Trawling for Spies

A new article in Intelligence and National Security by Stephen G. Craft reveals how the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) ran a counterintelligence program using fishermen along the southern Atlantic seaboard during the Second World War. Expecting that the Axis would land agents on US shores (something that happened, but only rarely) and use German and Italian-American fishermen to support U-boat operations (which seems to have happened not at all), ONI created Selected Masters & Informants (SMI) sections under naval district intelligence officers to recruit fishermen as confidential informants. Their operations caught no spies but offered some comfort that subversion was never rampant along the coast.

For fifty years from 1916 to 1966, the district intelligence officers were ONI’s contribution to local counterintelligence, security, and information-gathering in US coastal areas. The official responsibilities of the district intelligence officer were numerous. According to Wyman Packard’s A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence they included:

maintenance of press relations for district headquarters; liaison with the investigating units of federal, state, and city agencies within the naval district; liaison with public and private research agencies and with business interests having information in intelligence fields; liaison with ONI and the intelligence services of the other naval districts, and with forces afloat within the district; counterespionage, security, and investigations; collection, evaluation, and recording of information regarding persons or organizations of value (or opposed) to the Navy; preparation and maintenance of intelligence plans for war; and administrative supervision over the recruiting, training, and activities of the appropriate personnel of the Naval Reserve within the district.

The position was only eliminated in 1966, when its investigative and counterintelligence duties passed to the Naval Investigative Service, its intelligence-collection duties to local Naval Field Operational Support Groups, and its other sundry tasks to the district staff intelligence officer.

Admiral Ingersoll, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, and Rear Admiral James at Charleston, South Carolina during an inspection of the Sixth Naval District, 23 November 1943. Courtesy of Mrs. Arthur C. Nagle. Collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 90955.

In October 1942, the creation of SMI sections added recruiting fishermen as counterintelligence agents to the long list of task mentioned above. By January 1943, the SMI sections had recruited 586 agents, 200 of them in the Sixth Naval District (headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina). Ship owners were paid $50 to cover installation of a radiotelephone, which were provided to about 50 craft. Otherwise masters were to report by carrier pigeon (the Navy operated lofts in Mayport, Florida and St Simon’s Island, Georgia) or by collect call once ashore. Some masters also received nautical charts that were overprinted with a confidential Navy grid for reporting purposes.

Shrimp fleet in harbor, St. Augustine, St. Johns County, Florida, 1936 or 1937. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/csas200800452/. (Accessed April 20, 2017.)

The absence of winter shrimp fishing, a tendency to cluster in good fishing spots, and the total absence of enemy covert activity all combined to limit the program’s impact. Further south in the Seventh District (headquartered in Jacksonville and Miami, Florida), most fishing was done so close to shore that the district did not bother to implement the program. In a few cases fishing boats were attacked by U-boat and two confidential observers were reportedly killed in submarine attacks. Though the program operated until V-J Day, few reports of interest were ever received. Similar operations took place elsewhere in the US as well, with scattered references in Packard’s Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence to fishing vessels as observers in other naval districts too.

Shrimp boats were the basis for both overt and covert surveillance. Navy patrol craft like the YP-487 were known as “Shrimpers” because of their origins as commercial fishing boats. Collection of the Navy History and Heritage Command, NH 106994.

How successful you consider the program will depend on how plausible you consider the Navy’s fear of subversion and agent landings. However, the idea of using commercial seafarers as observers and informants clearly proved itself enough to resurface from time to time after the war. In 1947, the Chief of Naval Operations issued a letter authorizing the placing of informants on US merchant ships to detect any crew members involved in subversive activities (this was known as the Special Observer–Merchant Marine Plan). In 1955, merchant ships and fishing vessels were included in plans to collect “merchant intelligence” (MERINT) on sightings of ships, submarines, and aircraft (both efforts referenced in Packard). Did the use of fishermen for counterintelligence continue into the 1960s or beyond? If so, there might have been agents on the boats involved in joint US–Soviet fishing enterprises of the 1980s, carefully watching the Soviets carefully watch the Americans.

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