Remembering Robert Shivers
Pearl Harbor Legacy
Remembering Robert Shivers
The attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
It was 68 years ago this morning—December 7, 1941—that a torrent of bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, a stealth attack that took the lives of more than 2,400 Americans and thrust the nation headlong into its second major war of the century. It was a day—filled with sacrifices and heroism—that will never be forgotten.
The contributions of one man who made a major impact in the aftermath of the attack should also not be forgotten. His name is Robert L. Shivers, and he was the special agent in charge of our office in Honolulu on that fateful day.
Shivers had been handpicked by Director J. Edgar Hoover to run the Honolulu office precisely because of his leadership skills. Smart and genteel, Shivers was minted as a special agent in 1920. After serving across the South and Midwest and in New York, the Tennessee native was tapped to lead field offices in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Miami. But because of nagging health issues, he went on restricted duty in the late 1930s.
Special Agent in Charge Robert L. Shivers
In the summer of 1939, however, Europe was on the verge of war, and with the U.S. supporting the Allied cause, the FBI was plenty busy trying to prevent espionage and sabotage at home. In August, Hoover turned to Shivers to re-open the now strategically important FBI division in Honolulu.
Shivers got to work. Within a few months, he developed strong relationships with local police as well as with Army and Navy forces, and he also began making contacts in the islands’ Japanese communities. These deepened when he and his wife began caring for a Japanese schoolgirl named Shizue Kobatake (later Suzanne or Sue). Despite the differences in their backgrounds, they became like a family.
Then came December 7. Within minutes of the attack, Shivers alerted Director Hoover, who quickly put the Bureau’s contingency war plans into effect.
For his part, Shivers—who had already made progress in sorting out the FBI’s division of intelligence and security responsibilities with the Navy—immediately placed the Japanese Consulate under police guard, both to protect the diplomats from retaliation and to prevent their escape. His agents seized a large quantity of suspiciously coded documents that consulate employees tried to hastily burn and began running down key cases of espionage (especially that of Otto Kuehn).
Another major issue involved the 150,000 people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii—roughly a third of the population. Some argued that they should be taken into custody. Shivers and key members of the armed services and territorial government strongly disagreed and made a vital difference in preventing the kind of mass internment that happened on the mainland (which Director Hoover opposed, but that’s another story). Only a few thousand Japanese nationals considered a security risk ended up being detained.
Shivers soon gained respect across the island, earning significant authority from its military governor. His only critic was a local U.S. Attorney, who thought he dealt with the Japanese on the islands “too leniently.”
History has taken a different view—and so did Shivers’ contemporaries. When his health forced him to retire in 1943, Shivers was later lauded by the territorial Senate of Hawaii both for “safeguarding Hawaii’s internal security” and for displaying “sympathy, sound judgment, and firmness.”
For more information on Shivers and the work of the FBI following Pearl Harbor, see the following:
- Pearl Harbor attack mobilizes FBI war plans
- The case of Pearl Harbor spy Otto Kuehn
- The FBI during World War II
- Spotlight on FBI Hawaii