Easton-Cook’s War, or The Man Who Never Was: Part 2, 1940

Part I introduced the two versions of the story of Kenneth Easton-Cook; one, that he was a heroic spy in the service of his country; the other, that he was a fraud bent on avoiding military service.

Kenneth Easton-Cook had more front than Mark Foys.

Of his activities during the 1930s, Easton-Cook would later claim to have variously spent four years roaming the Pacific, to have worked as a journalist in both China and Japan, to have represented his father’s boot-manufacturing firm in Japan, and to have been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service MI6. None of these claims can be substantiated. He does not appear in the available immigration records and while he claimed that in 1937 he published stories in the Australian newspapers the Age and Smith’s Weekly under the byline ‘Foreign Correspondent’, a search of the newspaper archives reveals no such articles.

Nevertheless Easton-Cook may have spent some time in Asia, because by 1939 he was offering his services as an expert on Japan to Australian intelligence services, and he was plausible enough to be taken seriously – to begin with, at least.

In Australia, the opening phase of the War was something of a lull. The Government, concerned that an all-out mobilisation would disrupt the economy, officially adopted a stance of ‘business as usual’, and troops destined for service in the Middle East were only slowly recruited. But the lull ended abruptly with the German conquest of Western Europe in May-June 1940: recruitment surged and civilians began to feel the brunt of the war. The first step in a system of rationing – limits on petrol sales – were introduced. Then in January 1941 Australian ground troops for the first time went into combat in North Africa.

Meanwhile, in Australian cities a small but highly visible Japanese community carried on their business – Japanese textile mills, for example, provided the khaki cloth for Australian uniforms. But the threat of war in Asia continued to grow. In late 1940 Japan began to occupy French Indochina; in reaction the United States imposed crippling sanctions on oil exports to Japan. Fears of a Japanese counter-move to American sanctions, in the form of a military offensive to seize the Western colonies of South East Asia and driving on to Australia, grew stronger.

One of the more important intelligence officers working in Australia during WWII was the RAN’s Director of Naval Intelligence, Lieutenant Commander Rupert Long – among his activities he oversaw the vital Coastwatcher network which monitored Japanese activities in the South Pacific. Long would later feature in Easton-Cook’s reminiscences to Cottle, and it was he who handled Easton-Cook’s initial approach to the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) in early 1939.

In Melbourne in his late teens Easton-Cook had served briefly in the RAAF, but when Long inquired about his record there he discovered that the young reservist had been ignominiously discharged from the Air Force because he never turned up for duty – although he did fail to return his RAAF-issued greatcoat: a characteristic touch. Despite this unpromising start, Long’s inquiry was the beginning of a connection between Easton-Cook and NID which lasted for fourteen months before the Navy severed the connection.

As far as the Army went, Easton-Cook first appears in the records of Military Intelligence (MI) in April 1940, at which point he was described as living with his mother and sister in Watsons Bay, and enjoying an ‘independent income’.

In June 1940 Easton-Cook reported to MI on a meeting he had had with Vice Consul Kenichi Otabe, at which the diplomat had divulged some of the diabolical schemes being hatched in the Japanese Consulate on York Street. One was to influence public opinion by broadcasting Japanese propaganda from a ship cruising outside Australian territorial waters. Otabe also revealed that he was bribing a swathe of Australian politicians, and that Joseph Lamaro, former NSW Attorney General and protégé of maverick Labor politician Jack Lang, acted as the Consulate’s intermediary in these payments. At this point Lang’s breakaway Australian Labor Party (Non-Communist) – to give its full title – had five MPs in Federal Parliament, so it would have been worth suborning. Lang’s splinter group would rejoin the ALP in February 1941.

Three weeks later a police sergeant came across Easton-Cook and Otabe drinking in upstairs Ushers Hotel in Castlereagh Street. It was evening, and so the pair were breaking the restrictive liquor laws of the day, which forbade drinking after 6 p.m. But when the policeman challenged them, Easton-Cook came to the defence of his Japanese friend, saying that Otabe did not need to answer because he was a diplomat. He then followed the policeman downstairs and explained that he himself ‘was doing Secret Service work and that he was there with the Japanese endeavouring to obtain some information from him’. The policeman was skeptical about Easton-Cook’s claim to be an intelligence agent, particularly as he blurted it out in front of the publican.

In fact Easton-Cook and Otabe were celebrating a minor public relations coup for Japan, for on that day the Melbourne Age had published a letter to the editor by Easton-Cook which defended the Japanese position in Asia. ‘The New Order in East Asia is not a catch-phrase’, Easton-Cook proclaimed,‘it is a reality … Our future is in the Pacific – and not the Atlantic’.

As 1940 drew on, it became clear that the Japanese were going to need more Australians like Easton-Cook to spruik their position. By the first week of September the Sydney press was prominently reporting Washington’s warning to Tokyo that any Japanese move against French Indochina or the Dutch East Indies would draw an American reaction. Canberra made its own diplomatic gesture to the international campaign to restrain Japan, announcing that although in 1939 it had sold 500,000 tons of wheat to Japan on credit, such credit facilities were unlikely to be offered again.

Then on 27 September 1940 Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, formalising the Axis Alliance. This was not a declaration of war: there were still fourteen months left to go before Pearl Harbour. But Japan was now unequivocally the friend of Australia’s enemies and attitudes hardened on both sides. Japanese and part-Japanese families who had long been accepted by Australian society were now shunned. The Sydney manager of Okura Trading, who had lived in Australia for twenty years, was spat on by a stranger in the street.

To counter this increasingly hostile public opinion, the Japanese Consulate floated a vehicle to channel pro-Japanese views, the ‘Pan-Australian Society’ – the 1940 equivalent of commissioning a social media campaign. This was intended to bring together a group of influential ‘British’ – i.e. white – Australians who would present Tokyo’s case in a good light. The Consulate asked Easton-Cook to help with the launch and he threw himself into the project – while keeping his overseers in Military Intelligence informed of its progress. In fact, the proposed aims of the organisation were drafted by Easton-Cook with the help of his handler in Military Intelligence, Major Reginald Powell. In civilian life Powell worked in advertising, and between them the two produced a document garnished with content-free rhetoric: the proposed motto for the Society was ‘Patriotism is the Vital Condition of National Permanence’.

The inaugural meeting was held in a restaurant in Potts Point. Only about 20 people showed up but at least three of these were spooks, with Military Intelligence, the Commonwealth Investigation Branch and the Japanese Consulate all represented, each hoping the Society would become a source of recruits and information. Easton-Cook got himself elected honorary secretary and with characteristic chutzpah went around hailing the Pan-Australian Society as a great success, trumpeting the claim that both the distinguished retired Rear-Admiral Harry Feakes and Percy Spender – at this point Federal Treasurer – were both strong supporters of the organisation. Like much of what Easton-Cook said this was untrue, because in fact the Society folded after just one more meeting.

Unabashed by this failure, Easton-Cook looked around for other patrons in the intelligence establishment. He presented himself at the state office of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch in the Commonwealth Bank Building in Martin Place. There, he offered his services to the regional director of the CIB, telling him that he was ‘on very friendly terms with the Japanese Consulate’. He also stated that he was working for both Military and Naval Intelligence, but the CIB declined Easton-Cook’s offer of his services.

By now Easton-Cook’s habit of big-noting himself was attracting attention. In pubs all around Sydney, he was telling anyone who would listen that not only was he an agent for Australian Military and Naval Intelligence, but that Mitsumi Yanase – a Japanese naval intelligence officer working out of the Sydney Consulate – had asked him to spy for Japan as well.

By November 1940 Easton-Cook’s habit of trading on his supposed intelligence connections had become so brazen that Military Police Intelligence – the joint army/police organisation – mounted its own investigation of him. First MPI asked Naval Intelligence whether Easton-Cook worked for them; the Navy replied that Easton-Cook had ‘voluntarily offered his services in connection with secret service work, but in April of this year such services were dispensed with as he was regarded as being unreliable’. And yet two years later Easton-Cook would still be telling people he worked for Naval Intelligence.

Then MPI asked their colleagues in Military Intelligence, who refused to confirm or deny that Easton-Cook was one of theirs. But clearly at this stage, he was still working for MI, because in November they gave him a press pass, which allowed him access to restricted areas like Sydney’s wharves.

In the end, MPI concluded that Easton-Cook was motivated entirely by the pursuit of ‘limelight and notoriety’. It is a verdict that has stood the test of time.

Meanwhile, the failure of the Pan-Australia Society hadn’t stopped Easton-Cook coming up with ideas on how to improve relations between Australia and Japan – particularly if the Japanese Consulate could be persuaded to fund him.

By now Easton-Cook was developing the business which would become his mainstay: a theatrette – a small cinema which screened the short news features called newsreels – the equivalent of today’s video clips. On 30 October 1940 he wrote to Consul General Akiyama proposing that the Consulate provide him with newsreels about Japan – i.e. Japanese propaganda – free of charge. Akiyama’s response has not survived, but by August 1941 Easton-Cook’s ‘Newsreel Theatrette’ would be up and running in Darlinghurst Road.

Next: Easton-Cook, cinema proprietor

(Nick Hordern is the co-author, with Michael Duffy, of two histories of the Sydney underworld: ‘Sydney Noir’, which covers 1966-1972; and ‘World War Noir’, which covers 1939-1945. Both are published by NewSouth Publishing.)

Click Here to Purchase War Noir : Sydney’s unpatriotic war

Click Here to Purchase Sydney Noir : The Golden Years