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Asian-American Spies Played Critical Roles in World War Two—They Were Also Under Constant Suspicion


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On a cold day after Christmas 1944, Joe Teiji Koide stepped forward and placed his hand over the Bible as others looked on. He pledged his solemn oath of office, as had so many others as part of their induction into the United States’ first centralized intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). His words echoed through the room in more ways than one:

“I do further solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

After the ceremony was over, Koide went to Catalina Island, some twenty-two miles southwest of Los Angeles, California, for his training. Koide worked for the Morale Operations section of the Office on Project Greens, a radio propaganda unit designing materials for broadcast direct to Japan from the recently-captured Saipan in the Marianas Island. The project was based in San Francisco, a city from which thousands of Koide’s coethnics were forcibly removed only three years earlier. He enjoyed a $3,000 annual salary, which was more than ten times higher than his previous one in the War Relocation Authority camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Koide directed and produced radio scripts designed to undermine the support the Imperial Japanese forces received from that nation’s civilian populace. Before San Francisco, when Koide was in the “Collingwood” group at a secret location outside of Washington, DC, he had proven himself a capable leader deserving of his high salary and leadership status. Koide’s recruiter Thomas McFadden wrote:

“He and three other members of the staff have demonstrated outstanding ability and have been designated as the chief creative workers of the group. Their work is of a highly skilled and technical nature requiring a broad educational background combined with a natural aptitude for the creation of subversive propaganda. Subject and the three other individuals in question direct the other Japanese personnel in their work and have been given positions involving a great deal of responsibility.”

Yet Joe Koide’s behavior prior to working for the OSS raises questions about his loyalty, despite his obvious skills and production. One might excuse his invoking of God’s help as simply verbalizing the standard wording of the oath, but his pledge made “without mental reservation” to support the Constitution “against all enemies” raised questions after the war, given his membership in the Communist Party in Moscow and New  York City during the 1930s. Worse, his behavior prior to joining the OSS made some Communist Party members doubt his commitment to the Allied war effort, though they kept silent during the war. During the 1970s and 1980s, Koide came under attack from Communist Party members Karl Yoneda and James Oda, both of whom accused him of undermining the Party while serving as its underground agent. He violated basic security procedures regarding membership lists, even though he received training at the Lenin International School in Moscow during the 1930s, where he learned from the Communist International (COMINTERN) about the art of espionage, sabotage, and propaganda. In particular, Koide compiled a list of forty-seven Japanese communists in 1938, a copy of which surfaced in February 1972 in the Imperial Japanese (Police) Security Bureau’s files, raising suspicions that he was, in fact, an agent of Imperial Japan.

Koide was also known to have stirred up draft resistance among Japanese Americans interned at the War Relocation Authority’s camp at Heart Mountain, actions deemed by Party and non-Party members alike to be detrimental to the Allied war cause. Hence, Koide’s life appeared “like that of a double or triple agent,” as James Oda declared.

AN AGENT FOR HIRE?

Kunsung Rie crept through the underbrush as stealthily as possible. His aim in the exercise was to place a “bomb” next to an “enemy” gasoline tank to destroy it. Rie’s three-man sabotage team included Jimmy Pyen and Diamond Kimm, all Korean Americans, who had successfully rowed into Johnson’s Landing in nylon row boats. They stealthily crept up to the gasoline tank and set their charges, after which the three quietly withdrew to a secluded spot to set up their portable radio set. Rie, the fastest of the three at twenty words a minute, tapped out coded messages and received a reply. The Korean Americans then returned to base where they listened to a critique of their performance on their sabotage practice run at night on Catalina Island in late March 1945.

“Napko” was the name of the sabotage mission that Rie was a part of. Led by Colonel Carl Eifler of the OSS, its departure was scheduled for mid-August 1945. This Special Operations’ mission, code-named “Einec,” was to land the three Korean Americans in the Chemulpo Bay area, near present-day Incheon, and another three-man Korean American team called “Charo” close to Chinnampo, near Songnam. Both Einec and Charo aimed to establish a base inside Korea from which to report on the Imperial Japanese forces and make contact with the Korean underground. Once completed, they would launch sabotage operations, action that Kunsung Rie preferred to intelligence-gathering. To successfully carry out their mission, however, the OSS required Napko members to complete the necessary training. It also needed them to form social connections with locals to shield them and their collaborators from Imperial Japanese forces and political connections to win the cooperation of the Korean underground. Above all, Napko required loyalty to the Allied cause.

Kunsung Rie met most of Napko’s requirements. His social connections were strong—the team was to be based initially at Rie’s own house in Korea, which made it necessary for him to undergo plastic surgery to disguise his appearance. Before their mission’s mid-August 1945 departure, he had excelled in the OSS training in Special Operations. He was rated “exceptionally well” in sending and receiving coded messages and quite adept at weapons training. His trainer wrote: “Very good with carbine because he likes the weapon.” He earned only a “satisfactory” mark in map work, partly because he was inattentive in his military intelligence class. As Lieutenant Robert Carter Jr. wrote, Rie “would rather fire weapons than learn what makes them operate.”

But a critical requirement was in doubt. Who or what cause was Rie loyal to? The Office of War Information (OWI) determined that this young Korean American held “questionable loyalty” after a special hearing on Rie’s suitability for federal government service. It withdrew Rie’s contract after fifty-eight witnesses, including Korean Americans such as Woon Su Chung, Secretary to the Chairman of the Korean Committee, and Korean independence lobbyist Kilsoo Haan, accused Rie of giving propaganda speeches for the Japanese while employed at the New York Japanese Consulate. They believed Rie had distanced himself from other “loyal Koreans,” fearing actions taken against Japan might trigger “reprisal after the war.” OSS Chief of Security Archbold van Beuren informed Carl Eifler that Rie was not trusted by other federal government agencies either: “The Subject is regarded with suspicion by all government departments which have had contact with him, and these suspicions range from allegations that he is a Japanese agent to statements that he is loyal to the Allied cause but very unreliable.” Upon further investigation, van Beuren found that Rie could not be trusted with confidential information since he was mercenary: “There is much evidence to indicate that the Subject will always be willing to sell out to the highest bidder and that he cannot be trusted with any type of confidential information.”

Evidence notwithstanding, Carl Eifler retained Rie. The colonel believed dropping Rie would in effect abort the mission before it began: “This entire plan of his particular group is built about him and if I lose him I lose the entire striking force of the plan, and I doubt seriously if the entire project could be carried on without this original striking force.” Moreover, Eifler believed Rie’s motive for serving on Napko involved Korean nationalism. He saw firsthand Rie’s ruthlessness in wanting to assassinate a fellow countryman for actions deemed detrimental to the cause of Korean independence. When asked if he had any misgivings, the colonel responded: “Definitely not, because the man, in going back, is going back to a hard life of starvation, while carrying on the work which he is to do, where on the other hand he could live in the United States in comparative peace and comfort.”

AN AGENT TURNED?

“Where is Lincoln Kan?” Wilfred Smith, his superior, asked aloud in February 1945 after the suave Chinese American had not been heard from for about six months. Kan was dispatched on a spy mission into Japanese-occupied Guangdong Province of southern China. As a leader of one of four spy teams sent to this region, Kan was assigned to Sector Two (Macau) to gather intelligence on Imperial Japanese forces stationed there. His mission preceded a ground assault by Chinese Nationalist troops seeking to  capture southern China and open up a port for the safe arrival of American “Liberty” supply ships that year. Kan’s “Akron” team gathered information critical for planning this campaign, code-named “Carbonado.” He needed to uncover the deployment, numbers, weaponry, and morale— information known as Order of Battle—of the Imperial Japanese forces the Chinese Nationalist troops would likely face, as well as the attitudes of the Pearl River Delta region’s local population toward support, resistance, or neutrality in the event of such an assault. All of this, Wilfred Smith of the Fourteenth Air Force, Charles Dewey, and Charles D. Ambelang Jr.— Kan’s superiors—expected Kan and the Akron team to deliver by March 26, 1945.

Lincoln Sat Hing Kan, also known as Kan Yuen Fook, was well-qualified for the mission. Code-named “Karlin,” Kan understood the importance of Order of Battle information since he was a lieutenant in the army and was experienced at collecting such data. He had once served in the famed “Flying Tigers” of the Fourteenth Air Force’s Air and Ground Forces Resources Technical Staff (AGFRTS). He was also socially well-connected to Guangdong region, which provided him a measure of protection. His grandfather, father, and uncles were all owners of a cigarette and tobacco enterprise known as Nanyang Brothers Company, with an estimated value in 1924 of twelve million dollars. His loyalty was to the United States. After all, he had been born an American citizen, in New York City on February 12, 1919, and named for the sixteenth president of the United States, whose birthdate he shared. Kan himself was fluent in both Chinese and English. His language skills came easily to him as he was raised in Shanghai, and his English language skills were well-honed at the American School there. He had socialized freely with other American students, as evidenced by his founding of the Photographic Society. His college education began at the University of North Carolina as a political science major in 1938. He took a leave of absence to enlist in 1940, undergoing army training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Due to his training and qualifications, Kan understood the risk he was taking and, prior to departure behind enemy lines, he left a letter with Charles Fenn to deliver to his family, “just in case anything happens,” he told Major Harold C. Faxon. With the requisite linguistic skills, cultural and social connections to the targeted region, military training, social science background, and correct “racial uniform,” Kan was prepared for the challenging assignment facing him.

Kan’s assignment was fraught with danger. He faced the uncertain loyalties of many guerrillas—the Guangdong and Guangxi provincial areas alone had some 10,000 who could suddenly turn against the Chinese American and reveal his identity to the Imperial Japanese forces. Or he could be assassinated by one of the thousands of agents serving Tai Li, head of a Chinese Nationalist government’s intelligence agency, who swore to kill any OSS operatives discovered inside China. Transiting by water was equally dangerous, since the notorious pirate Kit Kung Wong preyed upon the boat traffic in the region and was reputed to be in the pay of Imperial Japanese intelligence. Compounding these dangers, Kan faced a formidable opponent—a well-trained Imperial Japanese intelligence unit. Headquartered at the Japanese Consulate office in Macao, they had recruited a large number of Chinese locals as informants who kept them well apprised about the local population. Under the capable leadership of Colonel Toyo Sawa, vice-consul, Kan faced a formidable opponent and thus had to move around the region with considerable caution.

The message from Karlin received on February 20, 1945, provided little comfort to Kan’s superior. After such a long absence of contact, Wilfred Smith and Charles Dewey sent a test message to authenticate Kan’s identity. “Every possible precaution in being taken,” Smith assured the Akron mission planners. He planned “to ascertain the authenticity of his messages and a test message is being given Lt. Kan during the schedule on the night of 23 February.” Karlin, however, gave an unsatisfactory response to the test message, raising suspicions that Kan had been captured, tortured, and “turned” by their nemesis Colonel Toyo Sawa.

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Excerpted from Asian American Spies: How Asian Americans Helped Win the Allied Victory by Brian Masaru Hayashi. Copyright © 2021 by Brian Masaru Hayashi and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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Michael Neff
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Author, Development Exec, Editor

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