You wouldn’t think Hawaii is a good place for spies. The weather is too nice for clandestine activities and all that cloak and dagger stuff, right?
Wrong. We might be an ideal place for espionage. It’s an American state, but an outlier at the same time. We’re a major hub for just about every branch of the armed forces; and we have private contractors and analysts who deal with Asia all the time. With a high-powered tourist industry encouraging outsiders to come over and check things out as your cover, you have a perfect place to set up a spy ring.
That was the case in the early 1940s, when Takeo Yoshikawa, an intelligence officer, came under the cover to assist the Japanese consulate. The Japanese had already started planning an attack on the United States, and Yoshikawa provided detailed intelligence on the location of ships at Pearl Harbor.
Yoshikawa worked alone. He spent a lot of time in Aiea Heights, where, on Oahu’s steep mountainside slopes, he would study the ships in Pearl Harbor. He reported the movements of the ships back to Tokyo on a daily basis in a secret code. When Japan pressed for more information, Yoshikawa played tourist and take private airplane and boat tours around the island.
At one point, Yoshikawa was handed a torn piece of paper and $14,000 in cash with instructions to pay the man who had the other piece of paper. Yoshikawa found his man in a house on East Oahu.
Bernard Otto Kuhen became a Nazi in the early 1930s and had ties to propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. He was sent to Oahu in 1935 with his family and lived in a spacious house with an ocean view.
Kuhen used his entire family to gather information. His daughter, an attractive haole woman, opened a cheap beauty parlor where military wives gathered and gossiped. He dressed up his young son, Hans, in a sailor’s uniform and get him invited onto boats and submarines for a tour. He taught Hans to be inquisitive about equipment and at home, he would interrogate him about what he saw. All of the information was duly recorded by his wife Frau Kuhen. Kuhen worked out a complicated system of signals for the Japanese involving lights and the position of sheets on a clothesline that could be seen from the beach.
Kuhen was arrested a little bit after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to prison. That too was cut short when he was deported back to Germany after the war.
Yoshikawa was rounded up too. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he was held on Sand Island. The master spy found the suspicion and internment of Japanese-Americans a cruel irony. He later told reporters that the local residents were totally loyal to the United States and almost unanimously uncooperative with him. Eventually, he returned to Japan. He died penniless after living off his wife’s income for decades.
But that was then. These days you’d be hard pressed to find Nazis in Kailua or Japanese tourists sending secrets to Tokyo. Whether any real-deal spies are snooping around is still a matter of debate.
Take the case from Maui. Engineer and weapons specialist Noshir Gowadia bought a palatial home in Peahi on the North Shore. Like Kuehn, he had a great ocean view. The federal government suspected that Gowadia was so desperate to pay off his huge mortgage that he started selling secrets to China. His lawyers claimed it was bogus. The information he sold off was widely known and hardly a secret, they said. In 2010, a jury found him guilty of helping the PRC build stealth weapons. He was sentenced to prison for 32 years.
Then there’s the curious case of Benjamin Bishop. In 2011, the retired-US-Army-reserve-officer-turned-private-defense-contractor started dating a Chinese university student around half his age. Bishop ended up giving his girlfriend information from top-secret files about war plans in conjunction with South Korea, ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons. Bishop was arrested by the FBI and prosecuted. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison for a little more than seven years.
The weird part is that the student’s identity has never been released publicly, and we don’t know if she’s still in the United States. No one has confirmed if she is an agent for the People’s Republic of China. Was this a classic “honey trap?” Is she a spy? No one really knows.
So maybe Hawaii isn’t a notorious spy den like Madrid of the 1940s. Perhaps there aren’t safe houses like Berlin in the 1960s. But maybe Hawaii will someday be a real destination in the shadowy world of intelligence. Perhaps it already is, and we just don’t know it.