Bill Kurtis reflects on the end of a retail — and radio — era
By BILL KURTIS Daily Splash columnist November 6, 2012 9:02PM
Iva Toguri D'Aquino
Updated: December 8, 2012 6:29AM
There’s a for-sale sign above the Toguri Mercantile gift shop on Belmont. That won’t mean much to most people, but for me, it triggers an epic story of war that reaches all the way from the Pacific to Clark Street.
I was a cub reporter for WBBM-TV in 1967 when an assignment editor with a sense of humor sent me to interview the woman known as Tokyo Rose, who was convicted of treason for broadcasting for the Japanese during World War II. She hadn’t spoken to the press in the 20 years since her trial and incarceration in West Virginia.
Fortunately, I didn’t know that. I found a lovely lady behind a cash register waiting on customers in her father’s import/export business. Iva Toguri D’Aquino was in her 50s, demure to the point of appearing shy as if still carrying the self-imposed burden of having embarrassed her family. And then she said, “I see you on television.” It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
As a UCLA graduate who was visiting a sick aunt in Japan when the war broke out, Iva was caught in an enemy nation at war. She didn’t speak Japanese, but read in the English-language newspaper that Radio Tokyo needed a typist to record American broadcasts. She got the job but stuck out among the Japanese staff like a lone stars-and-stripes flag in a field of rising suns. She caught the eye of an American POW who was brought in to produce a 15-minute segment within a longer radio broadcast called the Zero Hour. It was designed to broadcast messages from POWs to their relatives in the states, but it soon became intensely popular across the Pacific because of the latest music played by the female disc jockey, Orphan Ann.
“Hello you fighting orphans in the Pacific, this is after-her-weekend Orphan Ann … reception OK? Well, it better be because this is request night … the first is from the boss, and he wants Bonny Baker in ‘My Resistance is Low’… this is your No. 1 enemy, Orphan Ann, reminding you G.I.’s to always be good. Goodbye now.”
It was Iva all right. My father heard her during the battle of Okinawa. Navy and Army personnel listened throughout the Pacific to hear the latest American songs and the sweet sound of a female voice from home. But in not a single recording did she say, “Your ships are at the bottom of the ocean,” the phrase for which she was convicted of treason.
There were at least 12 other female voices on Radio Tokyo who undoubtedly made that statement as they delivered hard-core propaganda. When the first American reporters entered a devastated Japan, they rushed to meet two people: Prime Minister Tojo and Tokyo Rose. Since Iva was the only Japanese-American to keep her U.S. citizenship at Radio Tokyo, fingers pointed to her, even though there was never a personality known as Tokyo Rose. It was the G.I. name for the “siren voice of World War II.”
She was thrown in jail, investigated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and released for lack of evidence. When Iva asked to return to the U.S., she became the symbol of the enemy, the reminder of every G.I. who died. And finally, she was charged with treason.
After serving her prison term, Iva came home to Chicago to manage her father’s store on Clark Street. It would move to Belmont Avenue where Iva became a fixture in the community; her skills in organizing a gift shop overflowed to helping exchange students bridge the cultures of East and West. She was a strong presence at White Crane Wellness Center.
Years later two government witnesses who tipped the scales toward treason recanted their testimony. President Gerald Ford granted a full and unconditional pardon to Iva on Jan. 19, 1977, his last full day in office.
Iva died at age 90 in 2006 having lived a remarkably unlucky life with great dignity. She is proof of the adage that it can be a good life if you don’t weaken; Iva never weakened in her devotion to the country of her birth, the United States of America.
When I saw the for-sale sign above the Toguri Mercantile gift shop, I thought I heard the hollow sound of a scratchy, shortwave radio coming through the door. Instead it was the sound of history, of a wonderful woman who spent her life trying to escape a legend.
Bill Kurtis donated his fee for writing this column to the White Crane Wellness Center.