Island to Setauket and then from Setauket to Tallmadge’s headquarters at Fairfield, Connecticut — a distance of 188 miles, 30 of it across Long Island Sound.  To accomplish this feat, Woodhull recruited two couriers: Jonas Hawkins and Austin Roe.  Their task was to carry messages between Woodhull and Brewster.  It was up to Brewster to deliver messages to Tallmadge.  Crossing the Long Island Sound in a small boat was no easy task.  Brewster had six “drop” sites.

Mary Underhill (who some claim was actually Anna Strong) assisted her husband by posting pre-arranged signals to indicate which spies had information to submit.  For example, if Mary hung a black petticoat on her wash line, Brewster had arrived in town.  If she hung up some quantity of handkerchiefs on her clothesline, it told the courier which of Brewster’s six drops the information was to go.  Is this true?  We aren’t sure, but it does indicate how intricate the spy network was (and had to be).

The British were many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.  The British knew about Washington’s spying campaign.  They suspected Abraham Woodhull, Amos, and Mary Underhill, and they were keen to capture General Scott.  The British knew; the Americans knew that the British knew, and this made American spycraft all the more difficult because the British didn’t need indisputable proof of high treason.  Reasonable suspicion would be enough to send a spy to the gallows.

Everyone in Setauket with a role in Washington’s spy network became nervous when the British arrested John Wolsey, a known smuggler, and a master of self-preservation.  Sure enough, John Wolsey made a deal with the British.  In exchange for his liberty, he agreed to tell what he knew about Abraham Woodhull.  As it turned out, however, all Wolsey knew about Woodhull was something he’d overheard a lobsterback say … which was that Woodhull was suspected of being involved in a spying ring.

John Graves Simcoe

Wisely, Abe Woodhull was a cautious man who realized that he was operating on borrowed time.  With men like Wolsey running his gob, Woodhull was prudent to worry about his safety.  British Colonel John Graves Simcoe led his Queen’s Rangers to Setauket to look for Woodhull, who at the time was in New York.[5]  In the process of looking for Woodhull, Simcoe arrested his father, Judge Richard Woodhull, and had him tortured, inflicting him with grievous injuries to obtain information about his son.  A loyalist militia officer, Benjamin Floyd, who was married to a member of the Woodhull family, vouched for Abraham, which gave Simcoe pause in his investigation.  Subsequently, Woodhull conveyed to Tallmadge that he was not able to continue operating as a Continental spy.

In a letter to Tallmadge in late June, General Washington suggested considering Mr. George Higday as a possible replacement for Woodhull.  Unhappily for Higday, the British intercepted Washington’s letter, which prompted Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s raid into Tallmadge’s camp.[6]  Tarleton captured several documents, all confirming what the British already knew: Washington had spies.   Mr. Higday’s espionage career was over before it began.

Tarleton’s raid also convinced Abraham Woodhull that his early decision to retire was a wise and prudent course of action.  However, before his retirement, Woodhull did manage to recruit a new spy, a man named Robert Townsend.  Mr. Townsend’s alias was Samuel Culper, Jr.

Robert Townsend had several reasons for joining Washington’s spy network.  He was first of all motivated by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense.[7]  He was also put off by British harassment of his family (because of their religious affiliation) — and because Abraham Woodhull was an excellent salesman.  As a devoted Quaker, Townsend could not participate as a soldier. Ordinarily, this belief system might have also prevented him from joining the spy network. Still, a schism between religious and political Quakers (aided by Paine) pushed Townsend into the “political camp.”[8]  There was one more provocation: Colonel Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers seized the Townsend home and converted it into his headquarters.

Mr. Townsend was a businessman.  He owned a trade goods store and a coffee shop in partnership with Mr. James Rivington.  Mr. Rivington was the publisher of a loyalist newspaper, and Mr. Townsend was one of his regular journalists.  As a merchant, coffee shop owner, and reporter, Townsend had access to numerous British officers and NCOs and their places of patronage.  As a contributor to a loyalist newspaper, Townsend had credibility within loyalist society — such that British loyalists were happy to talk to him.  Both Townsend and Rivington formed the core elements of the Culper Ring in New York City.

Despite the stress of espionage, which produced strained relations within the Culper Ring, the effort produced more information than any other American or British intelligence network during the war.  American espionage focused on British troop movements, fortifications, and operational plans.  For example, the Culper Ring foiled British plans to ambush the French in Rhode Island.  Arguably, this information saved the Franco-American alliance.  Culper also uncovered the correspondence between Benedict Arnold and British Major John Andre, General Clinton’s chief intelligence officer.

To clarify what General Washington wanted from the Culper Ring, he provided them with specific instructions (see a special note below).

Townsend wasted little time energizing his spy activity.  Nine days after accepting Woodhull’s “offer of employment,” Townsend reported that two divisions of British infantry were preparing for an expedition to Connecticut.  In 1780, Townsend discovered a plot by British officials to ruin the American economy by circulating counterfeit currency.  He reported that the British hierarchy was optimistic about an imminent end to the war.  Townsend’s timely reporting permitted Congress to recall all of its money then in circulation.

Throughout his employment, Townsend remained suspicious of everyone and every circumstance.  To safeguard the identity of his spies, Tallmadge utilized several protective measures.  In addition to pseudonyms, Tallmadge also developed a system consisting of seven-hundred sixty-three numbers.  The number 745 represented England; 727 for New York; Robert Townsend was 723, and so forth.

Robert Townsend’s conduct of spycraft was both astute and sensible.  How sensible?  How good was Townsend at keeping secrets?  Townsend died on 7 March 1838.  He was 84 years old.  When he died, he took everything he knew about the Culper Ring with him.  What we know of Robert Townsend was only revealed in 1930 by American historian Morton Pennypacker.  Not even General Washington knew the identities of his spies.

And none of his spies knew that General Washington was Agent 711.

Sources:

  1. Rose, A.  Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.  Penguin Books/Random House, 2014.

Special Note:

General Washington’s Instructions:

  1. Culper Junior, to remain in the City, to collect all the useful information he can — to do this, he should mix as much as possible among the officers and refugees, visit the coffee houses, and all public places. He is to pay particular attention to the movements by land and water in and about the city especially.  How their transports are secured against an attempt to destroy them — whether by armed vessels upon the flanks, or by chains, booms, or any contrivances to keep off fire rafts.
  2. The number of men destined for the defense of the City and environs, endeavoring to designate the particular corps, and where each is posted.
  3. To be particular in describing the place where the works cross the island in the rear of the City-and how many redoubts are upon the line from the river to river, how many Cannon in each, and of what weight and whether the redoubts are closed or open next the city.
  4. Whether there are any works upon the Island of New York between those near the City and the works at Fort Knyphausen or Washington, and if any, whereabouts and of what kind.
  5. To be very particular to find out whether any works are thrown up on Harlem River, near Harlem Town, and whether Horn’s Hook is fortified. If so, how many men are kept at each place, and what number and what sized cannon are in those works.
  6. To enquire whether they have dug pits within and in front of the lines and works in general, three or four feet deep, in which sharp pointed stakes are pointed. These are intended to receive and wound men who attempt a surprise at night.
  7. The state of the provisions, forage and fuel to be attended to, as also the health and spirits of the Army, Navy and City.
  8. These are the principal matters to be observed within the Island and about the City of New York. Many more may occur to a person of C. Junr’s penetration which he will note and communicate.
  9. Culper Senior’s station to be upon Long Island to receive and transmit the intelligence of Culper Junior …
  10. There can be scarcely any need of recommending the greatest caution and secrecy in a business so critical and dangerous. The following seem to be the best general rules: To entrust none but the persons fixed upon to transmit the business. To deliver the dispatches to none upon our side but those who shall be pitched upon for the purpose of receiving them and to transmit them and any intelligence that may be obtained to no one but the Commander-in-Chief.

Endnotes:

[1] The declaration took the form of a grand jury indictment — allegations not proven, and many that history proves were not even true.  In modern times, one popular axiom is that it’s possible to indict a ham sandwich and such was the case of America’s “indictment” of King George II.  The colonist’s real problem, aside from King George insisting on his prerogatives as Great Britain’s king, was the British Parliament, but since a government legislative body cannot be indicted, Jefferson and other members of Congress decided to make their point by indicting the King.

[2] Hale came from a prominent Connecticut family.  He began his education at Yale at the age of 14, attended classes with Benjamin Tallmadge, and figured rather prominently in the college’s debating society.  He graduated with honors in 1773 at the age of 18 years.  When the British executed Hale, he was 21 years old.

[3] Later, Revolutionary War brigadier general, mayor of Elizabethtown, and member of the New Jersey General Assembly.  He was the father of Jonathan, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.

[4] Started in December 1776, this operation focused on intelligence gathering in New Brunswick and New York.  John Mersereau was the primary supervisor of this effort.

[5] Simcoe, from Cornwall, was the only child in his family to survive into adulthood.  He entered British military service in 1770, participating in the Siege of Boston, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia campaigns.  Tradition holds that Simcoe, in ordering his men not to fire on three withdrawing Continental officers, saved George Washington’s life.  He later served as Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor and was responsible for founding Toronto and for establishing Canada’s judicial system (1791-96).

[6] Contrary to how Mel Gibson portrayed him in the fictional film The Patriot, Tarleton was not so much of a scoundrel as he was a fighter.  He never burned down a South Carolina church filled with parishioners, but he did threaten to torch the home of General Charles Lee of New Jersey unless he surrendered to Tarleton’s authority.  At the Battle of Waxhaw, the 22-year-old captain, commanding provincial cavalry, assaulted a superior force of Continentals under Colonel Abraham Buford.  Buford refused to surrender despite the fact that Tarleton gave him that opportunity on two occasions.  With Buford’s refusal, Tarleton’s force of 149 troops attacked Buford incessantly, killing 113 Americans, wounding 203, and taking prisoners of those left alive when Buford finally agreed to surrender.  The Americans called it a massacre; it was no such thing.  It was war.  Tarleton was not the butcher revisionists have claimed.

[7] Paine argued that any Quaker who believed in pacifism at any price was not a true Quaker.

[8] Religious Quakers were among the strongest supporters of the British during the revolutionary war period. 


Naval Intelligence — Agents of Change

The early days

By 1861, America’s military traditions were already well established.  When America needed an armed force, it recruited one.  When the United States no longer needed an armed force, they disbanded it.  In the minds of our founding fathers, there was no reason to maintain a standing military force.  Why?  Because in the experience of American colonists, the British used its standing army to enforce tyrannical edicts from the Parliament.[1]

By 1875, a decade after the end of the American Civil War, the United States Navy had deteriorated due to the neglect of Congress and the Navy’s senior leadership.  The Navy’s ships were rusting away, its officers had grown apathetic and unprofessional, and (when compared to the other significant navies of the world — Britain, France, Russia, Japan) the US Navy appeared in last place.  It took the United States government another five years to realize that the condition of the Navy demanded a national discussion.  One of the young officers to lead this discussion was Lieutenant Theodorus B. M. Mason.  He was one of the Navy’s early agents of change.

Born in New York in 1848, Theodorus came from a distinguished family.  His father was a prominent attorney and a former colonel in the U. S. Army during the Civil War.  His uncle was Rear Admiral Theodorus Baily.  He adopted Mason’s surname in deference to his maternal grandfather Sidney, who had no male heirs to carry on the family name.

Mason graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1868.  He was known for his intellect, his linguistic ability, and his foresight.  After serving with the Navy’s hydrographic office, he traveled extensively in Europe and South America as a naval observer charged with collecting information about foreign navies.[2]  Mason knew what information was available and how to obtain it. He recognized that for the U. S. Navy to compete with foreign navies, the United States would have to develop capacities in naval science and technology.  Mason became convinced that the U. S. Navy would require a unified intelligence agency to gather, analyze, catalog, and disseminate foreign naval developments to achieve modernization.

From the report, Mason wrote of his travels and discoveries, William H. Hunt, the Secretary of the Navy, on 23 March 1882, directed the establishment of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) with the Bureau of Navigation.[3]  Hunt appointed Mason as its first director.  Mason assumed his new post, Chief Intelligence Officer, in June 1882.  The Navy assigned him to a small office in what was once known as the State, War, and Navy Building, which is now the Old Executive Office Building.

Initially, the heads of the various sections of the Bureau of Navigation paid Mason little mind.  He was a comparatively junior officer, a lieutenant, and the ONI was a fledgling undertaking.  However, Mason began providing information that the various bureaus could use to justify the funds needed to expand and modernize the Navy.

His primary work, however, may not seem like much of an accomplishment today.  Titled Information from Abroad: The War on the Pacific Coast of South America Between Chile and the Allied Republics of Peru and Bolivia, 1879-81, Mason’s work in 1883 was little more than a chronology of events incorporating his and the observations of other naval officers on a singular event.  After 77 pages, Mason concluded, “Since the fall of Lima, there has been no battle of importance; many skirmishes have taken place between portions of the army of occupation and small bodies of Peruvians.  There has also been a large amount of diplomatic maneuvering, which, although belonging to history, conveys no lesson of value to the naval or military student.”

The Navy transferred Lieutenant Mason to other duties three years later, replacing him with Lieutenant Raymond P. Rodgers in April 1885.  In January 1894, the Navy promoted Mason to lieutenant commander and retired him due to ill-health in December.

The War Years

It wasn’t until 1916 when Congress authorized the first significant expansion of ONI, an increase in funding to support domestic security operations in advance of World War I.  Two years into the war, Congress was finally convinced that someone should be looking after America’s ports, harbors, and defense plants.  Germany, by then, had embarked on a significant spying operation in the United States, and subversion and sabotage had become a valid concern.  ONI worked closely with the Departments of State,  War, Justice, Commerce, and Labor to help prevent unauthorized disclosure of sensitive defense information.  The number of ONI agents employed to accomplish such a feat was undoubtedly substantial.

ONI agents continued their counter-intelligence investigations throughout World War II — a mission assigned to its Special Activities Branch.  ONI also expanded its efforts to discover critical intelligence on German submarine operations, tactics, and technologies.  Most of this information came from interrogations of captured German submariners.  Within this period, ONI produced thousands of ship and aircraft recognition manuals for front-line forces.  Also initiated during this period was a sophisticated photo-interpretation effort and a related topographical model section that aided in the planning for combat operations by amphibious planners of the Navy, Army, and Marine Corps.  ONI also established two schools for the training of fleet intelligence officers.

In 1945, the Navy began hiring civilian scientists and technologists to guide advancements in a wide range of fields.  The Sound Surveillance System, acoustic intelligence, the Navy Scientific and Technical Intelligence Center, and the Navy Reconnaissance and Technical Support Center came from this effort.

In 1946, ONI established the Office of Operational Intelligence.  This particular office inherited the mission of the Navy’s Combat Intelligence Division, created by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King during World War II.  Its “Special Section,” known as Y1, evolved from the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean area (JICPOA) that successfully operated against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War.

After World War II (faced with ongoing budget cuts), the ONI returned to its somewhat abbreviated peacetime mission.  This changed with the beginning of the Korean War in 1950.  ONI began a significant buildup of special agents whose principal mission was the security of Naval facilities and personnel and criminal investigations involving Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

In 1957, ONI incorporated a signals intelligence effort under the Navy’s Field Operational Intelligence section.  This group provided real-time information about the disposition of foreign naval and military forces during the Cold War.

In 1966, a special investigative unit was formed and named the Naval Investigative Service (NIS).  NIS became the primary investigative agency of the Department of the Navy for counter-intelligence and criminal activities.  In 1982, NIS assumed responsibility for the Navy’s Law Enforcement and Physical Security mission.  Following the Beirut bombing in 1983, NIS established the Navy Anti-terrorist Alert Center.  One notable employee of ATAC was a civilian analyst named Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.  Pollard was released from prison in 2015 and now lives in Israel.

Following the so-called “Tailhook Scandal” in 1991 (with pressure from the Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee (Senator Sam Nunn)), the Naval Investigative Service was re-named Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).  It concurrently became a federal law enforcement agency under civilian leadership within the Department of the Navy.

Post-Cold War

Between 1988-93, ONI joined the U. S. Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center and the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity supporting domestic maritime and expeditionary and littoral intelligence collection missions.  This newest facility is called the National Maritime Intelligence Center.  In 2009, the Chief of Naval Operations directed the transformation of ONI into a major naval command which included four subordinate components: scientific and technical intelligence, operational intelligence, information services technology, and expeditionary/special warfare intelligence support.

The Navy’s intelligence mission is evolving, providing critical support to national and global governments and industrial partners.  In 2016, the “Information Warfare Community,” which operates under the supervision of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, became the Navy’s primary conduit for global information systems.  Its primary function is command and control systems, battlespace and adversary management, and power projection.  It is an effort that employs around 52,000 military, civilian, and civilian contract employees in warfare, cryptographic, meteorological, and oceanographic disciplines.  Today, there are five separate organizations within the Office of Naval Intelligence: The Nimitz Operation Intelligence Center, Farragut Technical Analysis Center, Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center, Hopper Information Services Center, and the Brooks Center for Maritime Engagement.

The Office of Naval Intelligence is not without its critics, however.  Those who suspect the existence of a “deep state” within the U. S. government point to former ONI officer Robert Woodward and his journalistic sidekick Carl Bernstein as willing participants of a deep-state plot organized to bring down President Richard Nixon in the so-called Watergate Affair.  If true, it may have been the first time that manufactured materials targeted high-ranking US officials.  Such accusations are easier made than proved, which goes to the secrecy of official intelligence operations and ONI’s long involvement in domestic spying operations.

Giving some credence to the concerns of “deep state” theorists, in the aftermath of President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Director of Naval Intelligence recently warned active duty and retired military personnel that any criticism made by them toward the President of the United States, Vice President, cabinet officials, and members of congress may subject them to court-martial proceedings for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and a warning to civilian employees that they may be censored pursuant to Department of Defense Instruction 1344.10.  It is enough to cause one to wonder how far the role of ONI now extends into matters of America’s Constitutional guarantee of expressing personal opinions.

I have no answers.

Sources:

  1. O’Brien, P. P.  British, and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936.  Greenwood, 1998. 
  2. “Our Heritage,” The Office of Naval Intelligence online.

Endnotes:


[1] After the revolutionary war, Congress disbanded America’s land and naval forces.  At the end of World War I, the United States demobilized the US armed forces.  President Truman ordered the demobilization of the armed forces in 1946.  Truman saw the error of his ways in late June 1950 when the United States came within a hair’s width of being physically thrown off the Korean Peninsula.

[2] Hydrographic is the study and process of measuring the physical characteristics of waters and marginal land

[3] Secretary Hunt served only briefly as Secretary of the Navy, under President James Garfield.  His one enduring achievement, beyond creating the ONI, was a Naval Advisory Board, which he tasked with reviewing and evaluating suggestions for rebuilding the U. S. Navy.  It wasn’t until 1915 that Secretary Josephus Daniels established a permanent advisory board — a suggestion by famed inventor Thomas A. Edison.  

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
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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