Revisiting History

12.06.11

The Forgotten Crimes of Japan's Pearl Harbor Spy, Tadashi Morimura

Tadashi Morimura was a 27-year-old Japanese vice consul—and master spy—in Honolulu when he sent Tokyo the cable giving the all-clear to launch the Pearl Harbor attack.

There are moments when an individual holds history in his hands, and 1941 was a year of such moments. Takeo Yoshikawa knew that this was his.

Late in the evening of Dec. 6, 1941, Yoshikawa sat at his desk in Honolulu’s Japanese Consulate. The vice consul prepared to send out his final message to Tokyo. Looking younger than his 27 years, Tadashi Morimura—his name since he landed nearly nine months prior—thought about how to boil down what he had seen that day. In his mind’s eye, he could instantly bring the Pearl Harbor basin, seven miles off, into view. He saw the 39 United States warships, the heart of the Pacific Fleet, moored around the basin—including the nine hulking gray battleships lashed in a double line on Battleship Row off Ford Island. The hangars and patrol planes of the Ford Island Naval Air Station spread across the center of the basin. He pictured the Navy Yard’s dry docks, sub berths, massive supply house and oil tank farms. Inland, he envisioned the Army’s Schofield Barracks and Hickham and Wheeler Air Fields, where long double lines of fighter planes with their wings folded up like damselflies at rest sat parked down the center of the runways.

Morimura considered his words carefully. They might be his last. He could not know precisely when Japan would attack, but years of preparation as a naval intelligence operative told him it would not be long now.

U.S. military intelligence had tracked Morimura’s espionage activities. One officer complained that Morimura raced unimpeded “all over the goddamn place.” Word directly from Washington, though, ordered officers not to arrest possible spies to avoid antagonizing and possibly undermining the loyalty of the islands’ large dual-nationality population. The Honolulu Federal Bureau of Investigation chief had no such qualms. He was closing in on Morimura and a known Nazi spy on the island, but still lacked sufficient evidence to risk the international uproar sure to result from detaining a diplomat.

Bent on assessing military defenses on the Hawaiian Islands, Morimura flew in tourist airplanes over Oahu and took boat excursions into the Pearl Harbor Basin. Wearing field worker’s clothes, he made his way through the sugarcane plantations adjacent to American installations. He kept an ongoing record of ships and aircraft moving in and out. His reports regularly updated Japanese war planners’ maps. They knew almost daily precisely which ships were in port and where they anchored and how aircraft flew patrols.

That same Dec. 6 evening at the White House, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reviewed the transcription of a coded Japanese cable intercepted that very afternoon. “This,” the dejected president told his most trusted adviser, Harry Hopkins, “means war.” The Japanese had rejected FDR’s request sent 10 days earlier to Emperor Hirohito calling for a 90-day truce while the increasingly hostile nations pursued “a peaceful settlement in the entire Pacific area.” Hopkins lamented that the Japanese might attack anywhere and very soon. He suggested that the U.S. “strike the first blow and prevent any sort of surprise.”

FDR pointedly demurred. “No, we can’t do that,” he insisted. “We are a democracy and a peaceful people.” Hopkins did not have to hear from the president that the politically powerful isolationist movement at home would protest any first strike. Both also recognized that, despite the past year’s monumental armed-forces mobilization, the nation remained ill-prepared for what was almost certain to be a global war with Japan’s allies Germany and Italy, should open conflict break out in the Pacific.

When Morimura looked over Pearl Harbor earlier that day, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. The capital ships of the Pacific Fleet pursued their regular homeport weekend routine. He noted that the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Lexington had steamed out of port, but nothing indicated more than normal patrol exercises and precautions against sabotage. At that moment, a mile or so from the consulate, the usual Saturday night “river of white” off the liberty boats spilled over Hotel Street’s sidewalks and out of the raucous and beery shooting galleries, dancehalls, and bars.

He scratched out his final message for the day and walked down the hall to rouse the sleepy code clerk waiting to cable his words to Tokyo. The young vice consul and master spy looked at the paper. He later recalled, “I held history in the palm of my hand.”

As he usually did, Morimura strolled through the lush consulate gardens one last time before turning in. The sky’s milky haze meant the bright lights from the Navy Yard continued to shine. “It was a quiet Saturday night,” he observed, “and all seemed normal.”

The young vice consul later recalled, “I held history in the palm of my hand.”

Four thousand miles across the Pacific in Tokyo, a clerk decoded his message and rushed it through to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Imperial Navy’s commander-in-chief. He read in Japanese:

VESSELS MOORED IN HARBOR: NINE BATTLESHIPS; THREE CLASS-B CRUISERS; THREE SEAPLANE TENDERS; SEVENTEEN DESTROYERS. ENTERING HARBOR ARE FOUR CLASS-B CRUISERS; THREE DESTROYERS. ALL AIRCRAFT CARRIERS AND HEAVY CRUISERS HAVE DEPARTED HARBOR. NO INDICATION OF ANY CHANGES IN U.S. FLEET.

At 0120 hours that morning, Dec. 7, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the massive Japanese fleet task force holding station about 200 miles northeast of Oahu, received the relayed message from Tokyo. It was the last report required by Nagumo before X Day and the launch of the attack on Pearl Harbor.