Matt Wilce talks to Paul Vukelic ’48 and uncovers his connection to Moscow’s most successful spy ring.
In the 1930s, The American School in Japan was an eclectic place—a melting pot of missionaries, adventurous businessmen, diplomats and journalists. It was the kind of place where the fresh-faced basketball coach Jim Rasbury could reinvent himself a few years later as FBI bureau chief in San Francisco, where your classmate Beate Sirota ‘39 could end up writing part of the Japanese constitution, where your lab partner David Nicodemus ‘33 would go to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, where you’d have lunch with Mari Matsukata ‘41, granddaughter of a former prime minister. It was where the Greatest Generation grew up—honing language skills and connections that would see them through the coming conflict on all sides of the fight. It was the kind of place where your parents could turn out to be Soviet spies.
Amongst the electric train set and toy carriages on the second-floor room of a suburban, wooden house in Tokyo vital information is broadcast to Soviet Russia. Paul Vukelic ‘48, owner of the toys, has to stay downstairs with his mother Edith when his father’s friend Max Clausen pays a visit. Max always comes with a heavy, battered, black suitcase—often on a Sunday—and heads upstairs. It’s not until many years later that Paul, an elementary school student at the time, discovers that his parents worked for Richard Sorge in arguably the most successful spy ring of the 20th century and that Max sent German and Japanese secrets back to Moscow from his playroom.
Paul’s father Branko Vukelic was born in Osijek—now the fourth largest city in Croatia—in 1904. As a young man he joined the local Communist youth organization and participated in several demonstrations against the government. Following his involvement with protests and clashes with the police, Branko was registered as an anti-state element in 1925. According to the family, it was only the intervention of his father, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, that saved him from prosecution and prison.
At the age of 22, Branko, his mother Vilma and his siblings moved to Paris, where he enrolled at the University of Paris. It was while he was studying law there that he met Edith Olsen, a Danish girl working as the au pair to a family from Denmark, when they were both vacationing at the beach in Pontaillac. On graduating he took a job with the Compagnie Générale d’Electricité gaining employment in time to support Edith who he discovered was pregnant. Edith returned briefly to Denmark to give birth to the baby, named Paul, before rejoining Branko in Paris, where the couple married.
In 1931, Branko returned to Zagreb in Croatia to fulfill his conscription obligation. Drafted to infantry, he was sent to the remotest garrison possible—Štip in Macedonia. His family believed this to be punishment for his political views and previous anti-regime activities. Again, Branko’s father intervened, and through army connections succeeded to have his son released from the army on medical grounds under the pretence of myopia. After only four months, Branko was out of uniform and back in France.
It was in Paris that Branko was recruited by the Soviets. He’d returned to the City of Light in January 1932 and returned to communist activity. Active among the city’s Yugoslav left-wing exiles, intellectuals and activists and eager to promote Communist ideas and causes, Branko made it clear that he was ready to help the Soviet Union. After he rejoined the party, Branko was approached by a comrade with an offer of how he could assist. The rendezvous took place at the first floor restaurant at the Eiffel Tower, where Branko met a mysterious woman known as Countess Olga—reputedly Lydia Stahl, a special agent working for Jan Berzin, chief of the GRU (Soviet army intelligence service). Olga told him “our task is to protect Soviet Russia. This is the duty of all good communists, but our special duty is to collect information,” according to testimony in Gendaishi Shiryo. Branko initially claimed he wasn’t qualified to help and vacillated for a few months before Olga and his Serbian Marxist friends convinced him to acquiesce. Branko’s interest in photography and ability to speak eight languages made him a better candidate than he imagined. He was told to prepare for a move to Japan.
After she was vetted by Moscow, Edith was sent to Denmark to brush up on her gymnastics and establish some credentials to allow her to work as an instructor in Japan. Branko arranged visas and secured a cover working on a special Far East issue of the French magazine Vu. Edith left their son with her mother in Denmark and returned to Paris and then on to the south of France where Branko’s mother Vilma was living. The couple said their au revoirs and readied themselves for a new life as Soviet spies in Japan.
Branko and Edith set sail for Tokyo from Marseilles on December 30, 1932. Traveling via the Suez Canal and stopping in Singapore, eventually making port in Yokohama on February 11 the following year. The Vukelics were supposed to take lodgings at the Sanno Hotel, but Branko decided instead to live at the swanky Imperial Hotel. He soon realised that the ¥10 a day cost would eat into what was proving to be a meager budget. His comrades had given him ¥1,800 before he left France, but his calculations on living costs in Tokyo were a decade out of date. Branko’s instructions were to watch The Japan Advertiser for an ad announcing a vacancy at the Bunka Apartments and then to apply. After a period of austerity, the Vukelics eventually took up residence in the slightly cheaper Bunka Apartments in Ochanomizu and according to Review Branko later recalled: “In 1933, when we arrived, a married European couple spent more than ¥10 a day even in the Bunka Apartments. Furthermore, ¥10 a day did not allow for any extras—sightseeing, for example. ¥10 a day did not allow for one sen to be spent on things like that.”
The Bunka Apartments were no slum though and were considered the height of fashion at the time. To the Japanese they were the epitome of Western luxury and were constructed as a model of modern living by the educator Kokichi Morimoto who had a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Designed in 1925 by the American expatriate architect William Merrell Vories—who a few years later would create The American School in Japan’s iconic iron gate—the four-story block was constructed in the Spanish Mission style. Each of the 42 units came with its own telephone and the building housed a cafe, salon, banquet room, garage and several shops. The proximity of the Chuo line and the trains that rattled past all day, did detract a little from the relative luxury though.
According to Branko’s later confession, the ¥1,800 given to him was to last his first six months in Tokyo, hence the tight budget. His contact “Schmidt” aka Richard Sorge was not due to contact him until October that year and so the family’s focus became settling into life in Tokyo and getting by on their meager allowance. Branko’s cover was as a special correspondent for the groundbreaking French weekly Vu, which featured reports from around the world along with stunning photography from the likes of Man Ray. He also reported for the Yugoslav newspaper Politika.
Their limited income was augmented by Edith’s work as a gymnastics teacher at two local schools. Danish gymnastics had become quite a trend in Japan following a 1931 visit by Niels Bukh, who had trained the Danish team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Japanese educator Kuniyoshi Obara was interested in including non-competitive physical education into the Japanese school system following the Danish model and so many schools started offering callisthenics during the 1930s building on the popularity of NHK’s radio gymnastics (rajio taiso), which had begun in 1928.
Although they had run into each other during events at the Foreign Correspondents Club, Branko’s first official contact with his contact “Schmidt” was made at the Meguro Hotel. Sorge was sat at a table reading a book, with a drink in hand, when Branko entered and introduced himself. The spies exchanged pleasantries, discussing the book Sorge was reading while referencing specific page numbers—page 128 was Branko’s sign, page 171 Sorge’s—so that each would know the other was a genuine agent. Their bona fides established, their real work could begin.
Branko was new to the twilight world of espionage, but ringleader Sorge was an old hand at navigating the shadows having already worked undercover in Europe and run operations in China. Born in Baku, in what is now Azerbaijan, Sorge was a Soviet military intelligence officer who had been sent to Germany in 1929 to join the Nazi Party and establish a cover as a journalist. Having run an intelligence operation for three years in Shanghai from 1930, he was sent to Japan in May 1933 to establish a network in Tokyo posing as a journalist for Berliner Börsen Zeitung and the Tägliche Rundschau.
Known as Vukie by some of his colleagues in the press corps, Branko’s value to Sorge was his strong contacts in French and British circles—but his role in the network was also to photograph documents and prepare the microfilms to be couriered out of Japan. Prior to his assignment, Branko received photographic training in Paris to ready him for his new role. In Shanghai, Sorge had worked with Bruno Wendt, who was now in place as his radio operator in Tokyo—he would later be replaced by Max Clausen who Sorge had also used during his Chinese operation. The rest of the team still needed to be assembled and so Sorge’s first instructions to Branko at their meeting were to host a cocktail party and to invite Asahi Shimbun journalist Hotsumi Ozaki, who he’d also met in Shanghai. Ozaki was to be the fourth member of their group with journalist Miyagi Yotoku from the Japan Advertiser completing the quintet of agents. The group proved to be highly effective leading General MacArthur to later describe their work as “a devastating example of a brilliant success of espionage.”
With all the agents in place, Sorge’s team quickly began to generate material based on their connections. Tokyo’s German community was small with 1,118 members according to the 1933 Japan-Manchuko Yearbook, including some like the Schrecks who sent their children Karl ‘38 and Gerhard ‘44 to ASIJ. Sorge quickly became part of the scene, cultivating sources such as Rudolf Weise, who was chief of the Deutches Nachrichtenbüro news agency. A fixture at the German Club, the Rheingold and Fledermaus bars, German Chamber of Commerce and embassy receptions, Sorge developed a wide-reaching network of sources. His personal relationship with German diplomat Eugen Ott, who was promoted to Ambassador in 1939, proved to be the most valuable and he was given unprecedented access at the German Embassy as a result—rumors circulated in the foreign community that Sorge was also accessing Ott’s wife. A striking woman at six foot with prematurely gray hair, Helma Ott had the reputation in Tokyo’s German circles of being “a little pink” according to socialite Mitsutaro Akira. This was based somewhat in fact as Helma’s first husband had been a Communist and she had joined the party herself in Munich in 1919. Despite the double risk of the affair being exposed and the Communist background of his lover, Sorge went ahead with the dalliance before moving on to other lovers.
Sorge was not the only spy indulging in infidelity. Branko met Yoshiko Yamasaki in 1934 when she was his translator at an excursion to watch a noh performance. A graduate of the Tsuda Women’s College, Yoshiko spoke excellent English and Branko was immediately smitten. Although they had a chaperone— Yoshiko’s father—at their first encounter, they were soon meeting without supervision. Having left Paul in the care of her twin sister and mother in Denmark, Edith was desperate to be reunited with her son after three years apart. In June 1935, she traveled back to Denmark on the Trans-Siberian railway. The bloom had already come off the Vukelic’s marriage and during the journey Edith had an affair of her own with a German passenger. Edith returned to Tokyo with Paul by ship in 1936 and resumed her role alongside Branko. Her husband’s interest in Yoshiko was already evident and although Edith and Branko would live together for another two years, the marriage was effectively over.
Although Edith later downplayed her involvement in the spy ring, her role was more than just acting as host to Clausen’s radio transmitter. Sorge and his agents were generating considerable volumes of documentation in addition to the information sent via radio. According to German diplomat and Sorge chronicler Hans Otto Meisner, about 30 micro- film cartridges were being created a month and couriered to the Soviets—an incredible volume of written material on top of the thousand plus words broadcast by Clausen a month. With such high traffic, Sorge was in desperate need of more couriers and Max’s wife Anna and then Edith were pressed into making trips to China. With cartridges of micro-film sewn into their garter belts, Anna and Edith were dispatched to Shanghai. Anna made four trips as a courier—sometimes smuggling her contraband tied around her body under her breast—meeting her contacts at locations such as The Palace Hotel or the bookstore on Bubbling Well Road. Edith also made several trips, meeting Comintern agent and Sorge’s former lover Agnes Smedley.
During this time Paul recalls playing with the neighborhood kids after school, running around with kites and spinning tops. “I had a wonderful time in Japan and played with Japanese kids and had fluency in Japanese as a child. Often I used to translate for my mother,” he recalled in a 1999 interview. Paul was also a keen rider as a child and remembers learning to ride at stables in Meguro. At school Paul started out in 1938 in Katherin Cretcher’s mixed first and second grade class, a diverse group of 15 students of seven nationalities. The following year, as a second grader he was the “room chairman” for the second semester and one of the highlights was a trip to the main Tokyo Post Office. Following the trip Paul wrote: “We have a nice Post Office in our room. We sell stamps at the Post Office. We wrote letters to the girls and boys in America.” Paul also played a sweet potato in the “Potato Dance,” where he was thrown into a coal bin by the “Irish Potatoes.”
Following her divorce from Branko in 1939, Edith negotiated with Sorge to remain on Moscow’s payroll receiving a retainer of ¥400 a month—double what her ex- husband received. In return for the generous allowance, Edith continued to make her home available to Clausen to use for his wireless broadcasts—Günter Stein, a journalist whose house the group had used, had made a hasty escape to London, leaving Clausen with one less place to transmit from. Sorge assisted Edith in finding a new residence at 2133 in Kami-Meguro 4-chome. The two-story, wooden home was about 10-minutes walk from ASIJ’s Meguro campus and well-appointed for radio broadcasts. Clausen knew from experience that operating from the second floor of a wooden frame house helped prevent magnetic interference and facilitated clear transmission.
Clausen could turn Paul’s room from a place of play to a radio transmitter in about 10 minutes, stringing two seven-meter long tin- plated copper wires around the room in lieu of an outdoor antenna. The location in a well- populated area also helped with security as narrowing down the location of a broadcast was particularly difficult—especially when the Kempeitai (military police) lacked mobile tracking equipment. Following the divorce Branko married Yoshiko in January 1940 and moved to a house at 22 Sanai-cho, Ushigome- ku (now part of Shinjuku-ku), which was also used by Clausen to transmit.
As Branko and Sorge were both part of the press corps it was not unusual for them to be seen together in public. Paul recalls meeting Sorge once at a popular German restaurant known for its pig’s trotters and wurst. “We were at Lohmeyer’s and Sorge was with us but I don’t really remember much,” he says. “My childhood impression of Sorge was that he was very smart,” he told the Japan Times in 2008.
Paul remembers spending time in Karuizawa and at Lake Nojiri, staying in both popular mountain resorts with either his mother or father and their different circles of friends— which included the Danish Ambassador Lars Tillitse and British Ambassador Sir Robert Craigie and British correspondent Melville Cox. Known as Jimmy to his friends, Cox was the head of Reuters and a popular member of the press corps. Paul remembers staying with him and his Belgian second-wife Anne and their “six or seven Afghan dogs.” Branko was good friends with Jimmy, sharing an office at the Domei News Agency with him, and was able to use the relationship to get information past the censors and into the British media—stories that his own agency Havas was unwilling to publish once the pro-Nazi Vichy government was in place.
By 1940, Japanese paranoia regarding espionage had reached a peak, with anti-spy posters plastered around the city. Foreigners of all backgrounds were regarded with suspicion and it wasn’t uncommon for the Kempetai to question servants, scrutinize the trashed name cards from dinner parties or even detain tourists for photographing ships. Paul remembers Edith being questioned at home by the police and translating for his mother. According to British writer and academic John Morris, even having back copies of newspapers filed chronologically could get you into trouble—the police were apparently less concerned if you had unorganized piles lying around. A vocal critic who questioned Japanese policy at official press conferences, Jimmy soon became a target for the authorities who arrested him for espionage on Saturday, July 27, 1940 at his beach house in Chigasaki during a nationwide round- up of 14 suspected British agents.
Finding background files of newspaper clippings on the navy, the ”China Incident” and Anglo-Japanese relations, the police questioned Jimmy, suspecting he was a SIS operative. After two days of interrogation at the Kempeitai headquarters adjacent to the Imperial Palace moat, Jimmy allegedly threw himself from the third-storey room at 3:46pm and was pronounced dead at the scene. “My mother was very upset. We’d spent quite a lot of time with the Cox family,” Paul recalls. Branko and the rest of the press corps were equally shocked. Questions were asked in British parliament as well as in the Tokyo community with widespread disbelief that Jimmy had committed suicide, despite the production of a confessional note addressed to Anne. His treatment and death shook the foreign community in Japan and made the front pages of newspapers around the globe. Times had changed and war in the Pacific seemed increasingly likely.
With heightened scrutiny by the authorities and ever increasing risk of being caught, Edith became interested in moving on. The decision to leave was not hers alone though and Sorge obtained Moscow’s permission for her to leave Japan. Paul recalls that his mother was lucky to secure passage on the ship using her connections at the Danish Embassy and friendship with the Ambassador to secure tickets. Other sources suggest that Sorge himself used influence to get them on board. Branko had been unsuccessful at helping them evacuate as Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia was not an enemy of Japan and therefore they were not considered to be political refugees. Despite the assistance of the Danish Embassy, “we could not go back to Denmark because it was fully occupied by Germany,” Paul says. “My mother’s sister [Gudrun] and her husband had migrated from Denmark to Freemantle [Australia] in 1939 before the war began and so it was logical that my mother would go somewhere she had relatives.”
The plan was for Paul and Edith to join Gudrun in Australia—that was if they survived the journey.
Edith and Paul prepared to set sail for Australia on September 25, 1941 aboard the SS Anhui. “As we waited to board the ship, my father appeared from nowhere. I hadn’t seen him for some time, as he hadn’t lived with us for more than a year. He looked shocked,” Paul recalls. It was the last time Paul would see his father. “I found out later that he gave my mother money and his ring. Years later, she gave the ring to me and I still wear it,” Paul says. The Chinese steamer left Yokohama after significant delays to allow the Japanese police to thoroughly search its 361 passengers. A retaliation for the strict searches being made of Japanese evacuees in Singapore and Hong Kong, “not one seam of a suit, not one fold of a skirt was unnoticed, every hat and every shoe was closely inspected” by the police according to newspaper reports. As a result, three diamonds and $50 were recovered from one Indian gentleman alone.
En route to Hong Kong, the 3,494-ton steamer hit a typhoon. “Ice chests had been lashed onto the decks to accommodate food for everyone but the ice chests were washed overboard. Water was sloshing around in the holds” Paul recalls. “I remember lying in my bunk watching ice-chests and luggage that had washed overboard floating backwards as the ship fought to maintain its course.” Four of the eight lifeboats were also ripped from the deck by the 140mph winds. When Paul went searching for his mother he discovered her “sitting in a bathroom with six other people all holding on to the bath, enjoying glasses of neat gin.” Paul also remembers that Sir John Latham, Australia’s First Minister to Tokyo, was one of their fellow passengers. Contemporary accounts describe his behavior as inspiring as he refused preferential treatment and remained in the well deck with the rest of the passengers. Also on board, although Paul doesn’t recall meeting, was British diplomat GHD Bell the father of alumnus Alfred Bell ‘41—it’s unclear whether Alfred and the rest of the family were passengers.
By the time the Anhui limped into Hong Kong harbor, Captain Llewellyn Evans, who had remained on the bridge for 24 hours straight through the worst of the storm, was a hero to his passengers and crew. With only a handful of minor injuries and some lost luggage, things could have been much worse. The ship remained anchored for 10 days while repairs were made, giving the passengers the opportunity to spend a few hours each day a shore. Eager to report on the dramatic voyage, several journalists boarded the ship to interview the crew and their charges. Years later, Paul learned that Agnes Smedley was among those who came aboard. According to Edith’s recollection, Agnes was shocked to encounter Sorge’s former courier on the ship and the pair pretended not to know each other. Agnes was herself preparing to evacuate to the United States following a gall bladder operation in Hong Kong.
Once the Anhui was seaworthy again, they set sail for Singapore where Edith and Paul boarded the Centaur, a combination passenger liner and refrigerated cargo ship. The ship operated a trade route between Western Australia and Singapore and was designed to carry 72 passengers and 450 cattle. Following the outbreak of war, it was fitted out with a Mark IX naval gun and two Vickers machine guns and protection against naval mines. Edith and Paul joined 47 other passengers in the first class accommodation on board, with another 13 second class passengers and three unlucky Chinese passengers who were confined to the deck.
The Centaur made port at Surabaya, Broome and Carnarvon en route to Freemantle. At Surabaya, Paul somehow managed to wander off on his own. “In the end, the crew were sent out to find me and there I was in a horse and cart, oblivious of the trouble I’d caused,” he later recalled. At the next two stops no passengers were allowed ashore and only some cattle were loaded.
Edith and Paul made port at Fremantle on October 26, 1941. The quarantine records listed Edith’s profession as “Prof. of Gymnastic” and her address as the Claremont, a suburb of Perth. Edith’s sister Gudrun and her husband Carl Ove Johannes Pedersen, both prominent swimmers in their native Denmark, had emigrated to the area to run the Nedlands Baths. Paul and Edith joined them at the baths, which had been built along the Swan River in 1909. The Pedersen’s ran the baths for several decades, offering swimming classes, life-saving and “water ballet” in a fully enclosed shark proof area.
Edith and Paul had left Japan in the nick of time. After eight years of operating without detection, Sorge’s spy ring was about to be exposed by the Japanese police. Early in the morning on October 18, Branko, Sorge and Claussen were arrested. A ten man team was sent to each of their houses, surprising Branko and Yoshiko in bed after being let into the house by their maid. Branko was allowed to get dressed, while being thoroughly searched for poison capsules and weapons, before being bundled into the waiting police car. Less than a hour later he was languishing in Sugamo Prison, nursing a hangover and wondering what his fate would be. The discovery of his dark room complete with numerous photos of Japanese military facilities, a copying camera and a specialist high-speed telescopic lens made it clear that the Tokko (secret police) had got their spy.
Although Branko kept quiet for the first day in prison, Tomiki Suzuki from Tokko’s American- European Division later tricked him into talking by pretending Sorge had already confessed. Over the coming weeks, Branko divulged more and more information which added to the intelligence gathered from the rest of the spy ring. As a result, Branko was given a life-sentence for his espionage in April 1944. In July, he was transferred from Sugamo to Abashiri Prison on the northern coast of Hokkaido where the harsh winter proved too much for him—he died of acute pneumonia on January 13, 1945. Edith was informed of his death by the Red Cross, but Paul doesn’t remember her discussing the details of what she was told. “My mother never spoke about Sorge or Claussen,” Paul says. After they left Japan, “she was quite deliberately—and I didn’t realize until much later—completely evasive. She had visited a number of times from the ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organization]. They came and asked her a lot of questions, but she never discussed it with me.”
As a fair-haired, Japanese-speaking boy, Paul was something of an oddity when he arrived in Australia. “I loved living in Australia. I don’t think I ever really thought about my father or his absence...We just got on with things,” Paul says. Soon Australia was at war with his old home and US Navy pilots were learning to fly Catalina seaplanes on the nearby Swan River. “I left school when I was 14 and was a messenger boy and eventually got into the motor trade and property,” Paul says. An unconventional start and extended stays in Europe, eventually saw him evolve from digging potatoes in Denmark into a successful businessman and local council member.
It wasn’t until the fifties and sixties that the full extent of the activities of the Sorge spy ring were widely recognized. On November 5, 1964 by decree of Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet Branko Vukelic was posthumously awarded the Order of the Patriotic War (First Degree). Sorge, who had been executed on November 7, 1944, received the title Hero of the Soviet Union and was honored with an East German postage stamp bearing his face. His grave is now in Tama Cemetery, just down the street from ASIJ’s Chofu campus, where it receives regular visits from groups and individuals interested in the man Le-Figaro dubbed “Stalin’s James Bond.”
Over time, Paul became interested in discovering what had happened to his father and connecting with Yoshiko and his half- brother Hiroshi. “I came to Japan in 1972 for the first time since the war,” he told the Japan Times in a 2008 interview. “I asked Foreign Ministry officials about my father and Sorge, but they did not respond to my questions.” Paul’s second wife Pauline and daughter Diane were both Rotary exchange students in Japan and their proficiency in Japanese and assistance helped Paul learn more about his family’s history, including a moving visit to Abashiri Prison.
Today, Paul is a genki 87-year-old who recently married for the fourth time. He still regularly visits Japan and remembers fondly his childhood in Tokyo. “I’ve been a lot more interested in this the last 15 years than I ever was before, because you continue to hear more about the Sorge saga—through films, books and articles,” he says. With such an unusual life-story of his own, the surface of which is barely scratched here, Paul published his own memoir in 2015 with the help of local writer Wilma Mann. From his boyhood brush with history to rediscovering his Croatian roots in adulthood, Paul is proof that ASIJ is the kind of place where everyone has a story.