“JAP SOLDIERS SWARM IN WOODS OF MAINE? Yellow Peril Threatens New England and New York … — Startling Disclosures by Disgruntled Agent of the Mikado”
This astonishing headline appeared in the Bangor Daily News on May 15, 1913, a century ago this week. Were Japanese military forces planning an invasion of the United States by railroad through the Maine woods? The source for this improbable tale was said to be a disgruntled agent for the Japanese government who happened to be passing through Bangor one night when he met the reporter at “the office” — probably a euphemism for the barroom — at the Penobscot Exchange, the large hotel on Exchange Street just down the street from the newspaper.
Was the story an elaborate hoax concocted by a tipsy reporter or was there perhaps some shred of truth to it — perhaps only the presence of a Japanese spy spreading diversionary tales in smoke-filled bar rooms. Even if totally untrue, the story’s appearance in one of the city’s daily newspapers is testimony to the fears Mainers had about the flood of immigrants entering their state and about out-of-state financial interests controlling their railroads.
The story followed on the heels of a similar one in the Hearst papers, great perpetrators of yellow journalism, that Japanese interests had purchased “elevated lands” around DuPont gunpowder factories in Delaware with the intention of mounting guns and blowing up the United States’ chief source of high explosives.
The backdrop for all this sensationalism was the latest dispute with Japan over the treatment of Asians in California. In this case, the California Alien Land Act of 1913 was going to place restrictions on the ownership of property in the Golden State. It was one more effort to block Asian immigrants, provoking rumors of war between the United States and Japan.
Utamayo Tchaido, the Japanese secret agent alleged to have been in Bangor in May of 1913, was described as “a discreet Formosan” of Malaysian descent who had a falling out with his employer over the financial arrangements of his retirement. The Bangor reporter accosted him in the street outside the hotel where he asked for further clarification of comments Tchaido had made to a group of men inside boasting that the United States would easily defeat the Japanese in a war.
In summary, Tchaido had outlined a vast conspiracy in the Maine woods. He claimed that some or most of the thousands of immigrants identified as “Slavs and Poles and Finns” who entered the woods to cut trees each year were really “Japanese … military and naval men of the highest grade, including engineers who had been trained in the great schools of England and the Continent … He himself had superintended their transportation from Vancouver to Boston and New York and thence to Bangor and the Maine woods,” wrote the reporter.
Mr. Tchaido claimed they had replaced the native Mainers and Canadians who had previously worked in the Maine woods, and they were the reason why the food in the lumber camps had suddenly improved so dramatically. Of course, this change in the work force — except the Japanese connection — and the alleged improvement in lumber camp food had been reported previously in the Bangor newspapers, and this interpretation must have been quite a shock — or a joke — to most readers.
Mr. Tchaido attributed the financing of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, which stretched from northern Maine to Penobscot Bay, to the Japanese government intent on providing an infrastructure for its military conquest. He referred to early Maine press reports that the building of such a large railroad made no economic sense, and that surely it would fall into the hands of the Canadian-Pacific or some other larger entity before it was over.
The alleged foreign agent dismissed the idea of a California invasion by Japan, an event the tabloid press had been predicting. The fuss in California was merely a diversion intended to draw attention from the real field of action, he said.
“‘Be sure,’ said he, shaking a lean finger at the reporter, ‘be sure that when Japan attacks America, as she surely will, it will not, as your people suppose, be upon the Pacific coast … She will make a demonstration in that direction, long enough to draw your navy around to the Pacific, and then she will strike swiftly and terribly upon your richer eastern coast. What is California to the east? New York City alone is [worth] more than the entire Pacific coast,” asserted Tchaido.
With this warning, he “smiled icily, wished that the United States might wipe Japan from the earth, and expressed the conviction that while at first America would suffer greatly in the end she would make a ruin of the hopes and ambitions of Nippon.” While Mr. Tchaido was wrong about the invasion route, one can still shiver a bit today at the truth of his overall insight into the future — or that of the reporter who created him. Pearl Harbor was still three decades away.
That afternoon, the Bangor Daily Commercial, which was responsible for one of the recent stories concerning immigrants in Maine’s logging camps, had fun ridiculing the seemingly crazy story cooked up by its rival that morning.
RED HOT WAR NEWS, its headline declared. “Aroostook War Dwarfed by ‘Japanese Invasion.’” The reference to the “Bloodless” Aroostook War a few decades earlier would not have been lost on readers.
The newspaper invented a series of fantasy “dispatches from the front” to illustrate the nature of the war stories Mainers could expect to be reading soon.
VEAZIE — Japanese railroad workers had been seen late at night rebuilding the old Veazie railway. “The logical deduction is that the Japanese army engineers plan to land troops per airship in the vicinity of Mud Lake and then transport them to Stillwater Avenue.”
MONTAGUE — Sappers, presumably Japanese “are suspected to be at work tunneling an outlet from Cold Stream Pond to a point 12 miles east by north of Brewer, planning to submerge that flourishing metropolis at the declaration of hostilities.”
HERMON — Strange men were seen taking soundings in Hermon Pond. While some of the neighbors thought at first that they were Bangor pickerel fishermen, “wiser heads decided they were members of the Jap navy engineering corps, sounding for probable anchorage of the vast fleet of Japanese hydro-aeroplane battleships.”
The situation was serious declared the newspaper, “unless the strangers turn out to be militant suffragettes in disguise.” Meanwhile, the mysterious Mr. Tchaido was doubtlessly long gone on his way to Mexico where he planned to spend his retirement.
Ironically, two years later, Germany sent an agent to blow up the railroad bridge between Vanceboro, Maine and St. Croix, New Brunswick. He was unsuccessful. Their motive is interesting as reported in a Wikipedia entry. Germany feared that Japan might send troops across the Pacific Ocean and through Canada to help its ally Britain. The Vanceboro international bridge was owned and operated by the Maine Central Railroad and the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.