BYTE OUT OF HISTORY
Sheets, Sails, and Dormer Lights: The Case of the Pearl Harbor Spy
On February 21,
1942, just 76 days after the tragic attack on Pearl Harbor, Bernard
Otto Julius Kuehn (pictured) was found guilty of spying and sentenced
to be shot "by musketry" in Honolulu. What was a German national
doing in Hawaii in the days leading up to the attack? What exactly
did Kuehn do to warrant such a sentence? Here's the story ...
Bed sheets on clothes
lines. Lights in dormer windows. Car headlights. A boat with a star on
had a complex system of signals all worked out. A light shining
in the dormer window of his Oahu house from 9 to 10 p.m., for example,
meant that U.S. aircraft carriers had sailed. A linen sheet hanging
on a clothes line at his home on Lanikai beach between 10 and 11 a.m.
meant the battle force had left the harbor. There were eight codes
in all, used in varying combinations with the different signals.
In November 1941,
Kuehn had offered to sell intelligence on U.S. warships in Hawaiian waters
to the Japanese consulate in Hawaii. On December 2, he provided
specific—and highly accurate—details on the fleet in writing. That
same day, he gave the consulate the set of signals that could be picked
up by nearby Japanese subs.
member of the Nazi party—had arrived in Hawaii in 1935. By
1939, the Bureau was suspicious of him. He had questionable contacts
with the Germans and Japanese. He'd lavishly entertained U.S. military
officials and expressed interest in their work. He had two houses in
Hawaii, lots of dough, but no real job. Investigations by the Bureau
and the Army, though, never turned up definite proof of his spying.
the fateful attack of December 7, 1941. Honolulu Special Agent
in Charge Robert Shivers immediately began coordinating homeland security
in Hawaii and tasked local police with guarding the Japanese consulate.
They found its officials trying to burn reams of paper. These documents—once
decoded—included a set of signals for U.S. fleet movements.
pointed at Kuehn. He had the dormer window, the sailboat,
and big bank accounts. Kuehn was arrested the next day and confessed,
though he denied ever sending coded signals. His sentence was commuted—50
years of hard labor instead of death "by musketry"—and
he was later deported.
story reminds us how much damage espionage can do to our country. And
why the FBI continues to rank counterintelligence as a top investigative
History during WWII | FBI Counterintelligence
of Pearl Harbor attack courtesy of the National Archives.