Was The Doll Woman A Spy In WWII?
During the early 1940s, a time when the world was at war, spies on all sides were busily at work. Sometimes the people who seemed an unlikely suspect of such activity became spies, for the money, for the excitement, and not always understanding the ramifications of their actions. Such a woman, Velvalee Dickinson began typing and sending a series of letters, pretending to be a succession of other people from varied addresses, to a person in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The letters seemed to be about dolls and came to the attention of wartime censors and the FBI initially, in the form of a letter referring to a “wonderful doll hospital.” In the letter she says she left “three old English dolls,” for repairs. “Fish nets” and “balloons”are also mentioned in the letter. After some investigation, FBI cryptographers believed that the three old English dolls were three warships and the hospital was a shipyard. They further believed that the fish nets were the submarine nets placed in port on the West Coast and that the reference to balloons meant the info would be expanded to other geographical areas in later letters. Incredibly they suspected espionage and it raised the question, was the doll woman a spy in WWII?
A Second Letter Turns Up
Because of the contents of that letter, the FBI began an investigation into whether Dickinson was passing defense information to the enemy in this manner. They began monitoring her letters. A second letter turned over to the FBI, which was returned to the person’s address who supposedly sent it, was stamped “Person Unknown.” The letter read: “Everyone seemed to enjoy my talk. I can only think of our sick boy these days. You wrote me that you had sent a letter to Mr. Shaw, well I went to see Mr. SHAW he distroyed your letter, you know he has been ill. His car was damaged but is being repaired now.” The woman who turned over the letter said the signature looked somewhat like hers and the writer seemed to know her personal life and interest in dolls, but she had not sent it. The return address was correctly noted on the envelope as an Ohio address, but the letter was postmarked New York, where the woman who turned it in said she had never been in her life. Notice that if you read the incorrectly spelled “distroyed” and the word following it together in normal succession, “your,” it can very easily be said “destroyer.” The letter’s information tied in with the USS Shaw, damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack, which had now completed repairs on the West Coast and was soon, once again, to be a part of the Pacific fleet.
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A Third Letter is Turned in to FBI
Another letter, supposedly written by a woman in Colorado Springs, Colorado was postmarked Oakland, California. The letter mentioned “seven small dolls” that would be altered in appearance to resemble “seven real Chinese dolls,” to resemble parents, grandparents and three children. The letter was written shortly after a convoy of ships arrived at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard. According to the FBI, further details of the ships were clearly written using terms as though describing the dolls, but actually regarding that convoy.
Number Four Gets Attention
A fourth letter postmarked from Portland, Oregon mentioned the acquisition of a “Siamese Temple Dancer” doll. Part of the letter read: “It had been damaged, that is tore in the middle. But it is now repaired and I like it very much. I could not get a mate for this Siam dancer so I am redressing just a small plain ordinary doll into a second Siam doll.” Cryptographers deciphered this as: “I just secured information on an aircraft carrier warship, it had been damaged, that is torpedoed in the middle. But it is now repaired…they could not get a mate for this so a plain ordinary warship is being converted into a second aircraft carrier.”
Could such an unassuming, seemingly quiet, dignified woman truly be funneling information to an enemy of the United States? The evidence was beginning to stack up and the FBI found more all the time to indicate that she was, indeed, a spy for Japan.
The Fifth Letter
Yet another letter, given to the FBI in Spokane, Washington, bearing a Seattle postmark mentioned: a “German bisque doll, dressed in a hula grass skirt,” which was sent to Seattle for repairs that would be completed sometime around the first week of February. Naval authorities confirmed to the FBI that a ship damaged at Pearl Harbor was in Puget Sound for repairs that would be completed in the same time noted in the letter.
How Did The FBI Get These Letters?
The letters were all returned to the supposed sender because the contact had already moved possibly due to the belief that they’d been discovered by U.S. intelligence. Once the “supposed” sender got them brought to them, they realized it was something they had not sent. Puzzled and figuring there was something crooked, they turned them over to the law. If the person in Buenos Aires had not left the address, this activity probably would never have been stopped. It’s a possibility that they would simply have set up another address for the “drop”of the information and continued on with receiving the letters. In that case, there might have been a different ending to WWII.
Signatures on the letters were examined by a Forensics team and found to be forgeries, based on copies of the original signatures of the people who’d supposedly written them. All five women had previously corresponded with Dickinson regarding dolls, which is how she got their signatures. The typing characteristics were determined to be the same on each letter, indicating they were typed by the same individual, although on different typewriters. As this information was confirmed, passages of the letters were declared to be codetext, supplying information on the Navy’s ships. The information primarily focused on the location, state of repair and current status of those damaged in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Dickinson’s Early Connection to Japanese
It was noted in the FBI investigation that earlier in her life Dickinson worked as a social worker in San Francisco and during that time she made frequent visits to the Japanese consulate, attended social events at which the nation’s Navy and other high Japanese government officials were present and also entertained them in her home. After moving to New York in 1937, she visited the Nippon Club, the Japanese Institute, became a friend of the Japanese Consul General and was acquainted with Ichiro Yokoyama, the Japanese Naval Attache in Washington, D.C.
Dickinson is Arrested
FBI agents arrested Dickinson on January 21, 1944 while she was in her bank vault accessing her safe deposit box. There was $13,000 dollars in the box, which was traced back to Japanese sources. She first said the money came from insurance, a savings account and her doll business. Then, changing her story, she tried to lay the blame on her husband, saying she had found the money hidden in his bed after his death and that it might have come from the Japanese Consulate.
She was indicted on January 11, 1944 on charges of violating censorship statutes. She pleaded not guilty and was held on $25,000 bail. A second indictment against Dickinson was filed on May 5 charging her with espionage statutes and the Trading With The Enemy Act, in addition to the original charges. Dickinson confessed to typing the letters and that they did, indeed, contain information about United States Navy ships. But she claimed that the code and instructions for its use and $25,000 had been passed to her husband, Lee Terry Dickinson, by Yokoyama on November 21, 1941, in her New York doll store, for the purpose of supplying the Japanese with information on the status of the ships.
The FBI, in checking out her story, discovered that though she knew Yokoyama, and her husband had never met him, and further, records from a physical done on him at that time indicated his mental faculties were impaired. When confronted with this information, Dickinson struck a plea bargain with the U.S Attorney’s Office on July 28, 1944. The espionage and Trade Act indictments were dismissed and she pleaded guilty to the censorship violation and agreed to furnish the FBI with the information she had regarding Japanese intelligence activity.
A Lucky Break For Dickinson
She was sentenced, with conditions of supervision by the Federal Court system, to the Federal Correctional Institution for Women in Alderson, West Virginia (now known as the Alderson Federal Prison Camp.) She was lucky; if she had been tried and convicted on the espionage charge, she would have been sentenced to death. In the sentencing an irate Judge remarked:
“It is hard to believe that some people do not realize that our country is engaged in a life and death struggle. Any help given to the enemy means the death of American boys who are fighting for our national security. You, as a natural-born citizen, having a University education, and selling out to the Japanese, were certainly engaged in espionage. I think that you have been given every consideration by the Government. The indictment to which you have pleaded guilty is a serious matter. It borders close to treason. I, therefore, sentence you to the maximum penalty provided by the law, which is ten years and $10,000 fine.”
She served her term and was released on April 23, 1951. By 1954 she had disappeared. But questions about her guilt or innocence remain as she continued to maintain her innocence, insisting that her husband was the spy. Not much more is known of her after that other than that she passed away in California in 1980.
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