A Century of Japanese Intelligence – Part IV
- June 1975
- Swan, Lieutenant Commander W.M. (RAN)
- Naval Intelligence
- None noted.
- Originally published in the Naval Historical Review edition (all rights reserved)
In this fourth part of the story of Japanese Intelligence, Cdr. Swan relates the story of an American who refused to sell his country. Al Blake became a double agent and led US Naval Intelligence to the exposure of a Japanese spy network stretching from San Francisco to Pearl Harbour. The success of Al Blake is all the more surprising when it is realised that he had no Intelligence training and was pitted against trained agents. Again the author highlights the almost childish errors committed by the Japanese.
THIS IS THE STORY of a brave and loyal American who did not turn traitor for money, and who fooled the Japanese in 1940-41. I shall be as brief as possible. Al Blake was a comedian, a funnyman in vaudeville who had been in show business all his life. He had actually made a film called Shoulder Arms with Charlie Chaplin in 1917. When the Japanese Intelligence penetration of the western USA embroiled Al, he kept his head. At the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1940 Al ran a sideshow where, for a dime, men could photograph certain attractive ladies on a stage.
One day a Japanese appeared, with the inevitable camera slung round his neck, paid his dime and snapped his quota. Of what value they could be to the Tokyo files is not clear. Al had a good memory and recognised this Japanese as a man named Kono Torchichi, who had been Charlie Chaplin’s valet way back. Pretty good identification of a Japanese after 23 years; but then Al was no ordinary man as you will see. He spoke to Kono, who recognised him and also remembered that Al had once been in the Navy. A credit mark to Kono now, for memory. Kono then made an odd remark. He said, ‘It’s a pity you aren’t still in the Navy, Al, you could make a lot of money.‘ Before Al could gather his thoughts on this, Kono had disappeared into the crowd.
Al pondered the Japanese’s words, and the more he thought about them the more he was intrigued. I would like to make two points here. Firstly, the Japanese had made a dangerously frank approach to an untried contact and, secondly, Al’s determination to pursue the matter further showed a high degree of Intelligence consciousness in one inexperienced in such matters.
Still thinking over his encounter with Kono, Al saw him in a Hollywood street several months later. He fell into step beside him and said he was thinking of rejoining the Navy. They dropped into a cafe for coffee, and Al continued his line, at the same time praising Japan. Kono’s eyes narrowed with interest, and he asked Al to dine with him that night. Not wishing to appear too eager, Al stalled by saying he had another engagement, and they agreed to lunch together two days later. Over lunch Kono asked Al why he was thinking of rejoining the Navy. He had grown cautious. Al replied that he liked the sea, and had a good friend in the Pacific Fleet. When asked his friend’s name and ship Al said, ‘Jimmy Campbell, and he is in the battleship Pennsylvania based on Pearl Harbour.‘ Kono told Al to return to his apartment and he would contact him. The phone rang several nights later and Kono told Al to be at a certain abandoned warehouse at midnight. In a real cloak and dagger setting in the warehouse Kono questioned Al further. So far as Al could see, they were alone. Kono told him to be at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Wilton Street in Hollywood at noon.
Al, at the rendezvous before noon, saw Kono waiting, and shortly afterwards a large black car with a Japanese at the wheel drew up to the kerb. Al and Kono got into the back and the car moved off. The driver, whose name was Yamamoto, but who really was Cmdr. Itaru Tachibaka of the Imperial Japanese Navy, started to fire questions at Al. Al decided to object to this. ‘Who is this guy?‘ he said to Kono. ‘I am not going to be questioned like this by a stranger.‘ Kono pacified him, and after further talk they told him they wanted him to go to Honolulu almost immediately. They would pay all expenses, and Kono would handle the finances. Al was to contact his friend Campbell on board the Pennsylvania and endeavour to get certain information from him, for the Japanese. He told the Japanese he would go anywhere provided the money was good.
‘You will hear from me shortly, Al,‘ said Kono, as they parted. In the next few days Al became aware of the seriousness of his position, as the Japanese were in deadly earnest and followed him everywhere. He was no traitor, so he grew more worried and decided he must report the whole thing to the Office of Naval Intelligence. But his shadowers were too persistent and had placed a dictaphone in his sitting-room, making use of the telephone out of the question. Kono phoned again and said if Al were ready to leave for Honolulu within a week he would receive $2,500 and all expenses. A further $5,000 would be paid when he delivered the information they wanted him to get from Campbell.
Al now became thoroughly alarmed and out of his depth, because of course Campbell did not exist. He now had no friends in the Navy. A glance into the street showed that the Japanese were still blocking his way to the authorities. Showing great resource, Al hit upon a plan. He went to a cinema, making sure after he had bought his ticket that the Japanese did not follow him inside. Once in, he asked to see the manager, told him what was happening, and asked to be let out a side door.
Reaching the nearest ONI office safely, he told a Lieut. Leo P. Stanley all that had happened. Fortunately, Stanley believed him and asked Al if he would be willing to cooperate with Naval Intelligence by doing whatever the Japanese requested of him. Al agreed, and Stanley said Naval Intelligence would put an agent on board the Pennsylvania as soon as possible to become the nonexistent Campbell. When they had made what plans they could in the time, Al sped back to the side door of the cinema, saw the last of the show and emerged out front to see the patient Japanese still sitting in their car, waiting for him.
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