My granddaughter is already writing her wish list for Halloween, starting with a skull piñata.

McCollum memo Page4

McCollum memo Page4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I never had to think too much about costumes for Halloween because my great-aunt, Helen Zander, a missionary who taught English in Japan all her adult life, gave me a kimono when I was in elementary school.

Aunt Helen had been recruited to be a missionary while at Hope College, in Michigan, a college associated with the Reformed Church, of which her family were members, the school she would eventually gift with her book collection after her death.

She was my father’s mother’s sister, daughter of a blacksmith in Schenectady, New York, born on August 10, 1906, to whom traveling the world as a missionary seemed high adventure.

By the time I was in high school, she had also given me an adult-sized kimono, complete with socks that had the toes split so you could fit them into sandals, and a silk sash.

In high school, when I hosted a costume party for friends, I even dyed my very blonde hair black. I was never at a loss for costumes after that.

Aunt Helen taught my brothers and me how to eat with chopsticks before we were 12.

She taught me how to make Origami birds, a skill that served me well when I baby-sat, and even served to entertain bored students when I found myself in study hall, and impatient patrons a couple of years ago when we were all waiting for an outdoor play to start.

Both my grandchildren love Origami and I now have more books than the ability to figure out the instructions, but their interest has spurred me to learn more than I ever expected.

Aunt Helen came home to visit once every seven years on sabbatical and always brought gifts and stories.

Once, she came with a friend who both admired Aunt Helen’s near-photographic memory and was shocked that she hadn’t told us more stories, prompting her to tell us about the time she ate at the palace with a Japanese princess.

As it happened, one of Aunt Helen’s English students was a lady-in-waiting to the Princess. She bragged about her so much the Princess invited Aunt Helen to the palace for lunch one day.

Aunt Helen told us all the details of the lunch, from what they ate to the plates they ate on, but the only detail I remember is the story about the cherries.

The places were set with paper cones at each place setting. Aunt Helen knew enough protocol to know that you never do anything until the hostess does it first, so she waited to see what to do with the paper cones.

When fresh cherries were served, the Princess picked one up, started eating it, then picked up the paper cone and spit the cherry seed into the cone. What a clever way to dispose of cherry seeds at the table!

Then there was the General MacArthur story.

Aunt Helen returned to the United States in March, 1941, with other Americans because, according to her papers, “war seemed imminent.”

After two years in New York City, where she got her Master’s Degree at Columbia University, she took a position with the Chamber of Commerce to work with Japanese people in Washington, DC.

From August, 1942, until September, 1945, she worked for the Army Security Agency at Arlington Hall, in Virginia, where she was asked to decode Japanese communications.

At first, she refused, saying that if she helped the government by being a translator, the Japanese would never let her return after the war.

Apparently, General MacArthur heard about her objection and came to visit her, reassuring her that he, personally, would make sure she could return to Japan after the war.

She agreed to become a decoder and translator for the duration of the war, and, true to his word, MacArthur made sure she was allowed to return.

Aunt Helen told family members that Yul Brynner, who went to school in China as a youngster, was also a decoder, but he had dark hair then.

She later retracted the story, saying she wasn’t sure it was him, but he was known to be a French-speaking radio announcer for the U.S. government, broadcasting into occupied France.

She returned to the Ferris Girls School, in Yokohama, Japan, where she had been a teacher before the war and worked until 1978, when she was 72.

But, I was always curious about the story she never told.

My brother asked her what she thought about Roosevelt. It was clear she didn’t like him.

Though I prompted her that she might not like him because he bombed two cities in Japan or that FDR reportedly knew of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor and did nothing to stop it, she cited security reasons as the reason she could not discuss it.

So, there was something she knew that had been wrapped in a cloak of security that she took to her grave.

My brother speculated that Aunt Helen believed Roosevelt could have kept Japan from coming into the war and that she blamed him for it.

My brother had read a book that said Roosevelt had asked his advisors what it would take to get Japan into the war.

They purportedly gave him a list of actions that might trigger Japan into declaring war, now known as the McCollum Memo, written October 17, 1940.

The memo outlines the U.S. danger at the time, with Germany, Italy and Japan allied and trying to defeat Great Britain.

Great Britain’s Navy was the only reason we still had some measure of security against this threat and it was clear that if Great Britain fell, the Axis powers would come after the U.S.

We did not have a standing army to help out Great Britain and were doing all we could to supply their Navy, while Japan had free rein to continue to grab as much of Asia as they could, including threatening Great Britain’s interests in Asia, such as Singapore, the Suez Canal and the supply route through the Indian Ocean.

The memo outlines Japan’s advantages and disadvantages and suggests that the U.S. could weaken Japan’s aggression, without hurting our ability to aid Great Britain, with a series of actions.

Japan had a skillful Navy, strong Army, highly centralized and capable government, stocks of raw materials and people inured to hardship.

However, they also were dependent on overseas routes to replenish their raw materials, not capable of increasing their war materials production and vulnerable to air attack.

Actions outlined in the memo, which the author, A.H. McCollum, in his capacity as director of the Office of Naval Intelligence’s Far East Section, recognized could draw Japan into war against us and that we must be prepared for that possibility, included:

  • Arrange with Great Britain to use British bases in the Pacific, like Singapore
  • Arrange with Holland to use facilities in the Dutch East Indies
  • Give all possible aid to the Chinese government and Chiang Kai-Shek
  • Send long range cruisers to the Orient, the Philippines or Singapore
  • Send two divisions of  submarines to the Pacific
  • Keep the U.S. Navy fleet in Hawaii
  • Ask the Dutch to honor the oil embargo against Japan
  • Embargo all trade with Japan in collaboration with Great Britain’s embargo.

The memo was sent to Navy Captains Dudley Knox and Walter Stratton Anderson, who agreed with its points.

Though Roosevelt never met McCollum and there is no proof he ever saw this memo, it was used by author Robert Stinnett, in his book, Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor to argue that Roosevelt goaded Japan into war with us.

At least one of Roosevelt’s admirals, Admiral Chester Nimitz, guessed that Japan would launch a surprise attack on our fleet in the Pacific.

I’ll never know what Aunt Helen knew or if this was why she didn’t like Roosevelt, but I’ll always be able to make Origami birds.

Aunt Helen died on January 2, 1983, at the age of 76.

The McCollum Memo was declassified in 1994.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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