On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The attack led the United States to formally enter World War II and prompted Moe Berg to retire from baseball and take a post as a Goodwill Ambassador to Latin America. Before he left for South America, Berg made a radio broadcast.
On February 24, 1942, Berg spoke directly to the Japanese people. To quote his biographers Harold and Meir Ribalow, “In fluent Japanese, [Moe Berg] pleaded at length, ‘as a friend of the Japanese people,’ for the Japanese to avoid a war ‘you cannot win.’” The Ribalows report, “Berg’s address was so effective that several Japanese confirmed afterward they had wept while listening.” To read more about the address, visit Moe Berg Blog.
Berg had gained his Japanese language skills during an American All-Star tour in Japan in 1934. By that time Japan was openly at odds with the United States. Even though large crowds still gathered to see Babe Ruth, paranoia was everywhere. In his book “The Catcher Was a Spy” Nicholas Dawidoff, an interviewee in Aviva Kempner’s upcoming film on Berg, tells of the “manic fear of spies’ that was encouraged by Japanese newspapers. He says the Japanese thought every foreigner “came ostensibly as tourists, but in reality as military observers.”
When he first arrived, Berg knew little Japanese. He eventually proved his reputation as a quick study correct which he rapidly picked up the language. In the years after the trip, Berg often shared the story of an exchange he had with Ruth about his linguistic skills. According to the retelling in Dawidoff’s book, Ruth asked Berg, “You’re such a linguist; do you speak Japanese?” Berg responded, “No, I never had occasion to learn it.”
Two weeks later Ruth overheard Berg greeting someone at a ship dock in Japanese. Ruth said to Berg, “Wait a minute, you told me you didn’t speak Japanese.” Berg replied, “That was two weeks ago.”
Berg had taken a 16-mm automatic movie camera with him; he had been contracted by a New York newsreel company to film sights from his trip. Soon after the radio broadcast, Berg contacted the FBI and offered to share the footage he had taken. Robert K. Fitts, who is another interviewee in Kempner’s upcoming documentary, recounts this in his book, “Banzai Babe Ruth.” One film of particular interest was a shot Berg had filmed from the rooftop of the St. Luke’s Tower, one of Tokyo’s tallest buildings that Berg talked his way into using his linguist skills. The FBI found this footage intriguing and suggested he show it the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Some say this footage was later used to plan the bombing over Tokyo during World War II.
Berg went on to his post in South America and returned in February of 1943. Upon his return, he joined the OSS. To learn more about Moe Berg’s time in Japan and his service in the OSS, please visit http://moebergfilm.org/.