Adam Larson / Caustic Logic
The 12/7-9/11 Treadmill and Beyond
Feb 26 2009
Note: All information for this piece was extracted from Layton, Edwin T. with Roger Pineau and John Costello "And I Was There": Pearl Harbor And Midway -- Breaking the Secrets. New York, Quill, 1985. Chapter 14, pp 161-168.
Ensign Takeo Yoshikawa was Japan’s top spy on Honolulu in 1941, a resourceful Navy intelligence operative working at the consulate under an alias, and a prolific source of detailed information. For eight months he scoped out Pearl Harbor, completely undetected it would seem, and the US Pacific Fleet that had been permanently tacked-on there. He reportedvia Consul Nagao Kita, who sent the info back to Tokyo via wireless radio signals, encoded and enciphered.
On September 24 a curiously detailed request was sent to Honolulu with a mission for Yoshikawa; it read in part:
"The waters (of Pearl Harbor) are to be divided roughly into fiveThe requested facts were gathered and Kita supplied the first installation of details five days later, establishing a code system for different locations and ships. This was not a one-time deal, but required regular updates in the form of weekly “ships-in-harbor reports.” As war loomed ever nearer during 1941, these were upped to bi-weekly, and eventually daily transmissions to keep the military as updated as possible.
sub-areas […] With regard to warships and aircraft carriers, we would like to have you report on those […] we would like to have you make mention of the fact when there are two or more vessels along side the same wharf.)"
According to the US Fleet’s intelligence director at the time, RADM Edwin Layton, this communication was carried out using the code-and-cipher system known to US cryptographers as J-19. This was a penetrated and readable code, but the intercepts had to be printed and mailed unread to Washington via courier, then at least some of them were decrypted and read. Layton says these were given lower priority than the higher-volume Purple system messages. Diplomats in Washington, the Philippines, and most other places used this more famously open method, while Honolulu’s oddball J-19 system meant that, for example, five times the number of Manila messages as Honolulu were read at this time.
The Army’s crypto unit broke the original ‘divide-the-waters’ message on October 9, while the Navy cracked the 1st response giving the coordinates the next day. While these later became known as the 'bomb plot’ messages (plots, or coordinates, for use in a bombing attack), this was not necessarily obvious without hindsight, as is often pointed out. But at least one official considered among the possibilities at the time “a plan for sabotage … a plan for a submarine attack …. or it might be a plan for an air attack.” Any of these is worthy of concern and worth more analysis and dissemination to, for example, Pearl Harbor.
As the man charged with defending the fleet, CINCPAC ADM Kimmell said if He'd heard about this string of reports, it “would have radically changed the estimate of the situation made by me and my staff.” Referring to these and other J-19 messages that offered supporting clues, Layton wrote “neither the Fourteenth Naval District nor our headquarters was ever told about these early signs” which clearly indicated hostile scheming, and summed up that “the failure of the office of naval operations to ensure that the bomb plot messages were sent to us at Pearl Harbor was blind stupidity at the least, and gross negligence at the best.”
The scoffer will be tempted to call this just more sour grapes from another wheel-sleeper-atter with 20/20 hindsight. But in reality, there is a proper way to interpret this material; I’m not the expert to say what that is, but I tend to support the view that this should have been recognized as “vital intelligence,” and a blessing to have. The main tip-off for any analyst must have been the change from the usual spy pattern of reporting ship movements, a natural class of general intelligence, to passing on the precise locations of ships at rest. There can be little use for this unless they wanted to do something to the ships in those locations. The harbor and fleet, and eventually the whole surrounding base area, had an invisible tactical grid placed over it; it was known and planned around by the Japanese military. If it had been known at Pearl Harbor, it would have led to a different kind of reception on 12/7 or, more likely, an early cancellation, or re-scheduling.
Layton’s book explains how some in the intelligence circuit (Kirk, Safford, others) pressed their superiors to inform Pearl of these clues and/or put the HYPO station there to work on decoding the messages for themselves. Either seems reasonable, since the plots were being sent from their soil and concerning their ships. But these requests were specifically blocked by others, the book asserts, notably Navy communications chief Leigh Noyes, who told them he was “not going to tell any district commandant how to run his job!” Such fine details cannot be decisively established, but however it happened, it’s clear the messages were received in Washington and not received in Hawaii.
Memories of how that bottleneck happened are not entirely clear; in the investigations, some recalled the series of messages clearly and professed an “impression” that these were somehow sent to Pearl. One Army officer testified that these were just another series of messages among thousands, but did confess it was the only such conversation among those so specific “in the sense of dividing any particular waters.” He didn’t bother sending it to General Short at Pearl Harbor, tasked with defending those waters. Theodore Wilkinson, a brief interim director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, did recall what seems to be the bomb plot “information system.” Wilkinson told the Joint Congressional Committee he felt this material didn’t warrant being sent to Pearl Harbor as it showed nothing more that “the nicety of detail of intelligence” they were gathering – about how to attack Pearl Harbor, as it turns out.
At the highest levels most consistently placed in the center of the “folly” and “tragic miscalculations” leading up the the attack, the denial gets the most specific. Chief of Naval Operations Stark, and his self-appointed intel distributor Turner both professed to not recalling the messages at all, and dismissing the significance if they had seen or heard of them as showing the Japanese "attention to detail". [they love to, um, make really accurate scale models of our harbors, and - um - real-world accurate ship placements worked in. Yeah, it's a zen thing…]. I didn’t see what if any response Gen. Marshall, the Army’s Chief of Staff, offered to the messages, but it was likely similar.
So there you have it – it was vital and available, but Washington was - too bureaucratic - or something? Someone please help me understand (comments open – link at bottom). Because in my paranoid confusion, it looks like a bit the top decision-makers wanted to sideline the whole issue away from reality for the moment. The White House mantra after the surprise attack was that the clues all pointed further west and nearer Japan; no designs on the ‘impregnable fortress’ of Hawaii were considered credible – ergo, these counter-points to the mantra must simply not be clues, and only Kimmel, Layton, etc. are making it look a big deal afterwards, in order to shift the blame from their own random inexplicable human failures. But hey, we won, no hard feelings, we’re all Human, and so on…