Source: National Counterintelligence Center -


John Semer Farnsworth was arrested on 14 July 1937 and charged with selling confidential papers of the U.S. Navy to an agent of the Japanese government. Farnsworth, a former Lt. Commander, was held on $10,000 bond and confined to the Washington, D.C. jail until his preliminary hearing.


The Japanese embassy depicted the charges as "astonishing" and stated that the first time they heard of Farnsworth was on the day before his arrest when someone called the embassy twice to ask for money in connection with a recent spy case. The spy case the embassy was referring to involved a former navy enlisted man, Harry T. Thompson, who was convicted and sentenced at Los Angeles, California for selling naval secrets to a Japanese agent.



FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, denied the arrest of Farnsworth was connected to the Thompson case. Thompson was the first man convicted of espionage since World War I. The U.S. Navy said that Farnsworth and Thompson are the only two such espionage cases in the history of the navy. Later years would see many more such cases.



Farnsworth, born 13 August 1893 in Chicago, Illinois, was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1911. The Naval Academy yearbook described Farnsworth as "daring and reckless." The writer of the account stated that if Farnsworth had resided in the days of the old navy, he "would have been famous for his desperate deeds and hairbreadth escapes." The writer closed his remarks with a quote from John Milton, "He can, I know, but doubt to think he will."



After his graduation in 1915, he was assigned to the Asiatic fleet, where in 1916 he went aboard the S.S. Galveston. He returned to the United States in 1917 and was given the temporary rank of lieutenant. His next assignment was in 1920 when he took flight training at Pensacola Air Station. He completed his training in 1922 and received ratings on seaplanes and airships. Farnsworth returned to Annapolis for a post-graduate course and then on to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a college in New York to complete his post-graduate studies.



He was assigned to duty with VO Squadron 6, Aircraft Squadron, Scouting Fleet. Farnsworth, considered to be one of the most brilliant of the navy's young officer, was court-martialed in 1927. He was dismissed from the service on 12 November 1927 for conduct "tending to impair the morale of the service" and for "scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morale. The official explanation for the dismissal of one of the Navy's bright future stars was that Farnsworth borrowed money from enlisted men and committed perjury in disclaiming indebtedness.



Farnsworth was under surveillance for two years by Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and FBI officers. Surveillance began after Farnsworth visited Annapolis where he was reported to have pushed the wife of a high-ranking navy officer to allow him to read official documents. The wife reported the incident to Navy authorities. Since the case concerned a former navy officer and navy equities, ONI and the FBI jointly worked the investigation.



Farnsworth was destitute and needed money. To try to solve his problem, he began to recontact former associates to solicit documents. The warrant for his arrest charged that "on or about May 15, 1935," Farnsworth sold to a Japanese agent a confidential Navy publication, "The Service of Information and Security." The warrant stated that Farnsworth, "did with intent and reason to believe that the same was to be used to the injury of the United States, and to the advantage of a certain foreign nation, communicate, deliver and transmit to an officer and agent of the imperial Japanese navy a certain document and writing relating to the national defense-to wit, a certain book entitled `The Service of Information and Security,' a confidential publication of the U.S. Navy.


This publication was first issued in 1916 under the title, "Scouting and Screening," but the title was changed in 1917 to the present title. The publication contains plans for battle information and tactics that were gathered from actual fleet maneuvers and tested by high-ranking naval officials.



On 17 July 1937, Farnsworth admitted to a journalist that he did show photographs of U.S. Navy aviation equipment to a Japanese agent while he was negotiating employment with the Japanese Air Force. He said that the photographs were available to anyone from the U.S. Navy's Public Relations Office. He also said that he included with the official photographs, some of his own photos taken during his naval service. He was attempting to demonstrate to the Japanese his experience and knowledge by including the photographs with his employment application.



He told the journalist that he had accidentally sent the document, mentioned in the warrant, home with his personal affects when he left the navy. He said the document, along with other personal items, was destroyed by a fire at his house. He denied passing the document to the Japanese agent.



Three days later, Farnsworth informed a newsman that he did sell two articles or monographs on naval subjects to the Japanese agent for $1,000. He said the articles were not classified. One of the articles was on a London naval conference and the other on naval aviation training.



The case was given to a grand jury. During the grand jury testimony it was revealed that Farnsworth had telephoned the Japanese embassy twice on the day before his arrest. Lt. Commander Leslie G. Genhres testified that Farnsworth took the confidential study from his desk in the Navy Department on 1 August 1934. An employee of the navy photostat plant, Mrs. Grace Jamieson, said that Farnsworth made frequent visits to the plant to copy military documents.



Based on the evidence presented, the grand jury indicted Farnsworth on two charges. The first charge was that Farnsworth actually transmitted the confidential book to an agent of Japan and the second count alleges an attempt to transmit the volume.


At the upcoming trial, Farnsworth faced a maximum penalty of 20 years, authorized under the provisions of the law making it illegal in peacetime "to disclose information affecting the nation's defense. Farnsworth said he would base his defense on an aircraft accident he had when he was an aviation student at Pensacola Naval Air Station. The Navy said it had no record of such an accident but Farnsworth's parents insisted that their son had been "irresponsible: since the accident.



In November 1936, Farnsworth's lawyer asked the court-martial commission to have the American Consul General in Tokyo take depositions from the two Japanese naval officers with whom Farnsworth was alleged to have conspired. The two officers, Yosiyuki Itimiya and Akira Yamaki, both Lt. Commanders of the Imperial Japanese Navy, were formerly stationed at the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. as naval observers. Farnsworth's lawyer argued that since the two Japanese officers were no longer accredited to the United States as diplomats, they could freely testify and that their answers to defense questions were material to the case.



In December, Japan refused to authorize its naval officers to present testimony to any disposition in the Farnsworth case. The embassy noted that Japanese law could not compel its military officers to answer interrogations of foreign nations.



On 15 February 1937, Farnsworth changed his innocent plea to nolo contendere and threw himself on the mercy of the court. The prosecution had a list of fifty witnesses ready to testify against Farnsworth. The judge said he wanted to review the aspects of the case before pronouncing sentence. A few days later, Farnsworth requested to again change his plea from nolo contendere to not guilty. In his written request to the judge, he said that he made his decision without the advice of his counsel and it based on the publicity the case received. He claimed that his family suffered from the publicity and he was under the mistaken impression that his nolo contendere plea would not bring such adverse notoriety. The judge said that Farnsworth was in his rights to change his plea before sentencing and that he would hear Farnsworth's motion.


This was the first in a series of moves by Farnsworth to have his case dismissed. Farnsworth's lawyers withdrew from the case, and Farnsworth tells the judge that he will conduct his own defense. His next move was to file a writ of habeas corpus to get released from prison. He argued that the facts alleged in the indictment, under which he was convicted, did not constitute a crime. He claimed that he did not understand nolo contendere meant guilty and wanted to withdraw the plea but the court rejected it. The judge denied his writ and upheld the indictment.



Farnsworth was sentenced on 27 February 1937 to serve "not less than four years nor more than twelve years in prison."



In January 1938, Farnsworth again appealed the judge's decision in the writ of habeus corpus. He alleged that the court erred in holding a petitioner could not be released "from unlawful imprisonment" by habeas corpus proceedings; that the trial court did not have the jurisdiction in the case and that the court did not have the power to pronounce an indeterminate sentence. Farnsworth's sentence was upheld by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for conspiracy to divulge military secrets to Japan. The court ruled that Farnsworth and others conspired "to communicate and transmit to a foreign government-to wit Japan- writings, code books, photographs and plans relating to the national defense with the intent that they should be used to the injury of the United States."