Former NCIS star Mark Harmon, 72, and his technical adviser, retired NCIS veteran Leon Carroll, Jr., 73, have written their first book, Ghosts of Honolulu: A Japanese Spy, a Japanese American Spy Hunter, and the Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (HarperCollins, Nov. 14). It’s the true story of a big crime — the Japanese attack that ignited World War II. Just as Martin Scorsese’s Flowers of the Killer Moon tells a tale about the birth of what became the FBI, Ghosts of Honolulu sheds light on the early days of what would become the NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) — known in the 1940s as the ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence).
The hero is ONI spy Douglas Wada, a Hawaiian born to Japanese immigrant parents who was recruited to sleuth out Japan’s spies in Honolulu and witnessed the Pearl Harbor attack. He was the first Japanese American ever to work in intelligence.
His fascist opponents included Japan’s drunken, adulterous consul general, junior diplomat Takeo Yoshikawa, and rich Nazi Otto Kuehn, who hung laundry at his shoreside Oahu home as a code to signal the invaders. Kuehn’s daughter Susie, once Joseph Goebbels’ underage mistress, ran a Honolulu beauty parlor where gossipy officers’ wives let their loose lips sink ships, and Susie seduced U.S. military personnel. The ONI also busted a Los Angeles Japanese spy ring that included the on-screen and real-life chauffeur for Charlie Chaplin, who had narrowly escaped assassination in Japan in 1932.
Harmon and Carroll tell AARP about their real-life crime investigation case, and their TV collaboration.
Why did you write a book about Douglas Wada?
Harmon: Credit has been due to Wada for a long time, and it’s great to open the window to that a little bit with this book. It was interesting trying to uncover the research and talk to people who had never been asked to tell their story.
Carroll: Mark and I were talking about stories of real NCIS versus the TV show, which obviously was dramatized, and we wanted to really give our NCIS audience, and others, an inside look at what the agency actually does.
Why might an NCIS fan be interested?
Harmon: I think the book is a page-turner. You think you know about what happened at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, but you realize that there’s so much more. You find out that every Japanese pilot that day had four-day-old docking assignments for every ship in that port. Oh, my God!
How did you two meet on NCIS?
Harmon: When I first googled NCIS, nothing came up. These people did their work quietly, and nobody knew who they were. When you play a cop, you ride with a cop, to make it believable. Leon was just recently retired as the number one interrogator for NCIS, and before that he was in the Marines, which double helped me, because I was playing a Marine. There was never an interrogation I did on NCIS that I didn’t talk to him about what was right, or what he would do. Leon and I had 20 years together to develop a friendship and a trust.
Carroll: He would pick my brain constantly. And of the 2,500 NCIS members, probably 1,000 visited NCIS over 20 years.
What does ‘Ghosts of Honolulu’ do that the NCIS show couldn’t do?
Carroll: NCIS does more than investigate homicides. Out of almost 460 episodes, I’d say 455 had a homicide. And David McCallum, God rest his soul, played a medical examiner, but NCIS doesn’t have one. We rely almost 100 percent on county medical examiners and coroners.
Harmon: On the show, you had to have a dead body, so it became like a murder-a-week kind of thing, which is more a formula for a television series.
Wada was an American patriot, but didn’t the U.S. distrust first- and second-generation Japanese Americans in Hawaii and elsewhere?
Carroll: The U.S. didn’t trust them to fight the Japanese, so they sent the Japanese American 442nd Regiment to Europe, and they became probably the single most decorated unit of World War II. That’s where future U.S. Senator [Daniel] Inouye from Hawaii lost his arm in battle. And Wada interrogated the first captured Japanese invader at Pearl Harbor, whose minisub sank, and some of the tribunals after the war.
Your book will scratch an NCIS fan’s itch to learn about history. But why is NCIS so popular, especially among AARP-aged viewers?
Carroll: I’ve been an AARP member for 23 years now — I’m looking at my prescriptions discount card as we speak. I think Mark has a history of drawing people to his shows, like on The West Wing, which I think landed him the job on our show. People like his personality, his calm. And I’m sure the ladies obviously like his looks. But it’s the realism, the humor and the camaraderie — something that Mark was really instrumental in making sure happened.
Has NCIS the show affected NCIS the organization?
Carroll: The show has affected the agency in such a way that of all the 40 or 50 federal agencies, only the FBI gets more applications.
Mark, would you rather go back and be a TV star or write more books?
Harmon: I don’t know whether this book will be successful. We’re hopefully coming out of the strike, so that’s great for actors, and not just actors. You read [scripts], you say, “I want to work with these people.” But I don’t know what’s next. Back when I started this career, I always thought it would be really nice to get to a point where you don’t have to work if you don’t want to.
Or write another book if you want to.
Harmon: Well, you can try!
If you do more NCIS books, what will they be about?
Carroll: Different events that have happened, like the USS Cole [Osama bin Laden’s first big attack on the United States, in 2000]. There are other things that are unknown to the general audience, because we’ve been an agency that’s kind of flown under the radar.
Would ‘Ghosts of Honolulu’ make a good NCIS episode?
Carroll: I think it would probably make a better feature film than a TV episode.