Uncle Sam CRACKS DOWN ON SPIES … To Guard the Secrets of His War Machines (Jun, 1936)

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Uncle Sam CRACKS DOWN ON SPIES … To Guard the Secrets of His War Machines


By Thomas M. Johnson

SCIENTIFIC spies for foreign powers are picking Uncle Sam’s pockets. As war tension heightens abroad, more and more of them invade our shores. They sneak across the oceans from Europe, where last year $50,000,000 was spent on secret service, or from Asia, where Japan alone spent

$12,000,000. These spies are no fools, fantastically disguised, whispering, scowling. They are intelligent men and women, using clever tricks to steal from this wide-open country the countless military appliances and inventions that American ingenuity produces. With our own weapons, pilfered from us, foreign powers are arming for the next war. For that purpose, the scientific spies lurk unsuspected in our midst.

Most Americans would be astounded if they knew what goes on beneath the lid that is clamped down on secret service. Spies? In the movies, perhaps, or over in Europe. But here, in America? It can’t happen here! Well, let us lift the lid a little, to reveal the dark, unguessed, and startling plots and counterplots of real life, right here, today.

Last February, in Los Angeles, Calif., G-men quietly brought in a young man in the blue uniform of a Navy yeoman, with the roll of the sea in his gait. “Just impersonating a naval officer,” said the G-men. But, they demanded $20,000 bail. Then they locked in the county jail another youth, whom they let no one see except officers from our great battleship fleet, then at anchor in Los Angeles Harbor. Finally, the G-men sifted through the city’s Oriental quarter, but returned empty-handed.

The Federal Grand Jury began an investigation, and through its locked doors, oozed the sensational truth.

The first prisoner was suspected of being an American traitor, who had sold himself as a spy to a foreign power. Formerly a sailor, he had disguised himself in a naval uniform, visited battleships, stolen important papers. These gave secret plans for coming naval maneuvers, even movements of ships planned three months ahead; also, important data on recently developed aircraft equipment. The second prisoner was an important witness, held for safety. The twisting trail led to a master spy for a certain foreign power that takes great interest in our fleet. He eluded the G-men, and fled; but they are still after him, and they always get their man.

Even when he is a dead man. A body lay on a pallet in the back room of a tiny tavern in an American seaport. A sudden heart attack had caught the man, the medical examiner said.

“No reason to suspect anything wrong, have you?” he asked the investigating police.

“Not a reason,” a sergeant replied.

“This guy kept this place for years. All the gobs from the naval base knew him.

He hadn’t an enemy.”

Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!

The uniformed men started.

Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!

“My God, it’s the corpse!” cried one. “The dead man’s buzzing!”

But the sergeant sprang to the cot and lifted the body. He stretched a hand underneath the mattress, groped about. Then he brought forth a box.

Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!

In the box was a telephone. The policeman took the receiver off the hook. He heard a voice in a foreign language.

“Can you get this?” he asked the other men in the room. Nobody could. So the policeman shouted into the transmitter:

“This guy’s dead. We’re friends of his.”

An instant’s pause. Then, in broken English:

“If he is dead, please do not disturb his effects. I am the consul here for a foreign power. I will come within an hour.”

He came within the hour, and they gave him all the dead man’s effects, including his papers. They never batted an eye. And to this day, the consul does not know that in that intervening hour Government agents had photographed all the papers. These showed that for years the dead man had been collecting and delivering, to a foreign power, interesting information about the local American naval base. In fact, running the tavern was only a side line.

At New York, a few months ago, the great liner Europa was sailing. Her pier and decks were crowded; a band played. Up the gangplank walked a plainly dressed man, whose eyes searched for some one. In his hand he carried a violin case. Suddenly, a brawny hand seized it and a sharp voice demanded, “What’ve you got in this?”

The detective searched, and got a startling answer. The violin case held no violin. It held maps, drawings, papers, about American aviation inventions; a diagram of a flexible machine gun for combat planes. It was these that the man had been about to hand to a ship’s steward, to be delivered to agents of a foreign power whose warlike acts are now alarming the world. For that power, the man was a spy in America; the steward, his messenger.

But what could we do about it? Our laws against spying are full of loopholes. Almost any other country would have put the man in prison, perhaps shot him. But, our authorities agreed, about all they could do with him was to get him out of the country. So they threw such a good scare into him that he paid $800 for an airplane to fly him to Canada, and his wife hired the bridal suite on the next big liner. It was the only space that was left, but she just had to get out and spies have money.

Of late, Uncle Sam has cracked down on spies and spying—or tried to, despite the handicaps of weak anti-espionage laws and his own open-hearted nature. But after all, the old gentleman reflects, it’s his boys who are inventing these things and perfecting them, not for some grandiose dictator or king, but to protect him. And he might as well have the use of the product of his own brains, free from picking and stealing by the scientific spies.

Uncle Sam is paying out $1,000,000,000 this year for an army and navy, but his Army War Plans Division tells him that is only a tenth of what he will spend on equipment alone in one year if he has a war. He will have that war won and be out of it a lot quicker, if he has kept his defense secrets, not left them lying around for his rivals to grab and, perhaps, turn against him.

Uncle Sam has today more and better defense secrets than any other nation in the world. Always a practical fellow, he has realized that if the world just will insist on shooting, he had better go to his workshop and fix him up some war machinery of his own. And, having a big workshop and lots of ingenuity, he has turned out quite a collection of war machinery—new cannon and mortars shooting farther than any ever did before, semi-automatic rifles making every doughboy a machine gunner; talking gas masks, seven-man tanks that go over sixty miles an hour; a liquid of chemicals, oils, and T.N.T. to spread devastating fires among enemy munition factories when dropped in bombs or simply sprayed from airplanes.

STEP into a certain sequestered target range. American ordnance experts eagerly surround a new and strange-looking gun. Upon its barrel, balanced just in front of the breach, is an object—why, it’s a glass of water! What on earth –

Then the air is stabbed by short, hot reports, incredibly swift and close together. Flame spurts from the gun muzzle. The air quivers, becomes hazy with smoke and gas. But still, balanced triumphantly on the gun barrel, is the glass of water. It has not spilled even a drop! That feat may prove to have revolutionary effects upon modern war. It demonstrates that once again the impossible seems to have been achieved—a kickless gun. It is a heavy machine gun, firing high-explosive shells with incredible rapidity. It has two amazing new features. It has no kick or recoil, for it utilizes part of the discharge gases to give the barrel a forward thrust as the projectile leaves the muzzle; and after the shot, it does not extract the empty cartridge case until the gases have left the barrel. The new gun can fire 150 high-explosive shells a minute.

Such flocks of shells, exploding at slightest touch, seem to spell destruction for airplanes or tanks. Strictly secret have been the tests of our Army and Navy. But foreign spies have heard of them; foreign governments are making inquiries. No sooner did the Martin and Sikorsky airplane plants start turning out new models of flying boats better than the European models, than agents of five countries were trying to crash the gates for a look at them. Often the traveling representatives of foreign munitions firms are also reserve officers, reporting on the side to their intelligence services.

The scientific spies are after everything they can get, as two recent episodes show. A foreigner, it is said, approached an American Reserve officer who was an expert chemist, often employed on Government work, and offered him $25,000 for the secret formula of the chemical compound with which the Army filled its gasmask canisters. But the Reserve officer found that formula well guarded. Desperately needing money, he offered $10,000 to a subordinate whom he thought could break down the guard. But the subordinate was more loyal than the Reserve officer; he told his superiors. They took away the Reserve officer’s commission, but that was his only punishment.

Another American, this time a private citizen but unquestionably loyal, went to Washington to do business with a Government department. He started home again with a brief case filled with plans, blueprints, and drawings closely related to the national defense. On the train, two strangers tried to scrape an acquaintance. They followed him from the station. Later, his office desk was broken open, and his servant was offered $500 to steal the papers. Spies have tried to buy from janitors the waste paper from Government-office baskets. At the Patent Office in Washington, they search patent papers, and often approach American inventors, money in hand. When J. Walter Christie, the famous American tank inventor, resisted their advances, one foreign agent told him: “You might as well sell us your secret; if you don’t, we’ll steal it.”

At last, on February 11, 1936, the Army issued minute directions for hiding its military secrets from such skulkers. Research work, designing, developing, testing, or producing of equipment can now be declared a “restricted project,” and anyone who allows a foreign power to acquire improperly “any writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, print, map, model, note, instrument, appliance, or information” relating to such a project, may get two years in prison, while anyone who voluntarily gives or sells such information may get twenty years —in peace time. In time of war, he may face the black muzzles of a firing squad.

THE Army was shocked into issuing these drastic orders by recent events, notably the Osman case. Osman, an Army noncommissioned officer with access to important data on the defenses of the Panama Canal, was accused of sending portions of it to a mysterious correspondent. Confronted with the stern gaze of a court-martial, he was charged with corresponding under an assumed name, with foreign agents who sent him money. The court snapped “Twenty years!” President Roosevelt later ordered a retrial and Osman was acquitted, but the whole proceedings served to show the Army the danger in letting its secrets lie around loose.

Now, secrecy is enforced by restricting, for a two-year trial period, information about new military inventions like the fast, light tank that has been officially described as equal to or better than that of any nation. But to enforce silence at Fort Benning, Ga., where the 29th Infantry tries out new equipment, is not always easy. One officer lamented:

“This morning, 1,200 doughboys tried out the new semi-automatic rifle. Tonight, 1,200 doughboys keep 1,200 dates with 1,200 girls, and tomorrow night, 1,200 girls keep 1,200 dates with 1,200 foreign spies!”

Big numbers—but the tiptoe tracks of foreign spies really have been found at Fort Benning. The Army has recently ordered that before any foreigner can visit an establishment, Government or private, where the War Department wants secrecy preserved, he must get permission from the Secretary of War—and he must not carry a camera. That may stop the “distinguished foreign scientists,” one of whom not long ago walked blandly through a munition factory, paused an instant, whisked up a corner of a vest, and photographed a machine with a tiny microscopic camera camouflaged as a suspender button.

A CAMERA’S click was an alarm that helped start the Navy hunting spies, but the camera was no miniature. Its German telescopic lens ranged a mile. Trained upon our new cruiser Trenton, it was gripped in the brown hands of Yoshio Matsuda, an officer in the Japanese Navy, touring American ports in civilian clothes. There was no law against it when he was arrested, last winter, but in seventy-two hours the highest strategical authority in the country, the joint Army and Navy Board, had introduced one into Congress. Now it is illegal, without permission, to sketch, map, or photograph, from ground or air, any one of twenty-four Army and Navy reservations, including flying fields. As a result partly of the Matsuda case, the Navy has revived its war-time “security service” to protect such secrets as a new process of long-distance weather forecasting. Based on astronomical computations, this process is an improvement on the system devised by Gen. A. W. Greely. Already it has predicted hurricanes. That secret is locked up, against the day it may be needed for the first sea fight of “the next war.”

Also locked up in Washington is a startling preview of that fight: a sudden, lightning stab below the belt, at our battle fleet just putting to sea; by an enemy lurking in wait, disguised—a spy navy. Grotesque? Well, high Army and Navy officers do not think so. A Congressional committee has taken sworn testimony about it, with a blueprint by a Government marine surveyor, which I have seen. It shows a powerful steel clipper, with a 500-horsepower Diesel engine, high-power electric searchlight, wireless, and an 8,000-mile high-sea cruising radius. There are 250 of them on our Pacific coast, catching tuna. But the fish bins and bait tanks of many are so constructed, that they can be quickly converted into mine magazines and torpedo tubes.

MOST of those boats are owned by Japanese and manned by Japanese naval reservists. In war’s first hour, they would strike at our battleships, which today the Navy is trying to strengthen against torpedoes and mines. And today, those battleships are followed about by this flitting fleet, like a spy shadowing his quarry. Sea spies hover when our Fleet has target practice, or passes through the Panama Canal. Only recently, Representative Samuel Dickstein charged in Congress that some were haunting the Aleutian Islands where our Army and Navy are making important surveys.

As the weasel-like scientific spies suck out our defense secrets on sea and land, their eyes also turn greedily toward the sky. American aviation is producing the best, and, since Congress authorized 5,000 more war planes, may soon produce the most. Recently, American ingenuity has achieved all-metal fighting monoplanes which threaten to shelve the biplane, and new, heavy passenger planes convertible into bombers or “flying headquarters.” The Government is testing a new theory of propelling dirigibles by drawing in air through a funnel-like opening at the front, and expelling it from the rear, at tremendous speed.

Like honey, such inventions draw swarms of spies. Take the mystery of the vanishing airplane. Last summer, it stood ready to leave a California airport on its trial trip. Its pilot, a Reserve officer, leaned out for final instructions.

“Don’t fly out of sight!” they cautioned him.

“OK!” he cried back. “Contact!”

The new plane soared, circled, maneuvered. It seemed under perfect control.

“It’s a knock-out!” exulted the spectators. “It’ll do 350 when he gives it the gun. Greatest fighting plane ever built. Worth the hundred thou—why—what’s he doing?”

The new plane was speeding away westward. It vanished.

The greatest fighting airplane ever built has never come back. Nor has its pilot, though he had a parachute. Army and police investigated, and found this:

THE plane had been seen flying, at tremendous speed, northward along the Pacific shore. Not far out at sea, also dashing north, was a speedboat that had been seen waiting offshore.

Today, at the great military airport at Dayton, Ohio, new models are guarded by barred doors, in hangars that only officers can enter. That is one result of a recent conference at Washington on aircraft secrecy.

Really to stop the scientific spies is hard, with laws so lax that the famous G-men confess they can beat kidnapers and bandits, but not spies. Why, after a spy has stolen a secret, Uncle Sam’s mail will deliver it for him, to his country’s embassy or consulate here, or to some “cover” address abroad. Yet, in most countries, communication is the weakest link in the chain of secret service, And the spy must communicate.

Many spies use couriers, like the Europa steward. They devise crafty ways to conceal their precious reports, written frequently with a microscopic pen, upon gauziest tissue paper, to fill little space. They are hidden furtively in hollow or false teeth, shoe heels, the plaster casing of a broken arm, between safety-razor blades, in hollow canes, toothbrush handles, candy, tin foil around flowers. An arrested spy calmly lighted his pipe. A detective leaped upon him and knocked the pipe from his hand. Hidden in the tobacco was a tiny roll of tissue paper which the spy had attempted to destroy.

OFTEN, spy messages are in secret code or cipher. To solve one, may open a trail through the ramifications of a whole espionage system, to its directing head. At least, the system can be poisoned at the source, by sending out falsified reports. So there is a tense, hidden conflict between spy and cryptographer, that furnishes one of the most dramatic and mystifying aspects of the great game of secret service.

Safe communication is a problem so pressing that, a while back, some excellent scientific brains were set to solve it. They experimented on an invisible signaling by infra-red rays. So, at our Army’s maneuvers this summer, you may stumble across a soldier, crouched on the ground, talking to himself.

“Da-da-di-da!” he says. Silence. Then a shrill whistle, shorts and longs. If you can get a good look, you will see that he is talking the dots and dashes of radio code into the microphone of a neat ten-pound portable transmitter. It transforms the sound into invisible infra-red light, and directs it to a receiver, from which it issues in long and short whistles. Infra-red beams cannot be intercepted by enemy radio.

Have we discovered the secret of secret spy communication? Already, stealthily the scientific spies are slinking, to steal it.

  1. jayessell says: June 30, 20079:58 am

    At the Patent Office in Washington, they search patent papers, and often approach American inventors, money in hand.

    Copies of Dr. Robert Goddard’s patents for liquid fueled rockets were sold by the Patent Office for $0.10 each, stated captured German rocket scientists.

    The US Army was surprised the V-2 was of American design!


    The article didn’t mention spies from allied nations, or of purposeful disinformation.

  2. Stannous says: June 30, 20078:56 pm

    Gee, the Media trying to stir up the populous through FEAR! (sure glad that doesn’t happen any more!)

    Considering how far we were behind at the start of the war (though we quickly caught up and in many cases surpassed the enemy) it’s obvious that this hyperbole is a bit exaggerated.

  3. Emcha says: July 1, 20075:06 am

    Hmm, recoilless gun in 1936? What kind of gun might that be?

  4. broozhy says: February 6, 201011:43 am

    Those naughty old spies. And evil too! Sure is a darned good thing the Americans weren’t evil like that. Spies are scary and bad.

  5. Firebrand38 says: February 6, 201012:31 pm

    broozhy: Yeah, yeah I get it America’s evil…..line forms to the left.


  6. broozhy says: March 15, 201012:23 am

    No. Not necessarily evil. Not any more than any other nation. And why does it form to the left? I think there are many lines going in many directions to and from many places and back again. People can be stupid sheep sure. What brand of fear is being peddled to them this week, and from whom? It’s the same all over the planet. To get what you want manipulate the masses. Fear is the best tool for that. Sarcasm is the best tool of uneducated minds and spreads the same high quality of ignorance as fear.

  7. Firebrand38 says: March 15, 20105:19 am

    broozhy: “Sarcasm is the best tool of uneducated minds”? Tell that to Groucho Marx.

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