A Wartime Spy Tale Made for the Movies
“Ghosts of Honolulu” falls short as reportage, but has plenty of action
Dear ChatGPT: Can you help me write a bestseller about tracking down spies in Honolulu at the start of World War Two?
“Certainly! Writing a bestseller involves weaving an engaging narrative with interesting characters, suspenseful plot twists, and a historical backdrop that captures the essence of the time period.” Call it “Shadows over Paradise,” ChatGPT suggested.
Artificial intelligence came to mind as I began reading the actual bestseller—11th on the New York Times nonfiction list this week—at hand: Ghosts of Honolulu. The “historic backdrop” of the event, 82 years ago this week, was there, but it too often fell far short otherwise.
Ghost of Honolulu sketches out a World War II story that, unfortunately, fabricates dialogue to fill in missing details and has all the depth of Sergeant Joe Friday talking about a case on Dragnet. It hasn’t stopped people from buying it.
The authors are Mark Harmon, the longtime star and producer of the long running TV franchise NCIS; and Leon Carroll, Jr., a distinguished retired Marine Corps officer, retired special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and, for 20 seasons, technical advisor to the military crime drama. Their book promises to tell the saga of “a Japanese Spy, a Japanese American Spy Hunter and the Untold Story of Pearl Harbor.” In a preface, the authors describe this nonfiction book as an attempt to “combine our fascination with Hawaii and our love of NCIS history.”
The authors might have done better if they followed Chat GPT’s prescription: “engaging narrative…suspenseful plot…essence of the time period.” As it stands, Ghosts of Honolulu feels like a two-dimensional pipikaula, Hawaiian for goulash. At its end, how much have we really learned about the main characters and how much of the “untold” is now revealed? Not much.
Too bad. They did have some interesting real characters to start with: the shady Japanese undercover agent, Takeo Yoshikawa, who arrives at the Japanese consulate in Honolulu about nine months before the outbreak of the Pacific War, and Douglas Wada, a patriotic Japanese-American operative for the U.S. Navy, who navigates prejudice and the loyalties of others as a translator and analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence, where NCIS has its roots. Central to the story is the failure of U.S. intelligence, military or civilian, to track preparations for the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
One other story line works well: the book tracks the Roosevelt administration’s ill-advised, cruel, and racist decision to detain as many as 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in camps and detention centers around the United States. A sidelight to the story is that less than 2,000 of 157,900 Hawaiian residents with Japanese ancestry were placed in internment camps. The authors tell us “the economy of Hawaii would likely [have crumbled] if such a sizable portion of its population were to be locked away.”
However, the decision to narrate short episodes in present tense and in chronological order leaves the impression that we are witnessing the birth of a film script rather than an attempt to follow a complete storyline. Too many characters are introduced with mini-bios that have the effect of obscuring the story’s main protagonists—the Japanese spy and the American spy hunter. Sometimes the vignettes are careless or miss the larger point.
We also read a lot about U.S. Army Col. Thomas Green, whose task is to administer martial law as a judge advocate in Honolulu. We are told, all without sourcing, that the day after the attack, he was at Iolani Palace, the Hawaii government headquarters which was once the seat of King Kalakaua and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani.
“At 12:30 p.m.” on December 8th, we are told, “Green switches on the radio to hear President Roosevelt address a joint session of Congress,” the president’s “Day of Infamy” speech. Problem is, of course, it was 12:30 p.m. in Washington, which would have been 7:30 a.m. in Honolulu. When Roosevelt’s speech ends, “Green switches the radio off. The reality of his position washes over him like a wave—with the war official, the martial law over Hawaii is as good as permanent.” We even know Green’s alma mater (Boston University, then George Washington University Law School) and the name of his wife, Ruth Tuthill, who doesn’t figure in the story.
Similarly with Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel, the commander of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, who was grazed by a .50 caliber machine gun bullet as he watched the waves of air attacks from his command window. "It would have been merciful had it killed me," he famously said: Oddly, the incident is not mentioned in Ghosts and he is not even identified by title. (At least we learn his odd first name.) Likewise, General Walter Campbell Short, who was in charge of defending military installations that fateful day in Hawaii, also is introduced without his exact title and role. (Kimmel and Short were stripped of command within weeks of the Pearl Harbor attack.) Did anyone edit this book?
Same with Kimmel’s Japanese counterpart, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the famed commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet. He enters the story with neither a first name nor title. Yamamoto, who was fatally shot down by U.S. planes while flying over Papua New Guinea in 1943, was a critic of his military command’s decision to attack the United States, and is cited on the back flap of Ghosts with the legendary quote: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Problem is, historians tell us, he probably never said it, though many wish he had—so much so that an actor playing Yamamoto says it at the end of the 1970 war film, Tora! Tora! Tora!
Ghosts is cluttered with many bit players, but some, like Otto Kuehn, deserve more than short shrift. Kuehn was a German spy reporting to the Japanese consulate, allied to the Nazis, in Honolulu. Kuehn and his family had been under suspicion, the authors tell us, since 1939, and his daughter, Susie, had been the teenage mistress of Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. But when he was arrested after Pearl Harbor, the authors tell us, he was “held for the crime of being German.”
That makes it sound as though U.S. officials were detaining foreigners at random (although they had good reason to in this case). Eventually, we learn, but only in an appendix to the book, that father, daughter and family were charged as spies, that Kuehn confessed, a death sentence was commuted, and the Kuehns eventually were deported back to Germany.
A bibliography and index would have been helpful, but for a deeper dive, you can turn to footnotes, which lead us to an engaging memoir by the spy Takeo Yoshikawa, published in English in 2020, 27 years after his death, describing his ability in 1941 to track U.S. military assets around the Hawaiian Islands with impunity, surprisingly easy for him and shocking for us.
“I came up with the idea of touring each of the Hawaiian Islands,” Yoshikawa wrote. “Using Oahu as my base, I would roam all around each island…So as to not arouse any suspicions, I pretended to do the work assigned to me at the consulate-general during the day and then I would go out for a stroll after work.”
As an example of how completely U.S. intelligence officials were caught on their heels, Yoshikawa was not identified as a potential subversion target until three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Harmon and Carroll tell us, and only when a Japanese-American secretary who had worked at the Japanese consulate told FBI interviewers: “I think he might be a spy.” Yoshikawa was never arrested, though, and returned home to Japan in 1942 on an Axis-Allies diplomatic personnel transfer ship.
The debates and harsh realities surrounding the creation of detention camps for Japanese-Americans are by far the most compelling portion of the book. Despite all the detentions, then-Navy Commander Kenneth Ringle, who brought Wada, his high school classmate, with him into Naval intelligence, petitioned the Roosevelt administration in January 1942 not to engage in mass internment. “The entire Japanese ‘Problem’ has been magnified out of its true position, largely because of the physical characteristics of the people,” he wrote in a formal report. Ghosts cites the report based on an interview with Ringle’s son (a former Washington Post reporter), who quotes from the report as saying, “It is no more serious than the problems of the German, Italian, and Communistic portions of the United States population and it should be handled on the basis of the individual, regardless of citizenship, and not on a racial basis.”
The report could not stem the out-of-control hysteria about suspected fifth column Japanese-Americans. Thus, on February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued an executive order resulting in the mass arrests.
The idea of seizing men, women and children, and forcing them behind barbed wire based on their ethnic background resonates 80 years later. Donald Trump has proposed rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants and placing them in sprawling camps before deportation.
The authors evidently found it more difficult to assemble details about the life of Douglas Wada, whom they describe as the only Japanese-American agent in the Office of Naval Intelligence until the 1960s, and who was honored by the Navy with a Civilian Certificate of Merit after the war as a chief translator. “It’s not easy to trace his contributions,” they write. “He did his work and did it quietly.” To fill in the gaps, they adopt the dubious tactic of inventing dialogue for Wada, who sometimes interviewed prisoners and served as an interpreter for higher ups when they traveled.
We also follow Wada after the war as he is sent to Tokyo as an interpreter and interrogator for the Japanese war crimes trials. On the side, he also wants to track down Yoshikawa, the elusive spy, who might be in hiding, or, for all Wada knows, dead. But Wada has only the cover name Yoshikawa used in Hawaii to go on, so he cannot find him in Japanese military records and, “Without a name…the hunt is stymied.”
It’s a shame that Wada, who died in 2007 at age 96, did not write his own memoir. The authors made use of an interview with Wada, entitled “Douglas Wada Remembers,” conducted in 2002 for the Military Intelligence Veterans Club of Honolulu. Much of the material describes his younger days, his social life before the war, and the work of his father as an architect and builder of Shinto shrines. The authors say he received a direct commission from the Navy as a lieutenant in 1938 and retired in 1975, but the U.S. Navy Memorial logs his term of service as beginning in 1949 and ending with his retirement in 1969 with the rank of commander.
The general reader, rightly drawn in by the story of those days of infamy in the Hawaiian Islands, will not likely be deterred by such gaffes. The pace of the story revs up and takes off around the Japanese attack. Even though war was imminent, both Wada, the American agent, and Yoshikawa, the Japanese spy, were surprised by the ferocity and success of the attack that began at 7:48 a.m. Hawaii time on December 7, 1941. Both thought it was a U.S. training exercise. Wada was out fishing and showed up at work four hours later; Yoshikawa was having a leisurely breakfast at his consulate; he ran to the consul general’s office and helped him burn codebooks and cables. It is hard not to be captured by the drama of that day.
Undoubtedly, Ghosts of Honolulu will make good use of, and further develop, the contrast between the two men in an eventual film or TV series. Chat GPT warned me, though, that casting established stars in the roles is important, but not everything.
“While fame and industry connections can provide advantage,” the bot says, “successful book-to-movie adaptations also depend on the quality of the source material.”
Peter Eisner, a SpyTalk contributing editor, is the author of MacArthur’s Spies, the Soldier, the Singer and the Spymaster who defied the Japanese During World War II.