How did WWII propaganda broadcaster Tokyo Rose get info on Allied ship movements?


Dear Straight Dope:

I hear from my elders that during World War II, Tokyo Rose, a turncoat radio announcer working for the Japanese, would broadcast our ship movements and positions even before the troops on the ships involved knew where they were. (These were crew, not officers.) How did the Japanese get this info? Was their electronic intelligence that good? Could they read our codes? Were there a lot of turncoats and spies in our midst? Or did we just leak info like idiots?

SDStaff Bruce replies:

Let’s back up there, ace. A lot of what people think they know about Tokyo Rose (including the supposed fact that she was called Tokyo Rose, and was one individual) is wrong. While it’s true a woman identified as Tokyo Rose was convicted of treason after the war, the trial was a sham and the woman was later pardoned.  Today she’s alive and well and living in the United States. (Editor’s Note: She passed away in 2006 at the age of 90.)

The woman accused of being Tokyo Rose, one Iva Toguri D’Aquino, stood trial for eight “overt acts” of treason at the Federal District Court in San Francisco in July of 1949. She was one of a dozen or so women who had broadcast propaganda for the Japanese during World War II.  Neither Toguri nor any of the other women called herself Tokyo Rose, a name invented by GIs and applied by them to any female Japanese announcer.   During what was at the time the costliest trial in U.S. history (over half a million bucks), the prosecution presented only 12 witnesses, including two of Toguri’s former bosses at Radio Tokyo (both of whom later admitted to having perjured themselves) and a few GIs who could not distinguish between what they’d heard on the radio and what they’d heard through the grapevine.

Indeed, only two counts of the indictment dealt directly with words allegedly spoken by Ms. Toguri on the air during her stint as the hostess of “The Zero Hour” program broadcast via shortwave radio from Tokyo. Overt act VIII alleged she “did speak into a microphone” and “did there engage in an entertainment dialogue with an employee of the Broadcasting Corporation of Japan for radio broadcast purposes.” Overt act VI (the only count on which she was convicted) claimed, “That on a day during October, 1944, the exact date being to the Grand Jurors unknown, said defendant, at Tokyo, Japan, in a broadcasting studio of The Broadcasting Corporation of Japan, did speak into a microphone concerning the loss of ships.”

Pretty heady stuff, that, but certainly not the intrigue and espionage your elders remember, considering the fact the “loss of ships” she allegedly referred to had taken place well before the broadcast. Toguri’s boss at Radio Tokyo testified, “I said to Toguri I had a release from the Imperial General Headquarters giving out results of American ship losses in one of the Leyte Gulf battles, and I asked that she allude to this announcement, make reference to to the losses of American ships in her part of the broadcast, and she said she would do so.” Another coworker testified he’d heard Ms. Toguri broadcast, “Now you fellows have lost all your ships. Now you really are orphans of the Pacific. How do you think you will ever get home?”

Ms. Toguri vehemently denied ever making those statements, but that’s neither here nor there in terms of your question. The government never accused Ms. Toguri or Radio Tokyo of broadcasting information obtained through Japanese intelligence because it never happened. The broadcast “Tokyo Rose” went to prison for consisted of a vague allusion to the outcome of a battle that had already taken place, information known generally to the participants in that battle, although not at the field level. As it turned out, the Imperial Japanese Navy lost thirty ships and the U.S. only nine in the three-stage Battle of the Leyte Gulf. There was no need for “intelligence” when propagandists could slant the numbers any way they saw fit and the Marines sitting in foxholes on Iwo Jima had no way to verify what they heard.

Military forces zealously guard their intelligence methods (espionage, cryptanalysis, what have you) and go to great lengths to hide the fact they have broken an enemy’s code or penetrated his security, lest the other guy take precautions. Had the Japanese possessed the ability to track our ship movements or listen in on our invasion plans, they certainly wouldn’t have turned that information over to Radio Tokyo for broadcast to the people they were fighting.

But here’s the kicker.  The Japanese never cracked anything but our low-level codes used at the field and shipboard level to transmit weather reports and the like. The U.S. military and diplomatic high level cipher machine, the ECM Mark II or SIGABA in use during the war, remains secure to this day. It is not known to have ever been broken by an enemy, and was retired in 1959 only because it was too slow to meet the demands of modern military communications. The scarcity of Japanese victories due to intelligence intercepts testifies to its security. On the other hand, the U.S. breaking of the Japanese “Red” diplomatic code during the early 1930’s and its successor, “Purple,” in 1940 led to such military triumphs as the downing of Admiral Yamamoto’s plane and the destruction of Japanese naval forces during the battle of the Coral Sea.

Iva Toguri and her associates gathered much of the news they broadcast listening to short-wave radio from the U.S. mainland. In that respect, we did “leak information like a sieve.” I can imagine many GIs thinking she seemed to know a lot about what was going on back home, but the information was available to anyone.

Iva Toguri, for her part, denied that she had betrayed her country.  An ethnic Japanese born in Los Angeles, she was in Tokyo visiting a dying aunt when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Ordered to make propaganda broadcasts along with other prisoners of war, Toguri claimed she and her associates subtly sabotaged the Japanese war effort. The American and Australian POWs who wrote her scripts assured her she was doing nothing wrong and immediately after the war Gen. MacArthur’s staff and the Justice Department cleared her of wrongdoing.

It was only when the press raised an uproar over her attempt to return to the U.S. in 1948 that Toguri was put on trial.  Her former bosses at Radio Tokyo, fearing for their own skins, caved in to government pressure and gave perjured or otherwise distorted testimony that was instrumental in her conviction.  She was fined $100,000 and given a 10 year prison sentence, of which she served more than six years. The case was later reopened and she was granted a full pardon by Gerald Ford as his last presidential act in 1977. Today she’s a shopkeeper in Chicago, where you can visit her store. Just don’t look for a sign saying, “Home of Tokyo Rose.”

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