Sabotage, Subversion and Espionage Lurk in the Shadows

An Enemy in the Midst

​In the years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, military and civilian defense officials in Oregon and along the Pacific Coast circulated correspondence labeled secret, restricted or confidential. They shared sightings, reports and analysis detailing the possibility of further attacks or sabotage in Oregon and warned of spies operating in society.

The Real Threat of Sabotage

Poster warning about Sabatoge says "Treason is punishable by death!"
Sabotage laws were harsh. Poster image courtesy Northwestern University Library
Civilian defense officials were tense in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. They were scrambling to shore up plans while coping with the influx of citizens wanting to help and offering advice or rumors. The heightened state of alert for sabotage and enemy acts was apparent in a Christmas Eve letter to the Oregon Defense Council from the Army at Fort Lewis, Washington warning that "it is the crafty nature of our enemy to choose those periods when the country is least likely to guard, to launch their attacks."Footnote 1

Later confidential correspondence described the need for vigilance along the Oregon coast. The beaches, inlets and sparse population of the area offered "innumerable opportunities for the landing of such agents from Japanese submarines... It is likely that enemy spies or other hostile agents will be landed at points where they can make contact with disloyal elements resident in the vicinity." Further possibilities for saboteurs to enter would be to transfer them from a submarine to a fishing boat and then go openly into port. Experts discounted the likelihood of entry by parachute.

Officials saw plenty of potential targets for saboteurs, including military and government property, bridges and forests. The Army warned that telephone, radio and telegraph companies were "not only especially vulnerable, but that they are likely to be one of the earliest targets of acts of sabotage."Footnote 3 The assumption was that the enemy would try to break the lines of communication in an attack.

Match book with 1940s cars drawn and the words "Dillon Bronze fleet" above.
A matchbook was all a saboteur needed in summer to start a forest fire in Oregon.
Summertime brought heightened fears of sabotage. Civilian defense officials saw four main threats from arson, explosion, mechanics and psychology. Not all sabotage had to be spectacular. Sometimes subtle was better. For example, officials noted that in the summertime with dry grasses and forests "the packet of book matches becomes the simplest but most effective aid to the arsonist." Likewise, machinery, already running hot from summer temperatures, could be destroyed with friction by using abrasives or by letting the lubricants run dry.Footnote 4 Concern about food sabotage also surfaced. Governor Sprague was asked by federal officials to "direct all civilian police agencies in your state to arrest any Japanese who is seen or known to be plowing under or damaging crops..." The request stated that "the destruction of growing foodstuffs is outright sabotage and will be dealt with accordingly."Footnote 5

Suspicious Characters

The best defense was vigilance - keeping an eye out for suspicious activity - especially in smaller towns. Oregonians were encouraged to "clear your suspicious characters or strangers through the FBI... Remember too that NO INFORMATION IS TOO INSIGNIFICANT to be turned into the FBI." It was simple: "You furnish the leads, FBI will establish the facts." While encouraging citizens to report the slightest suspicions, officials at the same time cautioned that it was "no time for witch-hunting. Hysteria is a form of sabotage itself."Footnote 6 The subtlety between the two may have been lost on many Oregonians. Undoubtedly, many small town busy-bodies erred on the side of reporting insignificant information.

Photo of J. Edgar Hoover in suit and tie holding papers and looking at camera.
J. Edgar Hoover kept the hunt for saboteurs in the public eye. (Image courtesy FBI)
Vigilance was reinforced, especially early in the war, by periodic reports of suspected sabotage. Perhaps most shocking were the small German sabotage squads that landed in June 1942 on Long Island, New York and Ponte Vedra, Florida. Having lived in the United States before the war, the eight men spoke fluent English, knew American customs, and had been trained at a special sabotage school near Berlin. The teams landed in rubber rafts launched from U-boats and carried a large supply of explosives and incendiaries, intent on targeting aluminum plants, river locks and rail lines. The plot quickly fell apart as officials rounded up both teams, the Long Island team after a comedy of errors. One of the leaders was a bitter naturalized German American who felt cheated in life, apparently the impetus of his actions. While doing no damage, the plot gave civilian defense officials proof of the threat of sabotage.Footnote 7

Drawing of soldier aparently shot dead and hanging limply from his parachute.
Posters portrayed the costs of loose talk. Careless Talk graphic courtesy Northwestern University Library
Maintaining vigilance against sabotage in the general population was increasingly difficult after the Allies gained the initiative in the last two years of the war. Characteristically, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was up to the challenge. At the end of 1944, Hoover cautioned against complacency and warned, "the enemy has made many attempts to penetrate our inner defenses." He described one such attempt a month before when two enemy agents were caught in New York City. A German U-boat brought them to the coast of Maine where they landed on the beach using a rubber raft. One agent was American born and had been discharged by the Marine Corps. According to Hoover, both had been trained in the "Hitler school on the handling of short wave radio and sabotage methods." They were carrying a short wave radio and $60,000 in cash when arrested.Footnote 8

The Specter of the Fifth Column

Fear of domestic subversives or "fifth columnists" reached its heights in the months after Pearl Harbor. But it began earlier as Americans watched the collapse of western Europe in 1940 and concluded that domestic saboteurs had added to the debacle. The fear of internal sabotage manifested itself most visibly in the removal of Japanese Americans along the West Coast to relocation camps inland. Yet, Japanese Americans were far from the only perceived threat.

Fifth Column Operations

Cartoon says "The Sound that Kills"
Cartoons depicted how spies operated. Image no. ww1646-71 courtesy Northwestern University
The broad groups of suspected Americans shown in the sidebar to the left were seen to have ominous intentions. Officials classified a number of potential operations that included sniping; spreading false rumors; issuing false orders; causing panic and riot; signaling the enemy from the ground; storing gasoline, vehicles or other supplies for advancing hostile forces; and other organized acts of sabotage in support of the enemy. Oddly enough, the plan cited the dearth of actual sabotage as evidence of the cunning of the enemy: "The lack of proven enemy-inspired sabotage to date confirms the possibility that the Fifth Column is well disciplined and is awaiting planned and unified major action when directed."Footnote 10

In the end, fears about widespread fifth column activity in the United States proved groundless. Certainly, there were plots that included Americans, such as the two on the East Coast described above, but little came of them. During the war the FBI investigated 19,649 cases of suspected internal sabotage but failed to find any directed by the enemy. Yet, at the time there were enough stories and rumors to make people say: "It could happen here."Footnote 11

Loose Lips Sink Ships

Even as Oregonians worried about their neighbor, the potential fifth columnist saboteur, they also fretted about the spies in their midst.

Censorship and Spies

Photo of nameless woman and "Wanted" printed above & "For Murder" below "Her careless talk costs lives" at the bottom.
Posters minced no words about the results of careless talk. Wanted poster courtesy Northwestern University Library
Censorship was a fact of life during the war. Some restrictions were obvious. For example, all mail entering or leaving the country was subject to censorship. By 1942, a million pieces of mail were read and censored by 10,000 civil servants. Censors also checked mail for useful information about the enemy. GIs writing home could not mention anything about the military situation they saw and their families were encouraged to write back with happy, non-specific letters that avoided reference to the workplace.

The federal Office of Censorship also devised a voluntary code for broadcasters and publishers. It restricted news that could be valuable to the enemy, for example, information on troop or ship movements and the number of battle casualties. Other restrictions were less obvious. Radio programmers were banned from doing "man on the street" interviews and had to stop music request shows. The Office of Censorship contended that these shows could be exploited by spies to transmit coded messages.


Meanwhile, government officials launched a massive publicity campaign to educate Americans on the potential harm of seemingly harmless conversation, even with close friends and relatives. An example of the reasoning saw one friend innocently telling the latest happenings from work to another friend who would then mention the news at a bar where a spy was listening, ready to transmit the information to the enemy. News about design or production of ships, airplanes, and other war assets could be particularly harmful. Before long posters bearing slogans such as "Enemy agents are always near; if you don't talk they won't hear" were tacked to walls in factories and shipyards across the country as America responded to the threat.

Related Document

Case File of Portland Resident Lloyd Reynolds, Suspected Communist Subversive, 1943. Folder 8 , Box 15, Defense Council Records, OSA. Includes copy of letter from FBI Director John Edgar Hoover to OCD Director James Landis.


  1. Letter from Lt. Col. S.F. Miller to Oregon State Defense Council, Dec. 24, 1941. Folder 7, Box 15, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  2. Letter from Lt. Col. S.F. Miller to Oregon Adjutant General, April 6, 1942. Folder 15, Box 3, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  3. Letter from Lt. Col. S.F. Miller to Oregon State Defense Council, Dec. 24, 1941. Folder 7, Box 15, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  4. "Why Summertime is Sabotage Time," Civilian Front, July 17, 1943, Page 12, Folder 8, Box 34, Defense Council Records, OSA. 
  5. Letter from Major Gen. Kenyon A. Joyce to Governor Sprague, March 15, 1942. Folder 15, Box 3, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  6. "Why Summertime is Sabotage Time," Civilian Front, July 17, 1943, Page 12, Folder 8, Box 34, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  7. Ronald H. Bailey, The Home Front: U.S.A. (Time-Life Books, Inc., 1977), Page 115-116.
  8. Memo from W.A. Groce, Executive Director of the Washington State Defense Council, Jan. 2, 1945. Folder 16, Box 37, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  9. "Northern Security District Counter Fifth Column Plan," 1944. Folder 8, Box 15, Defense Council Records, OSA.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ronald H. Bailey, The Home Front: U.S.A. (Time-Life Books, Inc., 1977), Page 115.
  12. Letter from Lt. Gen. J.L. DeWitt to Governor Sprague, May 23, 1942. Folder 15, Box 3, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  13. Memo from State Police Superintendent Charles Pray, May 29, 1942. Folder 15, Box 3, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  14. Letter from Governor Sprague to Lt. Gen. J.L. DeWitt, June 1, 1942. Folder 15, Box 3, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  15. Letter from Governor Sprague to F.N. Finch, July 25, 1942. Folder 15, Box 3, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.