Judith Keene


On her book Treason on the Airwaves: Three Allied Broadcasters on Axis Radio During World War Two

Cover Interview of May 01, 2011

The wide angle

As a child after the Second World War, I had often heard the grown ups talking about “Tokyo Rose,” the husky-voiced Japanese siren who supposedly taunted our soldiers in the Pacific with salacious stories about the sexual high jinks of their wives and girlfriends at home.  I was profoundly shocked that anyone could be so wicked.  In the family’s story-telling, my favorite uncle’s marriage difficulties and post war problems were somehow tied up with this terrible woman.

Of course I knew only the mythologized story that had little relation to the real Iva Toguri. And it had been exaggerated and elaborated in the telling and retelling. When war was declared my uncle immediately joined up and was fighting in Malaya.

Though it now seems almost inconceivable, all contact with these British and Australian military units was lost in early 1942, when Singapore fell.  Neither government or families had any idea where these men were or whether they were alive or dead.

My grandmother heard that the names of prisoners of war in Japanese captivity were read from time to time over Japanese shortwave.  In an era in Australia when radios were not common, she bought a short wave set so that she could tune in to Radio Tokyo.  Although it was forbidden by the Australian government, as it was by the American, she spent every evening glued to the set in the hope of hearing some word of her son.  She never did.  But she carefully noted any names that she could catch over the airwaves in order to pass the information on.

Nothing was heard of my uncle until he came home at the end of the war, skinny as a scarecrow and never again quite himself. He had spent the intervening years as a POW slaving on the infamous Burma railway.

I came to this wonderful topic via the Spanish civil war.  While writing a book about the European extreme right and Franco’s Spain, I kept coming across references in the archives to John Amery.  Like his father and his brother, stout Franco supporters, John spent a good deal of time during the Spanish civil war, in Nationalist Spain.  He dabbled in a whole range of nefarious business activities within the ultra rightist circles that were drawn to Franco’s cause.  In Burgos, John made many of the pro-Nazi connections that he took up with such relish in Europe once World War Two began.

Treason and broadcasting then led me to the very different examples of Charles Cousens and Iva Toguri.  Once begun, the research was riveting.  I found, and still find, these vivid individuals and their remarkable lives as engrossing as is the very best cinema. Indeed, I think that each of the narratives—or rather Amery separately and Toguri and Cousens together—are the stuff of marvelous movies.