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Daily Life in Japanese Custody: Japan Takes Over U.S. Consulate in Vietnam During WWII

About one month before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States officially entered World War II, tensions were already rising between Japanese officials and U.S. Foreign Service Officers serving in Asia. Japan continued its mission of global expansion, hoping to become a more respectable world power, while the United States issued economic sanctions and restrictions against it as a measure of deterrence. Still, in 1941, Japan began to move into Vietnam in its quest for expansion.

Japanese Imperial Army soldiers advance to Lang Son, in September 1940 in French Indochina, 7 June 2015,
Japanese Imperial Army soldiers advance to Lang Son, in September 1940 in French Indochina, 7 June 2015,

Kingsley W. Hamilton served as a consular officer in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon), Vietnam, during November 1941. Hamilton saw the Japanese military police moving into Vietnam, taking control of the airport, and erecting military structures throughout the country, beginning in the north and moving southward. They were generally peaceful towards the U.S. Foreign Service officers, until November 23, when a bomb went off at the U.S. Consulate in Vietnam. No one was killed or injured, but the office was blown to pieces. While there were no eyewitnesses and no true evidence—so the perpetrator was never confirmed—it was generally believed by the Vietnamese, French, and Americans that the Japanese were behind the attack. After the bombing, the diplomatic legation moved to a new location and was able to function relatively normally for the next month. However, on December 8, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, they suddenly took the consular officers in Vietnam into custody and halted all of their operations. For months, Hamilton lived in Japanese custody and his experience as a consular officer changed drastically. After leaving Vietnam in 1942, Hamilton resigned from the State Department.

Kingsley W. Hamilton’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 9, 1994.

Read Kingsley W. Hamilton’s full oral history HERE.

Read more about the tensions between the U.S. and Japan and the attack on Pearl Harbor HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Drafted by Genevieve Husak

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“Soon a Japanese squad…pounded on my apartment door, and said, “Open up.” When I opened up they handed me a mimeographed statement from the Headquarters of the Nippon Army that said we were at war and that I had to stay there until further word.”

Pearl Harbor ship sinking,
Pearl Harbor ship sinking,

Japan Takes Over U.S. Consular Office in Vietnam: All consular officers, with the exception of a British Vice Consul, were roused from their beds and placed under custody by the Japanese military authorities about 3:00 a.m. December 8. In Saigon they were presented a mimeographed sheet giving the reasons for this action and outlining the conditions of the treatment to be expected. The American Consul had some slight contact with two French policemen stationed before his residence, but was soon cautioned not to speak to them. The American Vice Consul never saw any French official. The acting British Consul General was able to deal through a French liaison officer for about a day. When one of the British Vice Consuls reported to the acting Consul General at his residence about 9:00 a.m. December 8, he was taken into custody.

Daily Life in Japanese Custody: We weren’t up to anything. The British Consul General and Sidney Browne negotiated a little bit with the Japanese who said they would put a couple of guards in the front of the house, and they would not go into the rest of the house at all. So our guards sat there in a small room and we organized ways of passing the time; some reading, some writing, listening to the news which wasn’t very encouraging, and often bridge in the evening (which is how I learned to play the game)… But the servants were allowed to go out marketing every day, so we had a good food supply. They could also do the laundry regularly. There were shortages, of course, which affected everyone. The residence had fairly large grounds so we could get out and exercise every day. We made a deck tennis court and a miniature golf course. It was somewhat monotonous, but not too bad a life. You had no responsibilities, nothing you had to do. The AP man, of course, was accustomed to being on the go all the time; so found it very restricting. The rest of us didn’t find it quite so bad in that respect. We got along all right together for the most part.

World War II,
World War II,

Leaving Vietnam: Well, the Japanese finally started two exchange ships, the Asama Maru in Yokohama and the Conte Verde in Shanghai. Passengers were mainly diplomatic personnel, but also many missionaries and some newspaper correspondents. The Asama Maru stopped at Hong Kong before reaching Saigon on July 3rd when we were put aboard. On July 4th we went back down the Saigon River to Cap St. Jacques where those who had been brought over from the Bangkok Legation also boarded. We then went on to Singapore to meet the Conte Verde with its passengers… We couldn’t go ashore and didn’t dock in Singapore, but anchored out in the harbor for a day or two, on one of which the Japanese gave a military air display. From Singapore the ship was all lit up and marked. We were routed south through the Sunda Straits, and across the Indian Ocean into Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa, or Mozambique, on July 23rd. We were saluted by sirens, streams of water, and cheers from the many ships in the harbor. The Japanese diplomats from the U.S. had arrived on the Gripsholm the day before and the exchange was made the following day. They left fairly promptly but it was about a week before the Gripsholm was ready to start back. Then it was still a long way around Cape Horn, over to Rio, and then up to New York, staying out of regular shipping lanes as much as possible. We finally sailed into New York harbor past the Statue of Liberty on August 25th.


Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy 1933–1934, 1935–1937
University of Strasbourg 1934–1935
Joined the Foreign Service 1937
Budapest, Hungary 1937–1938
Saigon, Vietnam—Consular Officer 1940–1942
Washington D.C.—Assistant Undersecretary for Economic Affairs