Alleged Tokyo Rose dies at 90

But 2 decades after a 1949 conviction, journalists helped clear her name

September 28, 2006|By Valerie J. Nelson | Valerie J. Nelson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Trapped while visiting Japan at the start of World War II, U.S. citizen Iva Toguri became known to millions by a radio handle she never used: Tokyo Rose, the "siren of the Pacific" whose broadcasts were meant to demoralize American servicemen fighting in the Pacific theater.

Except there was one problem: A single Tokyo Rose didn't exist. U.S. servicemen branded any English-speaking female radio broadcaster of Japanese propaganda with the name, and there were at least a dozen.

Forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur's command and the U.S. Justice Department independently concluded that Ms. Toguri had committed no crime. Yet the Los Angeles native was the only "Tokyo Rose" to be prosecuted. She was convicted of treason in 1949 and served more than six years in prison.

Two decades later, journalists revisited her story and helped clear her name, painting her as a victim of racism and wartime hysteria.

"They wound up prosecuting the myth instead of the person," said Bill Kurtis, whose 1969 documentary for CBS, The Story of Tokyo Rose, first told Ms. Toguri's side of the story.

Ms. Toguri, who received a presidential pardon in 1977, died Tuesday from complications of old age at Advocate Illinois Masonic Hospital in Chicago, said Barbara Trembley, a family spokeswoman. She was 90.

She had lived long enough to see herself hailed as a hero by former servicemen who wanted to right "a grotesque miscarriage of justice," said James Roberts, president of the World War II Veterans Committee.

At the private ceremony in January in Chicago, Ms. Toguri wept when she received the veterans' Edward J. Herlihy Citizenship Award - named for the radio broadcaster known for narrating World War II newsreels.

She called it "the most memorable day of my life."

Those who tell her story like to point out she was born July 4, 1916. Raised by Japanese immigrants in a predominantly white neighborhood in Compton, Calif., she spoke almost no Japanese. She attended a Methodist church, was a Girl Scout, loved big bands and hated sushi.

A month after graduating from UCLA with a degree in zoology in June 1941, she was sent to Japan to care for her mother's dying sister. Her mother, who was too ill to travel, died the following year on her way to a Japanese-American internment camp. Near the end of Toguri's planned six-month stay, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Stranded, and classified as an enemy alien, Ms. Toguri was constantly harassed by the Japanese government. Taunted by neighbors for harboring an enemy, her relatives asked her to leave.

She asked Japanese authorities to imprison her with other American nationals, but she was eventually forced to work on the English-language Zero Hour, a Radio Tokyo show manned by Allied prisoners that aired from 1943 to 1945.

"It was not propaganda, so to speak," Mr. Kurtis said. "It was produced by POWs for POWs and their parents. Her voice sounded like an American teenager, and that's what they wanted."

The only radio alias Ms. Toguri used was "Orphan Ann" because she often said during her broadcasts that she was an announcer who had been orphaned in Tokyo by the war. She performed comedy skits and introduced newscasts.

Three POWs with previous broadcast experience were her co-workers, and they promised to try to avoid spreading propaganda by delivering the broadcasts in such a farcical way that they wouldn't be believed. As they became friends, she risked her welfare for them, purchasing food and medicine.

As the war went on, she married a Portuguese national, Felipe d'Aquino, who worked at another radio station. They divorced in 1980.

After Japan's surrender in August 1945, the American press descended on Tokyo, intending to find Tokyo Rose. Two American journalists offered $250 to anyone who could identify the radio broadcaster, and a former employee of Radio Tokyo fingered Ms. Toguri.

U.S. military police arrested her but an investigation found no grounds for the charges of treason and aiding the enemy. After a year, Ms. Toguri was released and petitioned to return to the U.S.

Back home, a myth of war had gone Hollywood.

The 1946 movie Tokyo Rose presented the character as a sultry, malevolent traitor who taunted American soldiers. Commentator Walter Winchell crusaded to have Ms. Toguri rearrested, unleashing a series of radio broadcasts attacking the attorney general for "laxness" in dealing with the case.

Pressure steadily built on the administration of President Harry S. Truman to "make an example of somebody" in 1948.

Ms. Toguri said in 1976 of her role as a postwar scapegoat: "It was eenie, meenie, minie, and I was moe."

Valerie J. Nelson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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