Police Contact Group (Honolulu)

Active during World War II, the Police Contact Group evolved from a rally at McKinley High School in June 1941 that 2,000 people had attended. [1] Following that event, a group of Nisei went to the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) to volunteer their services. They were directed to a young police officer, John Burns, who organized them into a network of young Japanese Americans who would to serve as contacts in Japanese neighborhoods. Once the war began, these Nisei were charged with the responsibility of "checking out scare rumors, quieting the sense of fear, outlining the harsh realities of martial law and translating information to those of the immigration generation who spoke no English." [2] Working together with HPD Special Detail officers, Police Contact Group members assisted in the surveillance of Japanese communities in Hawai'i during the war.

Prewar Military Concerns of Japanese "Undesirables" [3]

Long before the outbreak of war, there was concern that the large number of Japanese in Hawai'i posed a danger to territorial and national security, and this became one justification, among others, for the enactment of martial law and internment in Hawai'i. [4] Suspicions about Japanese loyalty and tractability had been earlier confirmed by Japanese labor activism in the 1909 and 1920 strikes, which the media portrayed as nationalistic activities by a distinctly un-American ethnic group who resisted assimilation efforts. Additionally, the involvement of Japanese defendants in two high-profile crimes—the Jamieson murder and the Massie case —seemed to reflect the threat Japanese posed to the white elite and military population.

Thus, as early as 1935, the army established the Army Service Command, which created a partnership between "civil control forces" and the military to prevent sabotage and local uprisings. [5] The army's plan for civilian warfare in Hawai'i also led to the creation of a paramilitary organization called the Provisional Police in July 1940. Led by plantation manager T.G.S. Walker, its mission was to prevent and suppress any emergency, such as "sudden and unpredicted overt acts by disloyal inhabitants. [6] " Through the efforts of the army, the Honolulu mayor, the chief of police, and plantation managers on O'ahu, the Provisional Police was established to allow civilians to participate in defending Hawai'i against possible attack. In addition to the army, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also became interested in looking for subversives within Hawai'i's Japanese community. In August 1939, just before war broke out in Europe, the FBI reopened its Honolulu office, which it had closed years earlier. FBI agents joined the efforts of army and navy intelligence staffs, which had been compiling lists of anti-American suspects, mainly those of Japanese ancestry. Together, they developed more detailed information regarding the Japanese population in the Islands, focusing surveillance on both the older group of 35,000 Issei aliens and the younger 120,000 Nisei and Sansei , many of whom held dual citizenship.

The Police Espionage Bureau and Police Contact Group

The FBI also gained the assistance of the HPD, which at the FBI's request formed an Espionage Bureau. This entity was established in December 1940, following the approval of Police Chief Gabrielson, the mayor, and Board of Supervisors. The police bureau employed a Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, and "Hapa-Haole" (Japanese-White), all of whom spoke Japanese, to investigate matters for the FBI, army, and naval intelligence and to engage in undercover activities within Hawai'i's Japanese community. Police Captain John A. Burns served as the head of the Espionage Bureau from January 1, 1941, and was the liaison with certain Japanese who advised United States military and civilian intelligence bureaus on Japanese activities. [7] Throughout 1941, a total of 550 investigations were made by the Bureau with the majority of cases (86%) referred through the FBI. [8] Much of what the Espionage Bureau did, Burns recalled, was in response to questions raised by the FBI about people's background, general reputation, and activities to determine personal loyalties. Espionage Bureau personnel also examined general Japanese sentiments and potential racial tensions. [9]

Despite the work of the Espionage Bureau, as relations between the United States and Japan deteriorated in 1941, the demand for intelligence on the Japanese community increased. Fortuitously for Burns, six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese community leaders of the Oahu Citizens Committee for Home Defense called a public meeting at McKinley High School, where they proposed an organization of Japanese Americans to police the Japanese community in the event of war. [10] The FBI and Chief Gabrielson agreed that such an organization was not acceptable. However, they did consent to an alternative proposal to create an organization called the Police Contact Group, a network of loyal Japanese Americans who would report regularly to the HPD through Burns. [11] Gabrielson asked Burns to coordinate efforts and to submit names to the FBI for clearance. The first meeting was scheduled for Monday, December 8 and canceled after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor Attack and Police Response

By noon, December 7, mere hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, Burns was closeted in meetings with Shivers and Colonel George W. Bicknell, head of counterintelligence for the U.S. Army in Hawai'i. Together they went over lists of possible security risks and each of the three men had a vote. "If two of us voted yes," Burns recalled, "he was a risk." Burns noted that these individuals had been "completely investigated" partly through the efforts of the Espionage Bureau. [12] Thus, as arrests began that day of suspected individuals in the community, HPD officers provided critical manpower.

Within a week of the Pearl Harbor attack, federal authorities stopped consulting Burns and his Espionage Bureau about who should be interned; instead, they continued to use this unit to track down a number of rumors of evidence of Japanese disloyalty. [13] None, however, led to any evidence of espionage. Yet, the Police Contact Group, which constituted "over fifty guys, scattered throughout the islands," continued to be active throughout 1942. [14] Although its members were listed as part of the Emergency Service Committee (ESC), Burns noted that while the Group was "never organized," it became a "hellauva good idea" because it became a good method of "getting information out where the paper didn't get it, or didn't put it rightly." [1] Burns added that it served a critical purpose of "quieting rumors down, because the boys who in one district would pick up that their people in that community got a big rumor they could call me, get the straight information, and take it back and cut the rumor." Besides promoting blood bank donations and war bond sales, Burns noted that it "furnished a very valuable asset on what's going on in the community," giving him evidence of Japanese loyalty while he simultaneously pushed for allowing Japanese Americans entry into the armed services. However, in both his biography and oral history, Burns fails to note the police surveillance of the Japanese community that continued at least throughout 1942 that was in part based on the information obtained by his Police Contact Group. Additionally, from the Contact Group's more diligent workers came the leaders of the ESC, which served as the Morale Section of the Japanese community to spearhead various efforts to prove the loyalty of its members.

Collaboration and Internal Community Surveillance

While some may have appreciated the efforts of members of the Police Contact Group and the ESC, others in the Japanese community were not receptive to these efforts. [15] Some members of the Japanese community referred to ESC and Police Contact Group members and Burns himself as inu (dogs) and accused them of trying to win favoritism by cooperating with the government as they were regarded as "patriotic zealots" and "self-appointed stool pigeons" for the military authorities. [16] In the mainland incarceration camps, allegations of "informer" and "collaborator" used to identify alleged inu sparked beatings and riots at Poston and Manzanar ; one incident resulted in two deaths and nine wounded. [17] In Hawai'i, similar violent incidents did not occur but the use of the word inu suggests that some did not fully embrace the Americanization efforts to prove the loyalty of the Japanese community. Possibly these efforts prevented the mass incarceration of the Japanese population and became the basis for the postwar activism of Hawai'i's Democratic Party and Nisei politicians who had ties with the ESC and Burns.


The actions of the Police Contact Group, which have not been closely examined in the dominant literature, offer critical insights into the experiences of Japanese in Hawai'i living under martial law—men and women military and civilian authorities extensively investigated throughout 1942. In addition to official military surveillance, some individuals within the Japanese community actively assisted authorities in monitoring ethnic neighborhoods. Thus, while some established their reputation during World War II through their efforts to mobilize the Japanese community by cooperating with authorities, others became targets of police visits to ensure compliance with military and civilian orders revealing the collusion of internal and external interests.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura , University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Allen, Gwenfread. Hawaii's War Years . Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1971.

Boylan, Dan and T. Michael Holmes. John A. Burns: The Man and His Times . Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.

Coffman, Tom. Catch a Wave: Hawaii's New Politics . Honolulu: Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 1972.

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians . Washington D.C.: Civil Liberties Public Education Fund; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Hawaii, Office of the Military Governor, Morale Section, Emergency Service Committee, Final Report of the Emergency Service Committee (Honolulu: n.p., 1946.

Kotani, Roland. The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle . Honolulu: The Hawaii Hochi, Ltd.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Sentiment in Hawaii, 1865-1945 . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Tom Coffman, Catch a Wave: Hawaii's New Politics (Honolulu: Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 1972), 17-19. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Hawai'i Council for the Humanities . Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ftnt_ref1" defined multiple times with different content
  2. Coffman, 19.
  3. "History of the G-2 Section Part II," Japanese Internment and Relocation: The Hawaii Experience, University of Hawai'i, Hamilton Library, Special Collections [henceforth JIRHE] Item 230, 13.
  4. Gary Y. Okihiro, Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Sentiment in Hawaii, 1865-1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 106.
  5. Gwenfread Allen, Hawaii's War Years (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1971), 65.
  6. Okihiro, 196.
  7. John Anthony Burns, John A. Burns Oral History Project . Tape No. 4, pg. 1.
  8. Honolulu Police Department, Annual Report: Police Department, City and County of Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii 1941 , "Police," 31.01. The Romanzo Adams Social Research Laboratory (RASRL) Collection, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Archives, Hamilton Library [henceforth RASRL].
  9. "General Information, Richard C. Miller Espionage Bureau, December 3 1941," RASRL.
  10. Members of the Oahu Citizens Committee for Home Defense who helped to identify "beat leaders" of certain districts included "Dr. [Shunzo] Sakamaki, Jack Wakayama, Lt. [Yoshio] Hasegawa, Mr. W. Amioka, Mr. G. Eguchi, Mr. Masatoshi Katagiri, Mr. M. Maneki, Mr. S. Higashino, Mr. Paul Morihara, Mr. Shigeo Yoshida, and Mr. Clifton Yamamoto." "Honolulu Police Department Contact Group," pg. 1. RASRL.
  11. John Anthony Burns, John A. Burns Oral History Project . Tape No. 4, pg. 5-6.
  12. John Anthony Burns, John A. Burns Oral History Project . Tape No. 4, pg. 2, 3.
  13. Dan Boylan and T. Michael Holmes. John A. Burns: The Man and His Times (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000), 17.
  14. John Anthony Burns, John A. Burns Oral History Project . Tape No. 4, pg. 6.
  15. As the Emergency Service Committee was organizing meetings on Oahu, Hans L'Orange, manager of O'ahu Sugar's plantation at Waipahu refused to allow Burns to organize any meetings on the premises believing that it would be disruptive to his workers. Both Burns and military intelligence felt that Waipahu, "a virtual Japanese ghetto," strategically located next to Pearl Harbor, had to participate in the program. After personally approaching L'Orange, who remained intransigent, Burns went to the Hawaii Sugar Planters' Association (HSPA) and urged them to encourage L'Orange to participate. Within days, the HSPA notified Burns that L'Orange was more than happy to participate in the program. Boylan, 63-64.
  16. Boylan, 64; Roland Kotani, The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle (Honolulu: The Hawaii Hochi, Ltd.,) 99.
  17. United States. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington D.C.: Civil Liberties Public Education Fund; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997) 179-180.

Last updated June 10, 2015, 1:06 a.m..