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
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.
the next couple of years, Farnsworth alternated between aviation units
and administrative duties, for a time helping to train reservists at San Diego.
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
Farnsworth, from the 1915 Naval Academy
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Naturally, one of them said, "Let's table the
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
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.