George Sterling received a teletype message from the War Department just after 5:15 am on August 15, 1945. Less than 45 minutes later, Sterling, chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Radio Intelligence Division (RID), handed a message to the RID’s teletype (TWX) operator to send to the monitoring station in San Leandro, California. “Send following message at once in clear.”
At virtually the same moment across the country in San Leandro, where it was 3:00 am, the teletype machine began typing. “Send following message at once in clear.” The monitoring officer’s jaw dropped as the message continued.
Not long thereafter, the Portland and Santa Ana monitoring stations received a different TWX message from the boss. “San Leandro will send important message to Japs. Listen … for any station that may acknowledge.”
Was World War II finally ending?
August 15, 1945, was an important date in United States history. Volumes have been written about the Japanese surrender to the Allied powers on that date and the formal ceremony held 18 days later aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. But how did the United States and Japan make contact with each other to arrange the logistics of surrender? Virtually every known story focuses on the fits and starts of V-J Day, on the hesitations that occurred as the Japanese struggled to accept surrender, the roles that Sweden and Switzerland played as the diplomatic connections between the warring countries, and the worldwide celebrations that the end of World War II produced. The full story of how the Japanese and the Allies finally contacted each other has yet to be told. This is the story of the little-known Radio Intelligence Division of the Federal Communications Commission and how it played a key role in establishing initial contact between General Douglas MacArthur and the Japanese in order to formalize surrender and arrange the ceremony aboard the Missouri.
The RID’s War on Illegal Transmissions
The RID was formed on July 1, 1942, to monitor and locate enemy transmissions that threatened the United States, but it had been performing these duties for more than 30 years. Since a law was passed in 1910 to govern radio frequencies, the government had been monitoring the airwaves for illegal uses. During the 1930s, FCC engineers developed the technology and became proficient at tracking and capturing illegal transmissions, primarily among bootleggers and racetrack gamblers.
Protecting the United States from illegal transmissions required a safety net of monitoring stations throughout the country. Twelve primary and 90 secondary monitoring stations were established throughout the United States and its territories to accomplish that mission. After the start of World War II in 1939 and the United States’ increasing attention to domestic defense, its engineers were formed into the National Defense Office of the FCC and increasingly concentrated on transmissions coming from Germany, Italy, and their sympathetic allies. Sterling’s engineers proved their usefulness at locating clandestine messages when they intercepted and located a German spy operating from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., two days after Pearl Harbor. By August 1945, RID officers had traveled all over South America looking for clandestine transmissions by German spies and on many occasions had helped the Army or Navy locate their downed pilots in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.
“Harnessing Radio to Help Fight the Global War”
When the U.S. entered the war in December 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, monitoring officers (MOs) at the western primary stations turned their attention to Japanese transmitters. Four stations in particular, located in Portland, Oregon; San Leandro and Santa Ana, California; and Honolulu, Hawaii, focused on finding and intercepting clandestine Japanese messages, absorbing Japanese Kana code, learning the frequencies over which the Japanese were most likely to transmit and the call signs they were likely to use, and otherwise focusing on understanding the “radio-operating characteristics of every type of radio-telegraph communications” that the Japanese used. Occasionally, the MOs would listen to and transcribe Japanese radio broadcasts, but these tasks were the exceptions to the rule; monitoring broadcasts officially was the responsibility of the FCC’s Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS). Instead, the RID’s monitoring officers became highly skilled at discerning the difference between normal and unusual Japanese transmissions and particularly in intercepting and copying Japanese traffic in Kana code directly into Romaji (a system of writing Japanese using letters of the Latin alphabet).
Thus, when the RID was officially formed in June 1942, it was already well schooled in the practice of “maintaining a continual policing of the entire radio spectrum to insure against clandestine radio activity.” Information the RID stations collected was often turned over to several other entities, including the Army, Navy, War Department, State Department, FBI, War Communications Board, U.S. Weather Bureau, and U.S. Coast Guard. The RID’s massive data collection was written into several manuals “showing full particulars of all Japanese Naval and Military [networks]” as well as an additional “manual of authorized occupancy of all frequencies above 30,000 kcs.” The RID played an important role in protecting the home front and helping the United States fight World War II. Few other people knew Japanese transmissions better than the RID monitoring officers and their boss, George Sterling.
Although its specific missions were secret, the RID itself was public knowledge during the war. Newspapers and magazines often carried stories about the division’s accomplishments. Several articles were published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Radio News, and especially the New York Times that explained how the RID worked and described some of its exploits. Hollywood further promoted the division in 1944 when MGM produced a 20-minute film titled Patrolling the Ether, in which a RID investigator is murdered by a German spy caught transmitting from a cemetery. The German spy ring eventually is captured while transmitting from a moving automobile. While overly dramatic (RID men neither carried pistols routinely, nor were they murdered), it nonetheless accurately reported RID monitoring stations, technology, and methods, with the goal of “harnessing radio to help fight the global war.”
Japanese Surrender Anticipated
By mid-summer 1945, the western primary stations devoted increased attention to monitoring Japanese transmissions from all sources. Since V-E Day, and especially the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the western MOs hoped the Pacific War would end soon, too. They started paying particularly close attention to Japanese broadcasts from the Domei News Agency, which was controlled by Japan’s Ministry of Communications. Although monitoring such broadcasts actually was the responsibility of the FBIS, the RID maintained its own surveillance as well. Thus it was at 1:50 pm Eastern War Time (EWT) on August 10 when the Portland monitoring office reported to Sterling that Domei announced that the Japanese were “ready to accept the terms enumerated in the joint declaration which was issued at Potsdam.”
Any information about the anticipated end of World War II was top news, so celebrations broke out around the world when the story was reported to the public the next day, August 11. Almost immediately, announcements of Japan’s surrender were rescinded, and the world began a roller coaster ride of trying to determine whether the war was over or not. RID MOs continued to transmit so many transcribed Japanese broadcasts that Sterling, on the afternoon of August 13, admonished them to “refrain from transmitting” intercepts of broadcast messages, in part because it was the responsibility of the FBIS. More importantly, given the difficulties the United States encountered with making official contact with the Japanese and the growing worldwide tension regarding exactly when the surrender would occur, Sterling did not want his monitoring officers to contribute to the confusion.
Sterling, however, informed the western monitoring stations that he had “assigned a special task to [Portland] to keep [him] informed on Jap situation.” The Portland monitoring station took the lead on monitoring Japanese broadcasts. Sterling further told the other western monitoring stations that “any significant calls that appear to originate from Jap stations that appear to be unanswered should be reported [to him].”
Less than 12 hours after the Portland office received its assignment from Sterling, Monitoring Office Landsburg began sending updates to the boss. At 1:20 am EWT on August 14, Landsburg notified Sterling that Domei announced the “Japanese government started deliberations upon” the terms of surrender. Thirty minutes later, Landsburg telexed “FLASH!!! Learned Imperial message accepting Potsdam proclamation forthcoming.”
A Demanding Press
The western MOs waited for the expected announcement, but the airwaves remained silent on that score. Meanwhile, U.S. newspapers ran story after story about the anticipated Japanese surrender. The Washington Post, in particular, reported that the Japanese foreign minister visited the emperor on August 13, and cited the FCC as its source. Remembering Sterling’s admonition from just the day before, the MO at the San Leandro station assured Sterling that “no information [being reported in the news] is coming from here.”
By now the demand for current information was so high a San Francisco area reporter contacted the San Leandro station about doing an interview. Sterling initially gave permission but almost immediately rescinded it. The information the reporter sought was in the FBIS area of expertise. “Permission will be given after present crisis if then desired,” Sterling wrote to the San Leandro station. “You are instructed to refer all telephone calls to the supervisor of the western area which are received from representatives of government agencies, the press and public requesting information on radio communications pertaining to the current negotiations between the Allies and the Japanese.” Sterling was determined that the monitoring officers under his leadership would not be responsible for leaking information.