How two young American vice consuls stole back from the Japanese Kempeitai a confidential U.S. diplomatic code seized on the outbreak of the Pacific War
by Niles W. Bond
The author, now retired in Connecticut, began his long and distinguished Foreign Service career in 1939 and was posted to Yokohama in mid-1940. After Pearl Harbor and the events described below, he was repatriated to the United States, reporting in to Washington in mid-1942. Minister Bond was to return to Japan as first secretary in 1950—Ed.
December 7, 1941, dawned sunny and unseasonably warm in Yokohama. To take advantage of this welcome break in the weather, I joined a dozen or so colleagues from the American embassy in Tokyo at a beach house rented by the embassy at Shichirigahama. The tensions under which we had all been living and working during the recent months were set aside for the day in favor of swimming, sunbathing, drinking beer, and playing cards; and, of course, discussing the odds on when and how war would come. On the drive back to Yokohama in the late evening, it occurred to me to be thankful that our dependents, including my wife, had already been evacuated, months before, by the State Department.
About dawn the next morning I was awakened by a phone call from a local American citizen employee of the consulate suggesting that I turn on my radio since there were reports of fighting between Japanese and British forces in Southeast Asia. I got out of bed and switched on my portable short-wave Zenith, already turned to the English language station in Shanghai. The station was as usual playing classical music, so I went into the bathroom to shave.
While I was shaving the music came to an end and an announcer with a British accent began to speak: “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this program to repeat our earlier bulletin as follows, and I quote: ‘Japanese Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo have announced this morning that a state of war exists between the Anglo-American Powers and Japan in the Pacific.’ End of Bulletin. In addition we have received unconfirmed reports that Japanese planes have attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and that attacks are also in progress against British installation in Hong Kong and Malaya. We shall interrupt our program to bring you further bulletins as they are received.”
Obviously there were more important things to be done than finishing my shave. First I woke up the consul general, Irving Linnel, and the senior vice consul, Jule Goetzmann, and passed on the news I had heard. It was agreed that the first order of business was to seek confirmation from the embassy in Tokyo and instructions regarding the emergency measures which would have to be taken. A short time later the consul general came to my apartment to say that it had been impossible to get through to the embassy by phone, a circumstance which of itself seemed to confirm radio reports. He then instructed Jule Goetzmann and me to begin destruction of the consulate’s secret files, leaving until last the classified codes which might be required to decipher last-minute instructions from the embassy or the State Department. The next hour, which proved to be all of the time available, we spent hastily burning secret files in the incinerator in the garden.
Shortly after 8 A.M., while the destruction of secret files was still going on, a detachment of approximately twenty uniformed officers and men of the Japanese Kempeitai (roughly comparable to the German SS) arrived to take over the consulate. Unburned files were hastily stuffed under shirts for later disposal, but it was too late to do anything about the code books, which were still locked in a safe in the consul general’s office.
The staff and employees of the consulate were peremptorily ordered to assemble in the main reception area of the office where the major in command of the guard detachment proceeded to lay down the law. The staff of the consulate, he said, were now prisoners of the Japanese, a fact which we would do well not to forget. For reasons of military convenience, however, we would be interned in our own compound, with Kempeitai guards on duty twenty-four hours a day inside the building, inside the compound, and outside its walls. The Japanese servants and other Japanese employees of the consulate who had arrived for work were dismissed at once, with no opportunity for farewells.
The major then began his inspection of the consulate, accompanied by the consul general and his staff. As he moved through the offices the major demanded that all safes and filing cabinets be opened for his inspection. He removed nothing, however, merely looking and then closing them again under Kempeitai seals. When the large safe in the consul general’s office was opened for him, he confirmed with evident satisfaction the presence of the code books, after which he affixed the Kempeitai seal to the closed safe. In the consulate living quarters the major ordered the confiscation of all radios and writing materials.
During the initial weeks of internment, with no word from the outside world beyond that provided by an occasional Japanese newspaper discarded by the guards, my colleagues and I had ample time to worry and plenty to worry about. While we lived with a constant concern about the progress of the war and a chronic unease concerning the total absence of information on possible plans for our own repatriation, these were at least problems which we felt we were powerless to affect. A more immediate concern, and one about which we thought we might still be able to do something, was the fate of the confidential codes locked up by the Japanese under the Kempeitai seal in the consul general’s safe. We knew that the Japanese might remove them at any moment and were amazed that, so far as we knew, they had not already done so.
Although we had been worrying about this problem since the day of our internment, we had not yet been able to gain access to the safe. There were two possible ways of entering the consul general’s office, which had, however, been taken over by the Kempeitai as a billet for one of the guard detachments. The other was through a corridor leading to the upstairs living quarters. This door was kept locked at all times, and the corridor was patrolled at irregular intervals. My vice consul colleague and I had made it a regular practice, when passing that way to and from our quarters, to try the door whenever we could do so without being observed.
One night in January 1942, returning rather late from the consul general’s quarters at the other end of the building, we discovered that the door had not been completely closed. We then went upstairs to our quarters to work out a plan. At about 2 A.M., after lighting a fire in an upstairs fireplace, we crept downstairs in stocking feet, found the door still ajar, and silently entered the consul general’s office. We knew that we should have to work in almost total silence, since the safe was just inside the door beyond which the off-duty guards were sleeping. Working by the light of matches, while listening for sounds of stirring on the other side of the door, we manipulated the combination, disengaged the lock, and breaking the seal, slowly swung open the heavy door. After removing the two classified code books we carefully swung the door shut, engaged the lock which slipped into place with what seemed to us a heart-stopping clank, and spun the dial. After listening for a few seconds and hearing no sounds from outside we crept out the door, closing it quietly but securely behind us, and up the stairs.
What remained of the night we spent in the tedious task of burning, a few pages at a time, the two voluminous books. Shortly before dawn, having reduced the hundreds of pages of cryptographic material to ashes, we poured ourselves a stiff drink, drank a toast to our night’s work, and went to bed.
Not long after sunrise, almost before I had a chance to get to sleep, I was rousted out of bed by the sergeant of the guard and taken downstairs to where the major was waiting. A few seconds later my colleague Jule was led in. The major took us into the consul general’s office, pointed to the broken seal on the safe, and asked if we knew anything about it. When we nodded the major ordered us to open the safe. Once it was open and he saw the empty space where the code books had been, he demanded that the books be returned to him at once. My colleague replied that they had already been destroyed and offered to show the major the ashes. The major, in a rage probably fueled as much by fear for his own head as anything, drew his sword and demanded an explanation.
Recalling a discussion we had had the night before while burning the codes, Goetzmann and I, in an inelegant mixture of English and Japanese, endeavored to explain the destruction of the codes in terms of Bushido, the traditional Samurai code of loyalty and honor. We pointed out that Americans too had such a code of conduct and tradition of loyalty which demanded that they risk their lives to protect their country, in this case by protecting its codes. My colleague then asked the major what he would have done in the same situation.
The major slowly sheathed his sword, drew himself to attention, and then quietly began to weep as he left the room. From that moment on nothing more was heard from the Japanese about the incident—or about the major, whom we never saw again.
Republished by permission of Min. Bond and Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired (DACOR), from the latter’s Web page http://dacorbacon.org/.
Niles W. Bond, born in Massachusetts, earned degrees at the Univ. of N. C.-Chapel Hill and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In addition, he spent a year at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs.