Honoring Those Who Listened
by Capt. George Duffy
Recently, I was prompted to resurrect from my safe deposit box the postcards and letters received by my mother from people who heard messages from me, a Prisoner of War, broadcast by Japanese radio stations during World War II.
It is over 50 years since I really looked at these -- if I ever did examine all of them. Fourteen postcards and 21 letters containing information that I had long forgotten or never comprehended.
I wrote my first letter to my mother in December 1942, a few weeks after the Germans turned us over to the Japanese on Java. It was broadcast on April 23, 1943 from Tokyo. People throughout the United States copied it and sent it to my mother.
I wrote my second letter to my mother early in May and it was broadcast from Batavia, Java (where I was) on May 18, 1943, and forwarded to my family on June 23 by the Office of the Provost Marshall General in Washington with the comment that "it was intercepted by government facilities." Apparently only one other person in the western world heard it.
That second letter was re-broadcast at least twice: from Bandoeng, Java on July 14, 1943, and from Jogjakarta, Java, on July 17. Four people heard the July 14 reading, one of whom referred to the May 18 letter. (Strangely, he did not notify my family at the time.) A solitary listener picked up the transmission on the 17th.
Who were those 35 dedicated people who wrote to my family transmitting my letters?
Their letters and cards give few clues.
The majority lived on the West Coast: California (19), Washington (3), Oregon (2). There were two from New York, and one each from Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, and an unknown location. I always thought that they probably had relatives who were Missing in Action or Prisoners of War, but only three identified themselves as such.
To the consternation of the government, hundreds of such "ex-officio intelligence agents" and thousands of anxious families grew into a nationwide web of information collectors and distributors. One extremely astute listener from Monrovia, California, correctly calculated within one year of our capture, that there were 47 survivors from my ship on Java; that we had been sunk on Sept. 10, 1942; that my Captain's name was Pedersen; and so on. He even knew the date of sinking of the SS William F. Humphrey by the same raider.
According to this gentleman, the volatile radio personage Walter Winchell reported the FBI was investigating persons who were relaying these messages to the families -- on the suspicion they were spies!
[The New York Times article, left, did not give the name of the ship, while an article published one month later by the local Newburyport News did name the MV American Leader.]
So, instead of assisting the distressed next-of-kin, the Government was making things difficult. The United States Navy heard my April 23 letter, as did 30 volunteers. Almost every one of the citizens mailed a message the same day. The Navy finally got around to it on July 1.
The Navy was also "copied" by the "government facility" that handled the May 18 letter, which opened with the words: "Greetings from the island of Java." It took the Navy until Oct. 2 to pass this message along. Not only that, their cover letter reported me as being in the Philippines!
What instigated the unearthing of those 56-year-old letters and postcards was an article in the August/September 1998 issue of the Disabled American Veterans magazine recounting a similar experience by former POW Frank Davis of Stanton, Delaware. Frank, who was badly wounded and captured during the Battle of the Bulge, found among his late mother's effects a similar packet of letters from short-wave radio listeners.
"It was the first time I had laid eyes on them and it was amazing," he said.
Buoyed by his discovery, Frank enlisted the help of United States Senators William V. Roth Jr. and Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, who proclaimed that "it is important to 'save' this significant portion of World War II history."
What form this recognition will take is not yet clear, but it is a long time coming.
One of those "homefront heroes," Sanford Lowe of 222 West 77th St., New York City, copied and sent 10,379 messages to families of POWs, including my December 1942 letter to my mother, Mrs. Alice Duffy, 26 High St., Newburyport, Massachusetts.
P.S. The "Skenny," "Fenney," etc. refers to Charles W. Feeney Jr. an electrician aboard the MV American Leader who was killed during the attack by the German raider Michel.
A similar version of this story appeared in The Daily News of Newburyport, Massachusetts
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Page created Sept. 24, 1998. Last updated May 5, 1999