The Man Who Never Was (Easton-Cook’s War): Part 1, Hero or Fraud?

As the historical reality of Australia’s experience in World War II has receded into the past, comforting patriotic myths have sprung up to take its place. For example, many people today would think that during the war Australians by and large flocked to do their bit for the country. But not all of them did so, not by any means.

Kenneth Easton-Cook was one who did not.

One version of Easton-Cook’s story has been told by the Sydney historian Drew Cottle, a version in which Easton-Cook appears as a patriotic intelligence agent who risked his life for his country. In Cottle’s words, while working for Australian intelligence agencies Easton-Cook passed himself off ‘as a Japanese sympathiser and agent, while engaging in counter espionage that revealed both the extent of Japanese plans to absorb Australia into its empire and the identities of some of the prominent Australians they believed would cooperate in its administration and policing’. In other words, the identities of potential collaborators.

Cottle also noted that Easton-Cook (1912–1987) was a source for Document J, a memorandum alleging just such a willingness to collaborate, along with many other instances of corruption and treason, among Australian political and business elites. Document J was written in 1953 by the communist journalist Rupert Lockwood for his intelligence contacts in the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, and when it came to light during the Petrov Affair, the Cold War espionage scandal, it became the most notorious document in Australian political history.

Cottle’s account is based on interviews that he conducted with Easton-Cook in the last years of the former intelligence operative’s life. In the mid-1980s Lockwood had suggested to Cottle that Easton-Cook was potentially an interesting source for the murkier aspects of Australia’s wartime history, and the historian had tracked him down in retirement in Condoblin. The story Easton-Cook told Cottle was an extraordinary one, punctuated by sensational episodes such as an attempt by Japanese intelligence agents in Sydney to seduce and even to kill him. He had also, he said, survived an assassination attempt by ASIO in the 1970s.

But Easton-Cook’s personal records had been almost completely  destroyed in a suspicious fire in the theatrette he had run at 85 Darlinghurst Road Kings Cross for thirty years. (Despite the fire, the building still stands.) And when Easton-Cook sought official acknowledgement from the Department of Defence of his wartime service with Military Intelligence, none was forthcoming. Much to Easton-Cook’s regret and indignation, this meant that he could offer no documentary evidence to back up his testimony to Cottle.

Easton-Cook’s story of skullduggery in wartime Sydney had significant political overtones. From the late 1930s on, it was an article of faith among the Australian Left that there was a cabal of senior conservatives, politicians and businessmen, who sympathised with Japan and who would have collaborated with Japanese authorities in the event of a successful invasion. In Document J Rupert Lockwood took this theory one step further, to claim that prior to Pearl Harbor, certain members of this cabal had been in touch with the Japanese authorities to prepare the way for their collaboration – in other words, that there had been a Fifth Column in Australia who committed actual treason. Among these Lockwood singled out – on the basis of information provided by Easton-Cook – the conservative grandee Percy Spender, who served first as Treasurer, then as Minister for the Army in Robert Menzies’ wartime government. By the time of the Petrov Affair in 1954, Spender was Australian Ambassador in Washington.

In 1939-1940 there were some strong arguments in favour of maintaining good relations with Japan, however bad the military regime in Tokyo. Japan was Australia’s second largest export market and many sincerely believed that Japanese aggression could be contained by international diplomatic efforts, to which Australia contributed. In mid-1940 Canberra and Tokyo upgraded their diplomatic relationship to ambassador level. However, the fact that many believed that appeasing Japan was in Australia’s national interest is one thing; to infer from that – as Lockwood and others would do – that behind these attitudes lurked a full-blown collaborationist conspiracy is quite another.

There certainly were in Australia – as in Britain and the US – powerful figures who were well-disposed to Japan, prepared to excuse or even welcome its brutal war of aggression in China. And not-so-powerful figures, too, like the members of the anti-Semitic, anti-British Australia First Movement, some of whom who were controversially interned in 1942. And there were some disturbing precedents. Following the German conquest of Western Europe in 1940 right-wingers and opportunists of all shades had thrust themselves forward to offer their services to their new masters. Wild rumours about highly placed traitors in Britain circulated in Sydney’s pubs. The British government even shunted the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, off to the Bahamas from fear that his pro-German sentiment would turn into outright support for a Nazi invasion of the UK.

And in the 27 months between the outbreak of the war in Europe and the outbreak of war in the Pacific, Japanese officials in Sydney certainly did expend considerable effort – and money – promoting an atmosphere which would foster collaboration. So it was not outlandish to believe that collaborators would appear if Australia were to be occupied by the Japanese. But apart from the crackpots of the Australia First Movement, no evidence of an incipient collaborationist movement in Australia has ever emerged. 

At one point Drew Cottle, referring to the fact that Easton-Cook’s patriotic wartime service for his country had never been  acknowledged, described him as ‘the man who never was’: a description that is indeed accurate, but probably not in the way that Cottle intended it. Because there is another version of Easton-Cook’s story, one contained in the files of the intelligence agencies of the time, which shows him in quite a different light: as a fraud and a shonk.

These files do confirm some of what Easton-Cook told Cottle: that he presented himself to the Japanese Consulate as someone with good access to senior Australian political and military figures whom he might be able to sway to the Japanese cause. And, that he presented himself to the Australian intelligence agencies as someone with good access to Japanese commercial and official circles in Sydney, and therefore well able to keep tabs on their nefarious activities. He worked both sides of the street.

But the files also reveal a dimension that is missing in Cottle’s account: that Easton-Cook was a fabulist and charlatan who exploited his quite brief relationship with the intelligence agencies to avoid military service. And, that when these agencies woke up to his frauds – for example, his claimed mastery of Japanese, when in fact his grasp of the language was negligible – they repudiated him. Despite this, Easton-Cook went on to find new ways to stay out of uniform, ending the war as the proprietor of a thriving business in Darlinghurst Road Kings Cross – from among whose female staff he recruited his sexual partners.

What follows is an account of how Easton-Cook gamed the system. And one of the reasons he was able to do so was because he was playing off a byzantine intelligence apparatus.

Readers of Major Hashida’s Diary will recall that in 1940, when Easton-Cook’s intelligence activities were at their dubious height, the main Australian agency was the Army’s Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence – MI for short. Among its sections, Ia was responsible for intelligence about the capabilities and intentions of Australia’s foreign enemies: Germany, Italy and Japan. Ib dealt with domestic security and counter-intelligence and in Sydney it operated out of Victoria Barracks in Paddington. Ic was the censorship arm, based in Reservoir Street Surry Hills. In the wartime context ‘censorship’ meant the scrutiny of letters and messages in the postal and telegraphic system; the manual ancestor of today’s mass electronic surveillance systems.

In NSW, Ib section acted in close cooperation with the Police, through a joint organisation called MPI – Military Police Intelligence. MPI was a bureaucratic structure unique to NSW: formalising the informal practice in other states, Army officers directed its operations – such as choosing whom to target – and the police did the legwork of surveillance and investigation.

Then there was the Commonwealth Investigation Branch (CIB), a small-scale, federal, civilian organisation whose focus before the war had been on communists and radical labour activists. Other intelligence players included the RAN’s Naval Intelligence Division, which ran its own domestic network, and the Commonwealth Postmaster General’s Department – the remote ancestor of Telstra, which intercepted telephonic communications on request from Military Intelligence.

This was the labyrinth in which Easton-Cook found a safe and lucrative niche.

Next: Easton-Cook, ‘Japanese sympathiser’

(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.)

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