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Short Rounds

The Farnsworth Case

John Semer Farnsworth (b. 1893) graduated from Annapolis in 1915.   Among his classmates he had the reputation of being a rather dull student, earning him the nickname "Dodo," but his final standing was toward the upper end.  His classmates also considered him “happy-go-lucky, good natured, hard drinking,” and "daring and reckless," which was quite accurate. 

Farnsworth was assigned to duty with the Asiatic Fleet, serving for a while in destroyers, before being transferred to the cruiser Galveston (CL-17) in 1916.  Meanwhile he married a Maryland belle from a good family, and apparently expensive tastes, which Farnsworth shared.  With the outbreak of World War I,  Farnsworth was promoted to temporary lieutenant, jg., and sent home for duty.  During the war he held various assignments, and did some sea time, despite being laid up for several months in a naval hospital due to an illness.  After the war, by then a substantive lieutenant, Farnsworth served in the new destroyer Roper (DD-147) on a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Leaving Roper in 1920, Farnsworth attended flight school and won his wings in 1922, qualifying in seaplanes and airships.   Considering him a "brilliant aviator," the Navy arranged for Farnsworth to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several other institutions for advanced training in aeronautical engineering. 

Over the next couple of years, Farnsworth alternated between aviation units and administrative duties, for a time helping to train reservists at San Diego.

Meanwhile, despite promotion to lieutenant commander, by the late '20s Farnsworth was finding his $250 a month plus flight pay (easily $10,000 today based on minimum wage) insufficient to support his wife and four children, and his extravagant life style.  His free spending had begun to create financial problems.


Farnsworth, from the 1915 Naval Academy yearbook nbsp;

In 1927, while assigned to VO-6, the observation squadron of the Scouting Force, stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, Farnsworth borrowed money from several enlisted men.  He then stiffed the men.  When they protested, he threatened to use his position to inflict dire consequences on them.  Despite Farnsworth's threats, the men complained up the chain of command.  The result was that Farnsworth was court martialed, and dismissed from the Navy on Nov. 12, 1927, for "scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morale" and related charges.

Out of the service, Farnsworth found it even more difficult to support himself, especially after the Crash of '29.  Living in genteel poverty and verging on bankruptcy, he decided to become a spy, offering his services to several countries, among them Italy and the Soviet Union, all of whom rejected him.  But in 1932 the Japanese took him on, putting him on the payroll at $300 a month, a great deal of money by Depression standards.   

Over the next few years Farnsworth supplied the Japanese with a great deal of classified material.  His methods were often innovative.  Once he donned his old uniform and showed up at a recently commissioned destroyer.  It was apparently a Saturday night, and most of the ship’s company was ashore.  Pretending to be drunk, Farnsworth conned the duty officer, a recently minted ensign, into giving him a tour of the ship, during which he squeezed extensive information about her capabilities out of the ensign and the few sailors on duty and filched a few confidential documetns that were lying around.

Farnsworth would often arrange to spend a few days visiting one or another of his former shipmates at their homes, or casually dropping in at their offices, even in the Navy Department buildings in Washington.  Since his “cover” was that he was supporting himself by contributing articles to various aviation and naval publications, his old buddies often openly let him have a look at classified materials, sometimes even lending him secret documents (in those much less security-minded times officers often brought classified materials home).  At other times he would merely swipe the documents, have them copied, and quietly return them.

Farnsworth’s greatest coup was in securing a copy of "The Service of Information and Security," a deliberately mis-named highly classified document that contained information on battle formations and tactics based on lessons learned during the fleet maneuvers.  He accomplished this by simply wandering around a Navy Yard, popping in on various offices, until he found a copy lying around.  He casually “borrowed” the publication, had photostats made at the yard's repro navy facility (!), and then returned the original to where it belonged. 

From 1934 Farnsworth was “handled” by Yamaguchi Tamon, the new Japanese naval attaché, a capable spy master.   Oddly, it was just about then that Farnsworth’s activities came to the attention of the Office of Naval Intelligence and the FBI.  Farnsworth visited the Annapolis  home of an officer of his acquaintance and talked the man's wife into letting him see some confidential papers.   The woman reported the incident.  Trough radio intercepts, ONI had been aware for some time that the Japanese were getting valuable information from an "Agent K," and the pieces began to fall into place.  Rather than bust Farnsworth immediately, however, ONI and the FBI mounted a  joint operation to keep tabs on him.  He was soon under 24 hour surveillance.

By July of 1936 Farnsworth seems to have realized he was under surveillance, and decided that game was up.  In a surprisingly foolhardily move, he visited the offices of the Universal News Service in Washington offered to give them his personal written account of how he had spied for the Japanese for nearly five years in return for $20,000 in cash and a one way ticket to Germany on the next flight of the Hindenburg.  The reporters, who worked for the Hearst Corporation, pretended to go along, and promptly notified the FBI.

Farnsworth was arrested on 14 July 1936 on charges that in 1935 he had sold to the Japanese a copy of "The Service of Information and Security."

When the case broke, the Japanese embassy issued a statement describing the charges as "astonishing" and stated that the first time they had ever heard of Farnsworth was on the day before his arrest when someone called the embassy twice to ask for money in connection with a recent spy case.  Meanwhile, taking advantage of his diplomatic immunity, they hastily sent Yamaguchi home.   

Farnsworth went on trial in November of 1936.  Asserting his innocence, he advanced several improbable defenses.  First he claimed that his actions had been due to mental impairment due to an aviation accident while on active duty, an accident for which there was no record, and even claimed that he may have accidentally included some official documents with his belongings when he left the service, though asserting that they had been destroyed in a fire.  He even demanded that various Japanese naval officers be deposed by the American Consul in Tokyo, a request that the Japanese government flatly rejected.  Finally, with the prosecution marshaling some 50 witnesses against him, on Feb. 15, 1937, Farnsworth changed his innocent plea to nolo contendere.  On the 27th he was sentenced to between four and twelve years.  Various appeals followed, but in the end Farnsworth went to jail.

Although the Japanese considered Farnsworth valuable enough to have paid him substantial sums – reportedly totaling as much as $50,000 – for the information that he provided, there is no way of knowing how much damage he did to national security.  During his years as a spy he had provided the Japanese with information on codes, new equipment, and tactics, details of the construction of several ships, including the new carrier Ranger, maps of naval installations, and more.  There is a even hint that the initial planning for Fleet Problem XVIII, scheduled for April of 1937, may have been altered in the light of Farnsworth’s activities.

Released from prison in 1948, Farnsworth died Maryland in late 1952

 

"You Say 'Tomato', and I say 'Tomato'."

The line about England and America" being two countries "separated by the same language" was never more noticeable than during World War II, when the two nations united their efforts to defeat the Axis.

Hammering out military policy and strategy was the responsibility of the "Combined Chiefs of Staff," a committee composed of the principal service chiefs of the two nations.  The British delegates were the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the heads of the British Army, Navy, and Air Force, and their American counterparts, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the heads of the Army, the Navy, and the Army Air Forces.  Some of these officers did not like each other, and Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King particularly did not like Britons.  Naturally, when these men met to discuss how to fight the war considerable acrimony was sometimes the result.

And the English language often proved of little help.

One day, they chiefs were discussing a particularly complex problem, on which it was clear that the Americans were in favor while the Britons were opposed.   The discussion got hot and heavy, with no compromise in sight.

So the American delegation reluctantly decided to postpone the issue. 

Naturally, one of them said, "Let's table the matter."

The Britons appeared shocked, and opposed tabling the issue.  This took the Americans aback, since they couldn't understand why, having opposed the measure thus far, their British counterparts were suddenly loath to drop it.

After a few minutes of confused conversation, the matter became clear.

It turned out that while in American parliamentary procedure the phrase "to table" means to postpone a question, in British usage it meant "move the question," that is, require an immediate vote.

So the matter was "tabled" in the American sense, at least for time being.

 


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