Countdown to the Day of Infamy: The Final Spies

Posted by Rebekah
Nov 01 2011

Saturday, November 1, 1941: Honolulu Harbor, Hawaii.  8:30 am.

It was a familiar old ship, that pulled into Honolulu harbor that morning. She used to ply the seas from Yokohama to San Francisco every few weeks, always stopping here, docking to throngs of waving, cheering people, who draped on her lucky passengers and welcomed them ashore with dancers and music. But now, the American built ship, Taiyo Maru, flying the Japanese flag, had been chartered by the Japanese government to bring home any citizens who wished to return. Trade relations were broken, and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin warned that this might be the last ship bound for Japan permitted to dock here for months-or longer. So, even though she’d visited this harbor dozens of times, the local authorities and counter-intelligence watched her warily now, and established strict rules.

The Taiyo Maru, from a postcard during her glory days as a luxury passenger liner for NYK Line. If she looks familiar to long-time readers, it's because they're distant sisters.

There were rumors in the air, on this Saturday morning, November 1, 1941, and growing stronger, that the Japanese empire was seeking to expand her reach. The United States had recently cut Japan off from their shipments of oil and gas.  The diesel burning in Taiyo Maru’s tanks was already scarce, and there were rumors of immense aircraft carriers, battleships and destroyers back home which also needed those supplies. But Pearl wasn’t thought to be a target.  It was too far away, and a busy port. Even despite the embargo against Japan, dozens of ships pulled in and out daily, heading to and from America, the Philippines, Mexico, the Panama Canal, the South Seas, and Australia. No one could sneak in here, with so many eyes watching, much less an armed fleet.

And six miles away, sat the American Navy, inside Pearl Harbor. The great ships, including the mighty Arizona, flagship and pride of the American Navy, the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Lexington, and the submarine base, sat at the ready, constantly practicing, constantly drilling, for the war no one wanted. No one in Honolulu believed there was danger here. Manila maybe, Singapore, maybe, Hong Kong, maybe, but Japan, for all her might, couldn’t come this far unseen.

Still, the District Intelligence Office in Honolulu, long taxed from trying to track any hint of war from Japan, knew something was afoot. For months before the oil embargo, Japanese tankers would come and go every few days, most leaving behind or picking up a few hands, each time. So many men were impossible to track, and tensions were now so high that Customs and District Intelligence office refused to allow any hands off the Taiyo Maru, save a few the ship’s master deemed absolutely necessary for maintenance, and store purchases, and those few could easily be followed. Any passengers, once aboard, were not permitted to leave again. As far as possible, the District Intelligence Office was making sure that no information could get on or off, and the Taiyo was certianley going to leave with every person she brought with her still onboard.

They were right to fear spies.  Dozens had come through in the past months, many that never stayed in Honolulu more than a couple of hours while those tankers refueled, and there were three aboard the Taiyo now, disguised as stewards and an assistant purser. They were not trained in espionage, they were high ranking members of the Imperial Japanese Navy: Commander Mae-jima Toshihide, Commander Suzuki Suguru, and Lt. Matsuo Keiu, and they never planned to leave the Taiyo or set foot on Honolulu-at least, not on this trip.

They had, in fact, already completed half of the mission. The Taiyo Maru, rather than follow the well-traveled direct sea route from Yokohama to Honolulu, traveled north, and cut east between the Aleutian Islands and Midway, before turning sharply south.  During the whole journey the three men measured wind speeds, tracked the weather, and watched the horizon constantly for ships or air patrols, admittedly strange behavior for men who usually were more concerned with food and upkeep aboard.  But it had been a success: not even a fishing boat had been seen until they were nearly in sight of Oahu.

And they had managed to send information out of the Taiyo Maru.  Despite broken trade relations, there was still diplomatic relations between the countries.  Indeed, the Japanese Consulate in Washington D.C. was working through marathon talks to keep war at bay, while the consulate in Honolulu worked hard as well, but was it more diplomacy, or a cover for espionage?  District Intelligence had often wondered, but there was no way to break the sovereignty of the consulate and get inside information.  And as a Japanese ship, bound back home, according to diplomatic treaties and traditions, one of the Taiyo’s crew carried instructions from the Japanese government to the consulate written and sealed in the consulate pouch.  The consulate also returned a pouch with their own papers, observations, and recommendations to the Taiyo for transport home. What the District Intelligence Office didn’t know was there were written questions directly from the IJN officers aboard in the outgoing pouch, and the written responses, along with photos of Pearl Harbor, the anchorages of the Naval ships and other information, in the incoming pouch.

They were looking for final details, final answered questions, and, since the Taiyo docked on a Saturday, and would stay until Wednesday, the officers onboard would answer a few questions with their own eyes: how seriously did the Americans take their “weekend”? How many people seemed to attend Sunday services?  How many sailors and civilians were out and about on a weekend rather than a weekday?  How many ships and submarines were sighted going in and out of Pearl Harbor each day? When did they enter and leave? When was there a lot of traffic, and none?

These answers were crucial, since the talks continued in Washington and Tokyo, and this plan may never come to fruition depending on the answers the officers brought home.

The strangest thing of all, had to be that the plan they were proposing, and even now were scouting, was not new. In fact, Pearl Harbor had been attacked twice before in the ten years previous using this plan. By Americans.

One Response

  1. Scott Williams says:

    Check your facts about the origin of the Taiyo Maru. You will learn that she was German-built by Blohm & Voss in 1911; not American-built.

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