Japanese War Fighters, Remembering Pearl Harbor Seventy Years Ago Today


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Japanese War Fighters, Remembering Pearl Harbor Seventy Years Ago Today

By Daniel Baxter

December 7, 2011 - Seventy years ago today on December 7, 1941, a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor took the lives of more than 2,400 Americans, stunning the nation and catapulting it into war. For the FBI, the attack and the onset of war opened a new chapter in national security.  

Even as Japanese bombs rained down, FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Shivers in Honolulu was patched through via telephone to Director J. Edgar Hoover, who immediately put the Bureau on a 24/7 wartime footing according to its already well-made plans.

In the days and months that followed, the FBI diligently and successfully worked to protect the American homeland from spies and saboteurs, building important new capabilities along the way.

On December 7, 1941, as bombs fell on American battleships at Pearl Harbor, Robert L. Shivers, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Honolulu office, was on the phone. Headquarters relayed his anxious call to New York, where Director Hoover was visiting. "The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor. It's war," Shivers said. "You may be able to hear it yourself. Listen!

Director Hoover immediately flew back to Washington, mindful of the plans that his agency had made for this eventuality. Some 2,400 brave U.S. sailors had already died in the early hours of that fateful Sunday. The attack was a surprise; that Japan was readying war against America was not. Contingency plans had been made throughout the U.S. government, and they were immediately implemented to ensure American security in the weeks, months, and years after the surprise attack. 

And what about FBI plans? What had the Bureau set in place in the event of war? It had made the investigation of sabotage, espionage, and subversion a top priority and agents made surveys of industrial plants that were vital to American security in order to prevent sabotage and espionage. It had expanded its intelligence programs, including undercover work in South and Central America to identify Nazi spies.  

The FBI had performed and continued to perform exhaustive background checks on federal workers, to keep enemy agents from infiltrating the government. It had been directed to draw up plans for a voluntary board, turned over to and headed by a newspaperman, to review media stories in order to prevent information from being released that might harm American troops. Mindful of free speech protections, this independent board operated with the voluntary cooperation of the media.


It had expanded the number of professionally trained police through its National Academy program to aid the Bureau in times of crisis. This cadre of professionals effectively forestalled well-meaning but overzealous civilian plans to "help" law enforcement with vigilantism. The FBI had learned a lesson from World War I when groups like the American Protective League abused the civil rights of Americans in its efforts to identify German spies, draft resisters, and other threats.

And it had identified German, Italian, and Japanese aliens who posed a clear threat to the United States in the event of war so that when President Roosevelt ordered it?and he did, on the evening of December 7?the Bureau could immediately arrest these enemies and present them to immigration for hearings (represented by counsel) and possible deportation. A few?like Bernard Julius Otto Kuehn, the German national involved in signaling the Japanese invasion fleet headed for Pearl Harbor?were arrested and prosecuted for espionage and other crimes against the U.S. Now, on December 7, it immediately implemented a 24/7 schedule at Headquarters and in its field operations.

It was 68 years ago this morning, December 7, 1941, that a torrent of bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, a stealth attack that took the lives of more than 2,400 Americans and thrust the nation headlong into its second major war of the century. It was a day filled with sacrifices and heroism that will never be forgotten.

The contributions of one man who made a major impact in the aftermath of the attack should also not be forgotten. His name is Robert L. Shivers, and he was the special agent in charge of our office in Honolulu on that fateful day. Shivers had been handpicked by Director J. Edgar Hoover to run the Honolulu office precisely because of his leadership skills.

Smart and genteel, Shivers was minted as a special agent in 1920. After serving across the South and Midwest and in New York, the Tennessee native was tapped to lead field offices in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Miami. But because of nagging health issues, he went on restricted duty in the late 1930s. 

In the summer of 1939, however, Europe was on the verge of war, and with the U.S. supporting the Allied cause, the FBI was plenty busy trying to prevent espionage and sabotage at home. In August, Hoover turned to Shivers to re-open the now strategically important FBI division in Honolulu. Shivers got to work. Within a few months, he developed strong relationships with local police as well as with Army and Navy forces, and he also began making contacts in the islands? Japanese communities.

These deepened when he and his wife began caring for a Japanese schoolgirl named Shizue Kobatake (later Suzanne or Sue). Despite the differences in their backgrounds, they became like a family. Then came December 7, within minutes of the attack, Shivers alerted Director Hoover, who quickly put the Bureau's contingency war plans into effect. 

For his part, Shivers who had already made progress in sorting out the FBI's division of intelligence and security responsibilities with the Navy?immediately placed the Japanese Consulate under police guard, both to protect the diplomats from retaliation and to prevent their escape. His agents seized a large quantity of suspiciously coded documents that consulate employees tried to hastily burn and began running down key cases of espionage (especially that of Otto Kuehn).

Another major issue involved the 150,000 people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii roughly a third of the population. Some argued that they should be taken into custody. Shivers and key members of the armed services and territorial government strongly disagreed and made a vital difference in preventing the kind of mass internment that happened on the mainland (which Director Hoover opposed, but that's another story).

Only a few thousand Japanese nationals considered a security risk ended up being detained. Shivers soon gained respect across the island, earning significant authority from its military governor.

His only critic was a local U.S. Attorney, who thought he dealt with the Japanese on the islands ?too leniently.? History has taken a different view and so did Shivers' contemporaries. When his health forced him to retire in 1944, Shivers was later lauded by the territorial Senate of Hawaii both for ?safeguarding Hawaii's internal security? and for displaying ?sympathy, sound judgment, and firmness.?


On February 21, 1942, just 76 days after the tragic attack on Pearl Harbor, Bernard Julius Otto Kuehn (pictured) was found guilty of spying and sentenced to be shot "by musketry" in Honolulu. What was a German national doing in Hawaii in the days leading up to the attack? What exactly did Kuehn do to warrant such a sentence? Here's the story... Bed sheets on clothes lines. Lights in dormer windows. Car headlights. A boat with a star on its sail. 

Otto Kuehn had a complex system of signals all worked out. A light shining in the dormer window of his Oahu house from 9 to 10 p.m., for example, meant that U.S. aircraft carriers had sailed. A linen sheet hanging on a clothes line at his home on Lanikai beach between 10 and 11 a.m. meant the battle force had left the harbor. There were eight codes in all, used in varying combinations with the different signals.

In November 1941, Kuehn had offered to sell intelligence on U.S. warships in Hawaiian waters to the Japanese consulate in Hawaii. On December 2, he provided specific and highly accurate details on the fleet in writing. That same day, he gave the consulate the set of signals that could be picked up by nearby Japanese subs.

Kuehn a member of the Nazi party had arrived in Hawaii in 1935. By 1939, the Bureau was suspicious of him. He had questionable contacts with the Germans and Japanese. He'd lavishly entertained U.S. military officials and expressed interest in their work. He had two houses in Hawaii, lots of dough, but no real job. Investigations by the Bureau and the Army, though, never turned up definite proof of his spying. 

Not until the fateful attack of December 7, 1941. Honolulu Special Agent in Charge Robert Shivers immediately began coordinating homeland security in Hawaii and tasked local police with guarding the Japanese consulate. They found its officials trying to burn reams of paper. These documents once decoded?included a set of signals for U.S. fleet movements.


All fingers pointed at Kuehn. He had the dormer window, the sailboat, and big bank accounts. Kuehn was arrested the next day and confessed, though he denied ever sending coded signals. His sentence was commuted 50 years of hard labor instead of death "by musketry" and he was later deported.

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