History mystery: the spy who came in from the ocean

A year or two ago the story broke that a Japanese spy had prowled New Zealand in 1943, cleverly disguised as a Chinese market gardener. He had been dropped off, apparently, by submarine off the Hawke’s Bay coast, then gone inland to Opapa and the main district radio transmitters.

A photo I took looking towards Poukawa from Te Hauke, central Hawke’s Bay – where the ‘spy’ was meant to have operated in 1943.

I covered the story with an article in the Hawke’s Bay paper. Wearing my journalists’ hat, I even found someone who swore they’d seen ‘the spy’ at the time, standing on a beach – complete with briefcase. All of which sounded very exciting. There was only one small problem. It didn’t happen.

No Japanese submarine came to Hawke’s Bay in 1943 – and New Zealand officials knew it. New Zealand was part of the Allied intel network, feeding intercepted Imperial Japanese Navy signals back to the US Navy who – via MAGIC decrypts – tipped off the Royal New Zealand Navy about Japanese boats coming south. There was a team in a wooden building in Stout Street, central Wellington, who did the donkey work. And by 1943 the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway had forced the IJN to re-focus on the Solomons and central Pacific.

Japanese submarine I-25, which did enter NZ waters in WWII – but not in 1943. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even if the Japanese had tried the ploy, it is unlikely it could have worked. Everybody was on the lookout for Japanese spies – there was a coast-watch organisation for whom any light at sea became an intruding Japanese vessel. Nor was there much chance of a spy blending in. Mid-century New Zealand was a Caucasian world; Maori were ruralised and marginalised, and the Chinese population was miniscule.  There were some Chinese market gardeners in Hawke’s Bay at the time, but they were well known. The chance of a spy blending in was – well, pretty much zero.

There certainly had been a Japanese submarine in New Zealand waters, in early 1942. But it didn’t drop off a spy either – and its tale is another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this weekend: so you want to be a writer? Starting a new series.

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2 comments on “History mystery: the spy who came in from the ocean

  1. Lemuel says:

    Fascinating story! I hadn’t heard that one before. It seems one of those fanciful yarns that reminds me of the theory that the Japanese POW’s in Featherston were somehow in touch via radio with a Japanese submarine off the coast.

    • There was a lot of talk like that in WW2, all of it pretty much unfounded. But that didn’t stop the Japanese overflying Wellington and Auckland with a submarine-based floatplane – the pilot told his tale after the war, and the record is held in Archives NZ.

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