FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Shivers; The man with a special heart
Updated: Sep 4
The Footfalls of History
It was a typical 1939 Honolulu day, sunny at Waikiki and sultry in the highlands, when Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Shivers stepped off the sidewalk in front of 735 Bishop Street. Elaborately carved urns lined the edge of a second-story balcony above a stone arch of a frieze of a sailing ship, a sea captain, and a steam schooner that reflected the history of The Dillingham Transportation Building’s occupants. Now it held the FBI. It was within walking distance of the Iolani Palace and the RCA-Communications office. He staffed his office with a stenographer and two agents.
Robert Larimore Shivers was from a Confederate family of warriors, who still told stories of glory even though they had suffered defeat. When he returned from the Great War— in one piece— he was destined to fight another battle, this time as a “G-man, a “flatfoot” for the FBI. He took weapons away from button-lipped gangsters, the Klu Klux Kan, and ordinary men under the influence of strong drink and a weak moral compass during the lawless years, when Prohibition brewed gangs, moonshine, speakeasies, hidden whiskey flasks, and when “Whites Only” signs “dignified’ the storefronts of his hometown, Ashland City, Tenn.
By 1939 he had a solid reputation and a good future ahead of him—except for his health. He had high blood pressure and heart problems. He needed lighter duties and warmer weather if he was going to live long enough to enjoy his promised future. Hoover took an interest in him and assigned him to Hawaii. It was in August when he and his wife, Connie, walked down to the dock to their first taste of paradise.
Shivers was now in charge of coordinating the intelligence on the island, which was not well received by Army and Navy intelligence units. Within two weeks of his arrival, Hoover sent Shivers files on 125 individuals he was to keep an eye on. Then, the Army and Navy handed him a list of hundreds more. Shriver’s initial contract with the local community was something of a bust. He received a cold reception from the Caucasian population on the island, who declared the FBI was “not needed…[and they were]. [i] He knew nothing of the Hawaiian culture, or any Asian culture for that matter, when he arrived. They avoided his office altogether. The task of investigating everyone proved to be too much, so he began to analyze the structure of the community, his thinking inspired by a new acquaintance, University of Hawaii regent Charles Hemenway.
Shivers and his wife, Connie, took in a Japanese student attending the University of Hawaii to learn the “ins and outs” of the Asian culture. Shizue (Sue) Kobotake became Connie’s companion, not her maid, even though she helped about the house. She eventually became like a daughter to them. Their relationship with Sue lasted a lifetime. Sue helped him understand the complex and diverse cultures of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Hawaiians. And she helped him understand the depth of loyalty the Japanese population had to the United States.
Shivers' respect for the Asian people and the culture in Hawaii grew over time, thanks to Sue. He eventually gained the trust of the community, enabling him to assemble two liaison groups, one was a mixed-race group, the other was Japanese-American, the Oahu Citizens Committee for Home Defense, and the Committee for Inter-Racial Unity.[ii] The open and honest exchanges helped him understand the Asian mindset. He also formed a liaison group with the local police department, the Police Espionage Unit.
As reports from Washington continued to point to war with Japan, Shivers and his staff kept a close eye on the Japanese embassy personnel. He developed close relationships with civilians like George Street, who could aid him in his search for subversives. By 1941, his office had 14 Special Agents, an Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Wayne Murphy, a radio operator, eight clerical people, and a Japanese translator. Together with Army intelligence, they produced a potential detainment list, the “ABC list” of people based on their heritage, alien status, and position in the community.[iii]
By November 1941, Shivers knew the military was ready to act on the ABC list. The internment camps were complete. Drills and arrest rehearsals were done. He and the Committee for Inter-Racial Unity and Oahu’s Citizen Committee for Home Defense worked hard to sway doubtful Japanese to the American side.
On 7 December 1941, he was at home when the attack on Pearl Harbor began. Connie Shivers and Sue were in the middle of preparing breakfast for an Emergency Services Meeting to be held at their home at 4401 Kahala Ave on Black Point when Sue answered the phone for Mr. Shivers. All Sue heard was, “What! I’ll be right down.”
On his way out the door, he told his wife to “Turn on the radio…Don’t let Sue out of your sight. You take her wherever you go….When the men get here [for the meeting], feed them and send them to the office.” Then Sue and Connie saw a Japanese plane with “a big sun, rising sun” and knew the attack was real.
At the office, Shivers was joined by Colonel Bicknell, commander of G-2, who had relocated his staff to the Dillingham Building so he could coordinate closely with Shiver's office. After talking to Washington, Shivers disconnected the phones to the Japanese Consulate and ordered its staff confined by the Hawaiian police department.
Shivers sent a car for Susie and Connie, sequestered in their house, and had them dropped in the Manoa district. As the driver was leaving, a man walked in and handed out guns, instructing the people to shoot and kill any Japanese they might come across. Fearing for her life, sick with worry about her mother’s plight in Japan, Susie walked outside, followed by Connie. With things heating up, Shivers then arranged for them to be driven to a private home deep in the valley up Nuuanu Road, where they remained for days.[iv]
By 4:00, Shivers had received orders from General Short, authorized by the president, to arrest and detain all Japanese aliens on the ABC list. Forty-eight hours later, almost 400 were under arrest even though there were no reports of subversive activities—345 Japanese aliens, 22 Japanese American citizens, 74 German nationals, 19 citizens of German ancestry, 11 Italian nationals, and two citizens of Italian descent.
Shivers worked aggressively to protect against the internment of the Japanese population on the island in opposition to Washington's wishes. He told his wife, “I cannot send someone like Sue, and hundreds of them like Sue, to concentration camp[s] because it’s going to ruin their lives.”[v] He squashed rumors of sabotage and demanded evidence. And he supported the Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American citizens) effort to join the Armed forces.
The war had taken its toll on his health. By 1943 Agent Shivers was a sick man. His heart was acting up again, forcing him into retirement. His work in promoting racial cooperation and harmony during the first years of the war won him the respect and admiration of the Asian community and did not go unnoticed. Eleanor Roosevelt asked her husband to appoint him “Collector of Customs” for Hawaii so he could continue his good work. He was paid well, about $96,000 a year in today’s dollars, and he saved many in Hawaii from internment. By the war's end, only 980 citizens and alien Japanese out of 40,000 aliens and 120,000 citizens in Hawaii were interned. According to Shivers, a man in a position to know, “In spite of what Admiral Kimmel or anyone else may have said about the fifth column activity in Hawaii, I want to emphasize that there was no such activity in Hawaii before, during, or after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Consequently, there was no confusion in Hawaii as a result of fifth-column activities… confusion in Hawaii was in the minds of the confused…it was not the civilian population that was confused. Nowhere under the sun could there have been a more intelligent response to the needs of the hour than was given by the entire population of these islands.”[vi]
He would testify for the Congressional hearings and present a statement at the Iolani Palace before the sub-committee on statehood in January of 1946 titled: Cooperation of the Various Racial Groups with Each Other and the Constituted Authorities Before and After December 7, 1941. He concluded that the people of Hawaii worked together, regardless of ethnicity, to protect their country, America.[vii] And that they deserved and had earned the right of statehood.
[i] Robert Shivers FBI, Densho Encyclopedia, 2.
[ii] Ibid, p. 5; Robert Shivers FBI, Densho Encyclopedia.
[iii] Nelson, Craig (2016-09-20). Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness (Kindle Location 6972). Scribner. Kindle Edition
[iv] The Hawaiian Nisei Story, interview with Sue Isonaga, http://nisei.hawaii.edu/object/io_1162881840046.html
[v] The Hawaiian Nisei Story, interview with Sue Isonaga, http://nisei.hawaii.edu/object/io_1162881840046.html
[vi] Shivers, Cooperation of Racial Groups in Hawaii During the War, 11.
[vii] Shivers, Cooperation of Racial Groups in Hawaii During the War,2.