News & Advocacy

Spies in Santa Monica: Target Douglas Aircraft, by Ronald Drabkin

January 24, 2024

Historian, author and West LA native Ronald Drabkin reveals some of Douglas Aircraft and the historic Associated Telephone Building’s WWII era secrets in the following article, adapted from a chapter in his new work of spy nonfiction, Beverly Hills Spy: The Double-Agent Flying Ace Who Infiltrated Hollywood and Helped Japan Attack Pearl Harbor.

The first Douglas Aircraft Company plant on Wilshire and 25th in 1920, where the foreign spies first came to observe the advanced planes being made. Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

The citizens of Santa Monica in the mid 1920’s were used to the strange sight of big airplanes being wheeled across Wilshire Boulevard, on their way to Clover Field. Douglas Aircraft was still producing planes at its original location at 25th and Wilshire Boulevard, the current Douglas Park, and needed to get the planes to a location with a larger runway.

Originally, the small Douglas planes were delivered to their customer by simply having a pilot get in the completed plane and take off from the runway adjacent to the plant, and flying directly to the customer’s location, such as the new San Diego Naval Air Station. However, the planes were getting bigger, and larger planes need more space to take off, and the eucalyptus trees on Wilshire were getting larger as well, making it dangerous to take off in this small location. Therefore, the planes needed to be moved to the location that is currently the Santa Monica airport.

A Douglas World Cruiser on world flight in 1924 with a ship traveling the ocean below the airplane. Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

In the 1930s, the three countries that were most interested in obtaining this US technology were Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan. The Soviet Union had perhaps the easiest time recruiting agents. Los Angeles had a large number of Americans who were believers in communism, and with Douglas becoming Santa Monica’s largest employer, finding a local person to get a job at a plant and steal secrets was a reasonably achievable proposition.

Germany’s local organization, the Bund, also had a large number of adherents, many of which had immigrated to California in the 1920s to escape the depression and inflation of their home country post World War I. Plant security chiefs such as John Hanson at Lockheed often had extra screening for German nationals, but agents could slip through the cracks in the process.

Japan had the hardest time infiltrating the plants; although there was a substantial Japanese population in the area, the color lines of the time made them stand out. Furthermore, throughout the 1930s and 40s, the Japanese government gave direction to their agents to not work with Japanese Americans, since they tended to be loyal to the United States.

A young Frederick Rutland in his military uniform, on board a seaplane carrier. He was the poor son of a migrant laborer who dropped out of school and joined the Royal Navy at age 14. In 1916, he flew his plane from an aircraft carrier over the German fleet during the Battle of Jutland, being the first person to fly a plane from an aircraft carrier in battle. Image in the public domain.

The Japanese government had hired a British war hero named Frederick Rutland, sending him to Los Angeles to be their spy who would be able to find the necessary secrets from the US aircraft manufacturers. It was, in theory, perfect. Rutland, an ace flier and engineer for the Royal Navy in World War I, knew as much about warplane design as anyone. Quickly buying a house on the Bird Streets in Hollywood, he established himself in the westside aerospace community, opening an office across from the runway on Clover Field and drinking with Douglas employees at locations such as the Townhouse Bar in Venice, which at the time was a members club known as the Del Monte.

Associated Telephone Building, date unknown.

Rutland hid in plain sight; his status as a British war hero meant he was maybe the last person who anyone would suspect to be a Japanese spy. By 1940, though, the FBI had gotten wind of Rutland’s activities and began to tail him to see what exactly he was up to. One of the easiest ways to track someone’s actions is by their phone records, which they did at the then new Associated Telephone Building on 1314 7th St in Santa Monica. All long distance calls were logged in those days, and at the time, a call from Hollywood to Santa Monica was long distance. The FBI agents discovered many of Rutland’s associates via these call logs; in particular, he was closely associated with Lloyd Strickland, branch manager for the Santa Monica Commercial Savings Bank.

Sample phone records from the Associated Telephone Company. Cyril Chappellet was an early executive at Lockheed.

Other FBI agents were able to ascertain what kind of aircraft information Rutland was obtaining from somewhere in Santa Monica, as can be seen in the declassified memo below.

A sample FBI file showing Rutland’s activities in Santa Monica.

The complete details of what Rutland was able to obtain from Douglas, Lockheed and others aren’t known. However, we do know what the Japanese Navy asked Rutland to obtain. It included information on the new dive bomber, which was being assembled at the Douglas plant in El Segundo, and the A20 Havoc bomber, which was being assembled in Santa Monica. This information was used to inform Japanese manufacturers on how best to improve their own planes, which would soon be in combat with US planes at Pearl Harbor and across the Pacific.

Drabkin will be in town to discuss his book in person at Diesel, A Bookstore in Brentwood on Tuesday, February 13. Click here for details and to reserve a seat.

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