Plot to sink the MV Hiye Maru in Elliott Bay fails on January 20, 1938.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/28/2005
  • Essay 7569
On the night of January 20, 1938, Rolfe M. Forsyth, a 28-year-old Canadian, drowns near the Great Northern Dock, Pier 40, while trying to blow up the Japanese motor vessel Hiye Maru. His accomplice, George H. Partridge, informs police that there is an unexploded time bomb floating somewhere in Smith Cove. Police locate and dismantle the bomb. It contains 369 sticks of dynamite and 32 blasting caps connected to a crude timing device that stopped just two minutes before it was set to explode. After confessing to his part in the plot, Partridge is taken to Tacoma where he shows detectives where to find an additional 460 pounds of dynamite that he and Forsyth dumped into the Puyallup River. Partridge tells authorities that Forsyth, outraged by Japan's invasion of China, planned to protest the war by sinking Japanese ships exporting scrap metal and materials of military value from Pacific Coast ports. The case goes to trial and Partridge, claiming he feared for his safety and was acting under duress, is acquitted. It is one of the strangest incidents in the history of Seattle's waterfront.

World Context

After the horrors of World War I (1917-1919), isolationist sentiment was strong in the United States. Anti-war activists believed that the only way to avoid war was to avoid any foreign involvement and refused to support American involvement in any war whatsoever. In May 1937, Congress passed its fourth Neutrality Law in two years. An arms embargo was imposed on aggressor and victim nations in order to deter aggression. Belligerent nations were allowed to buy only certain goods of non-military value on a "cash and carry" basis, for transport only in foreign-flag vessels.

Throughout the 1930s Japan waged an undeclared war against China, seizing much of the Chinese coast, but never winning control over the interior. Many idealists, alarmed by the spread of totalitarianism in Europe, were outraged by Japan's invasion of China on July 7, 1937. The Imperial Japanese Army seized Peking, Tientsin, Shanghai, and Nanking, and in the process, conducted devastating bombing raids, during which American hospitals, missions and schools, though clearly marked, were often hit. Japan's continued denial that it was at war with China gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) an excuse not to invoke the provisions of the Neutrality Acts, which not only allowed the United States to provide arms to China, but also enabled American Companies to make huge profits by supplying Japan with scrap metal and materials of military value. In December 1937 alone, the Japanese purchased 61,665 tons of American scrap iron. Pacific Coast ports had been the scene of many protests against these shipments.

A Man Prowling

The MV Hiye Maru was a 11,931-ton, 535-foot modern motor liner built in Yokohama, Japan, for the N.Y.K. (Nippon Yusen Kaisha or Japan Mail Steamship Company) Line in 1930. The vessel, equipped with diesel engines and twin screws, had a cruising speed of 18 knots. During the 1930s, the Hiye Maru, with sister-ships Hikawa Maru and Heian Maru, was engaged in transporting cabin and tourist class passengers, and bulk cargo between British Columbia, Puget Sound, and the Orient. In 1938 in Seattle, N.Y.K. Line vessels typically moored in Smith Cove at the Great Northern Dock, pier 40 (now pier 90) and in Tacoma, in Commencement Bay at the Milwaukee Dock.

About 3:30 a.m. Thursday morning, January 20, 1938, George Partridge was arrested on the Great Northern Dock by railroad patrolman Burnell G. Banks for prowling boxcars. At the county-city jail, Partridge told Seattle police that his friend had gone into the water near the Great Northern Dock to plant a bomb under the stern of a Japanese cargo ship and had not returned. The police didn't take the story seriously and booked Partridge into jail for suspicion of pilfering.

A New Twist

At about noon, the body of a man wearing only a life jacket was sighted by a crew member of the Hiye Maru. He was floating face down between the ship and the log fenders of the Great Northern Dock. At the morgue, the autopsy surgeon declared it a death by drowning, and found the body to have numerous abrasions on the arms and torso from clinging to the pilings. Now that a body had been found, authorities began to take Partridge's bizarre story seriously and moved the Hiye Maru across Smith Cove Waterway to Pier 41. A diver was sent into the water to examine the ship's propellers and rudder for bombs, but found none.

At the jail, Partridge told Seattle Police Captain Marshall C. Scrafford, King County Coroner Otto H. Mittlestadt, and Deputy Coroner Harlan S. Callahan the body might be that of his friend, Rolfe Forsyth. Partridge led them to the spot on the beach near Pier 40 where Forsyth stashed his clothes. There, they found clothing, half of a roll of adhesive tape, 150 yards of insulated copper wire, and a wallet containing Forsyth's driver's license and $3.00 in change.

Partridge said he helped attach a suitcase containing a time bomb to an old railroad tie with heavy twine, then Forsyth stripped off his clothes, donned a life jacket and waded into the water. Pushing the railroad tie before him, Forsyth began swimming toward the Hiye Maru to plant the bomb under the stern. He was supposed to return and meet him under Pier 40. As time passed without any sign of Forsyth, Partridge wandered onto the Great Northern Dock where he was arrested by patrolman Banks. Partridge said the time bomb was supposed to have exploded at 1:30 a.m. on Thursday morning.

Finding the Bomb

It was getting dark, but parties were quickly assembled to search Smith Cove for the bomb. They began searching at the shore end of the docks (West Garfield Street) where Forsyth had stashed his clothes and around the area where his body had been found. The party had to wait until the low tide around midnight to effectively search the landfill beneath piers 40 and 41. With flashlights, men in rowboats and on foot gradually worked their way toward the end of the pier where the discovery was made.

Around 1:40 a.m. on Friday morning, January 21, 1938, U.S. Customs Guard Harry A. Brown was probing around the pilings in a dinghy while U. S. Customs Inspector Paul W. Copestick was clambering about the slippery riprap underneath pier 40 when they discovered a large railroad tie wedged between pilings within 200 feet of the where Hiye Maru had been moored. A black suitcase was attached to the middle of the tie with a two-foot length of heavy green twine and suspended about one-and-a-half feet under the surface of the water. They tried to lift the suitcase, weighing about 75 pounds, but the handle began to tear away. With the assistance of two Coast Guardsmen, the Customs Officers used a large piece of canvas as a sling, and carefully hoisted the suitcase and railroad tie onto the deck of Coast Guard Patrol Boat 4323.

The Coast Guard transported the apparatus to their dock at 151 Fairview Avenue N in Lake Union. Several hours later, Detective Lieutenants Flavius A. Himes and Walter J. O'Brien from the Seattle Police Department's bomb squad arrived at the dock with the authority to remove the suspected bomb to an isolated spot. It was taken to the mudflats near the University of Washington Stadium where the detectives unceremoniously pried open the locks with a screwdriver. The suitcase was found to contain 369 sticks of dynamite, 32 blasting caps, a neatly constructed timer encased in a tar-covered metal box, and a birthday card addressed to Rolfe, "From All of Us."

After the explosives had been removed, the detectives found that water leaking into the supposedly waterproofed suitcase and timer, had swelled the cardboard face on a cheap alarm clock, jamming the hands and stopping the mechanism. The detectives took the alarm clock to police headquarters and dried it out. When they pressed the cardboard face back in place, the clock started by itself, traveled two minutes, then the alarm rang. The clock, which had been set to explode the charge at 1:33 a.m. Thursday morning, had stopped at 1:31 a.m.


Meanwhile, investigators in Seattle and Vancouver B.C. Canada were learning more about the conspirators and the proposed plot to bomb Japanese ships. The leader was Rolfe Maurice Forsyth, age 28, from a respected family in Vancouver, B.C. He was a University of British Columbia graduate, cultured and widely traveled, but had been out of work for the past nine months. Forsyth, a former teacher, was described as an idealist, who hated war and aggression. He was obsessed with the idea of helping China in its war against the Japanese. George Henry Partridge, age 22, was a farm-boy originally from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada. He was unemployed and had been living in Vancouver B.C. with his brother, William, for the past three years. Partridge and Forsyth met in August 1937 at the Abbott House, a vocational institute for the indigent on the waterfront. Partridge was there learning to be an apprentice carpenter when Forsyth joined a class in woodworking.

William Partridge, George's brother, told Vancouver Police Detectives that Forsyth made a trip to San Francisco in early December 1937 where he allegedly made a proposal to influential Chinese officials to blow up Japanese vessels leaving Pacific Coast ports carrying scrap metal and war materials to Japan. Forsyth returned shortly after Christmas and told him a deal had been completed with the Chinese, but they refused to finance the scheme unless Forsyth could prove that it could be done. He was hoping to collect money from the Chinese after he successfully completed a bombing.

George Partridge told investigators in Seattle that Forsyth's original plan was to sink the Hiye Maru when she arrived in Vancouver B.C. on Thursday, January 13, 1938. He wanted to get a speedboat, load it with explosives and ram the vessel as she entered Vancouver Harbor, leaping into the water before impact. Partridge would pick him up in another speedboat and they would make their getaway while the ship was sinking. This scheme was abandoned when they were unable to charter two speedboats or to purchase dynamite. Forsyth promised to pay Partridge $1,000 if he would help blow up the Hiye Maru in Tacoma and gave him $35 as an advance payment.

Plans and Preparations

On Friday, January 14, 1938, Forsyth and Partridge sailed from Vancouver B.C. to Seattle aboard the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) steamer Princess Elizabeth. At the C.P.R. Dock (Pier 64) they told the U.S. immigration inspector they were going skiing at Mount Rainier and received 30-day visitor permits. They spent the night in Seattle at the Y.M.C.A. at 909 Fourth Avenue.

On Saturday, January 15, 1938, Forsyth and Partridge rented an automobile and drove to Tacoma. They stopped at an auto-camp just off the Pacific Highway (Highway 99) at 24th and E L Street, renting Cabin No. 7. Leaving Partridge behind, Forsyth left to purchase 500 pounds of dynamite and other bomb-making paraphernalia. After delivering the materials to the auto-camp, Forsyth took the car back to Seattle, returning to Tacoma by bus. After two days, Forsyth said he was getting short on money and asked Partridge for his $35 back. Forsyth found a place he could rent for $3 per week and hired a man with a truck to move their equipment to a shack located in an area known as Hollywood-on-the-Tide-Flats, a depression-era community of homeless and jobless squatters in east Tacoma.

The shack was located near the Puyallup River approximately a half-mile from Commencement Bay. The Hiye Maru was scheduled to arrive in Tacoma on Tuesday morning, January 18, 1938, to load general cargo at the Milwaukee Dock at the mouth of the Puyallup River.

On Monday night, January 17, 1938, Forsyth and Partridge made eight bombs by stuffing five-gallon oil cans with 100 sticks of dynamite each and blasting caps, then sealing the cans with tar. The cans were to be connected with wires and an electronic detonator, making one huge bomb. They stole a boat with an outboard motor, planning to use it to place the bomb against the ship Tuesday night. But, Partridge said, he lost his nerve, so Tuesday afternoon, leaving the shack on a pretext, he turned the boat loose and let it drift downstream. When Forsyth found the boat missing, he was furious. He couldn't believe he missed another opportunity to sink this ship.

The Hiye Maru finished loading about 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and set sail for Seattle, her last port-of-call before returning to Japan. Determined, Forsyth decided to make another attempt with a portable bomb they could take to Seattle. He packed one suitcase with 32 blasting caps and 396 sticks of dynamite and put their bomb-making materials in another. That night, Forsyth and Partridge ditched the oil-can bombs and an unopened box of dynamite in the Puyallup River

Following the Hiye Maru to Seattle

On Wednesday morning, January 19, 1938, Forsyth and Partridge took a bus to Seattle. They checked into the Hotel Richelieu at 815 3rd Avenue, where Partridge built a crude timing device using wire, dry cell batteries, and a cheap alarm clock. That evening, they wired the dynamite, set the alarm for 1:30 a.m., placed the timer inside a metal cash box and coated it with tar to make it waterproof. After sealing the seams of the suitcase with tar, they closed and locked it. That night Forsyth and Partridge boarded a streetcar for Smith Cove carrying the time bomb in one suitcase and their tools in another. A helpful policeman unwittingly gave them directions to their destination.

About midnight, Forsyth and Partridge exited the streetcar at the Smith Cove Terminals at 15th Avenue W and W Garfield Street, and started walking across the railroad tracks toward the piers. Partridge said the bomb was very heavy and once he accidentally dropped it. They found an old railroad tie on the beach to use as a raft and attached the bomb with twine. They put the device into the water to test its stability and almost lost it in the outgoing tide. Partridge had to wade into the water to retrieve it. Forsyth stripped off his clothes and, donning a life jacket, handed another to Partridge. Partridge complained the water was too cold, they'd never make it. Forsyth said he was going to go through with the plan regardless of what happened, then he slipped into the water and began swimming toward the Hiye Maru pushing the bomb. Later, Partridge was wandering down the Great Northern Dock looking for Forsyth in the water when he was arrested by patrolman Banks.

On Saturday, January 22, 1938, Detectives Himes and O'Brien took Partridge to Tacoma where he pointed out the auto-camp, the spot where they stole the boat, the shack where they made the bombs, and the place on the Puyallup River where they dumped the bombs and dynamite. Tacoma Police recovered the eight oil-can bombs and an unopened case of dynamite from the river. There were almost 1,200 sticks of DuPont 60 dynamite (60 percent nitroglycerin), an explosive of unusually high potency commonly used in ditch blasting and stump removal. It was made locally by the DuPont Explosives Company in DuPont, Washington. A large can of grease was found in the shack. Partridge explained that Forsyth was going to smear it on his body for his to swim to the ship, but he forgot the grease when they left for Seattle. Partridge said their tools were in a suitcase that Forsyth checked at the Smith Cove Terminals. The detectives found it to contain clothing, shaving materials, a brace and a set of drill bits, a pair of calipers, a tiny pocket compass, some strong fishing line, screw-hooks, insulated electric wire, a buzzer, and a pair of pliers.

On Monday, January 24, 1938, Detectives Himes and O'Brien went to Vancouver B.C. to confer with the Canadian authorities, view evidence and interview witnesses. They discovered that Forsyth financed the venture through his mother, although he was careful to give her no inkling of his plans. First he tried to borrow money on his parent's piano. When that failed, he persuaded his mother to pawn her two diamond rings. He received $175 for the rings and an additional $75 on his personal note. The money was enough to pay for trip, the bomb making materials and the dynamite.

As expected, the Chinese Embassy denied any knowledge of a plot to sink Japanese ships and Canadian investigators found no evidence of any mysterious foreign spies. The detectives returned to Seattle convinced no one else in British Columbia was involved in the conspiracy to such an extent that warranted any action. The Vancouver Police came to the same conclusion and closed their investigation.

The Trial

On Saturday, January 29, 1938, Chief Prosecutor B. Gray Warner charged George H. Partridge in King County Superior Court with possession of an explosive device with unlawful intent, a felony punishable by five to 25 years imprisonment. He was also charged with two misdemeanors: unlawful transportation of explosives and conspiracy to commit a crime, each punishable by up to one year imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Partridge's bail was set at $50,000. Partridge pleaded not guilty at his arraignment and trial was set for March 14, 1938.

Trial began on schedule in the King County Courthouse before Superior Court Judge Hugh C. Todd. In opening arguments, Chief Deputy Prosecutor John M. Schermer portrayed Partridge as a willing accomplice in Forsyth's bombing scheme, with motives of adventure, glory, and monetary gain. He said that only Providence and the conspirator's ineptitude prevented a major disaster and loss of life. Sea water stopped the timing device just two minutes before the bomb was set to explode.

Defense attorneys Leonard M. Wilcox and Andrew Ulvestad portrayed Partridge as a callow youth dazzled by Forsyth, the mastermind who used him as an unwilling tool in his mad scheme. They said Partridge became alarmed and panic-stricken when he realized the true nature of the desperate undertaking. But Partridge, although unable to withdraw from the conspiracy, managed to frustrate the scheme by purposely making the bomb so that it failed to detonate under the stern of the Hiye Maru.

The trial proceeded at a rapid pace and was concluded in just five days. More than 40 witnesses took the stand to give testimony. Many witness for the prosecution were from Vancouver B. C. where the alleged plot was said to have originated, and from Tacoma where police believed an unsuccessful attempt was made to dynamite the ship.

Seattle Police Detective F. A. Himes, an expert in explosive devices, testified about examining the time bomb, including the dramatic story about the alarm ringing a mere two minutes after the clock restarted. He said the suitcase bomb was powerful enough to have crippled the Hiye Maru by damaging the propellers, propeller shafts, rudder and steel hull, and could also have destroyed the pier and killed people.

The Defense called only one witness, George Partridge, who claimed that he had been "forced" into the conspiracy by Forsyth and feared for his life and for the safety of his family. He tried to withdraw from the plot, but Forsyth ordered him to stay or suffer the consequences. Partridge claimed a big black automobile almost ran him down three times in Vancouver, so he decided stick with Forsyth, but sabotage his plans. On the night they were to leave for Seattle, Partridge said he changed his mind again. But, in an dark alley near his hotel, he was surrounded by three men and struck on the head with a flashlight, frightening him into continuing with the scheme. Partridge further testified that Forsyth held him at gunpoint during the tense moments when they were putting the finishing touches on the bomb on the beach near pier 40.

Under cross examination, Partridge admitted that he had not told these stories in his statements to the police. In his closing arguments, Prosecutor Schermer told the jury that the stories were fabricated and Forsyth never had a gun. He concluded by stating that a successful attack on a foreign-flag vessel in an American port would have caused international complications for our government.

The case was concluded on Friday afternoon, March 18, 1938. Judge Todd instructed the jury that if testimony showed Partridge could have escaped from the conspiracy after arriving in Washington, he was guilty even though acting under duress. They were also instructed that carrying the explosives would be sufficient to sustain the charge of possession even though they were owned by another. A third count, transportation of an explosive device, had been dismissed during the trial on a motion by the state.

Late Saturday night, on March 20, 1938, after deliberating for 32 hours and 15 minutes, the jury returned the verdict of not guilty on the two counts: possession of an explosive devise and conspiracy to blow up the ship. Judge Todd, obviously surprised by the decision, reprimanded the jury, stating. "The court will not comment except to say the defendant had ample opportunity to notify the police at the outset, an act which would have resulted in the saving of a life" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Partridge Deported

Partridge was returned to the county jail and held for a deportation hearing. At the hearing, immigration officials concluded that Partridge entered the United States illegally when he misrepresented the purpose of his trip to the inspector, and his 30-day visitor permit had expired. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service District Director Raphael P. Bonham said "It is of no consequence to us that he overstayed because he was held in the county jail. "He overstayed whether voluntarily or involuntarily" (The Seattle Times). Shortly thereafter, Partridge was taken to the border at Blaine, Washington, and turned over to the Canadian authorities.

It was Forsyth's impetuosity that doomed him. He was incapacitated by hypothermia and drowned, but needn't have. Piers 40 and 41 (later piers 90 and 91), built by the Port of Seattle in 1915, are the largest and longest earth-filled piers in the United States, each a half-mile long and a city block wide. If Forsyth had known, he could have walked on the riprap underneath Pier 40 at low tide to within 15 feet of Hiye Maru's berth and planted his time-bomb, possibly altering history.

During World War II (1941-1945), the Imperial Japanese Navy converted the MV Hiye Maru, (renamed Hie Maru) into a submarine depot ship. On November 17, 1943, the Hiye Maru was torpedoed and sunk by the USS Drum (SS-228) in the Southwest Pacific Ocean northwest of New Ireland, an island in the Bismarck Archipelago.

Sources: The H. W. McCurdy Maritime History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Gordon R. Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1966); "Man Admits Attempt to Destroy Big Nippon Ship," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 21, 1938, p. 1; "Wholesale Bombings to Follow Plot Here," Ibid., January 21, 1938, p. 1; "369 Sticks of Dynamite Discovered Near Liner," Ibid., January 22, 1938, p. 1; "Deadly Bomb Carried Openly by Plotters," Ibid., January 22, 1938, p. 2; "Bomb Unable to Sink Ship, Experts Say," Ibid., January 22, 1938, p. 3; "Higher-Ups in Bomb Plot Sought," Ibid., January 22, 1938, p. 3; "Tacoma Plot Fails Due to Loss of Nerve," Ibid., January 23, 1938, p. 1; "1,000 Sticks of Dynamite Found," Ibid., January 23, 1938, p. 7; "Probe of Bomb Plot Planned in Vancouver," Ibid., January 24, 1938, p. 1; "Bomb Suspect Bares Plot on Life," Ibid., January 25, 1938, p. 1; "Mother's Two Rings Pawned in Bomb Plot," Ibid., January 26, 1938, p. 3; "Pair Planned to Torpedo Nippon Ship," Ibid., January 27, 1938, p. 1; "Bomb Plot Action Debated Today," Ibid., January 28, 1938, p. 3; "G-Men Asked to Investigate Ship Bomb Plot," Ibid., January 29, 1938, p. 1; "Warner Files Felony Charge in Bomb Plot," Ibid., January 30, 1938, p. 3; "Dynamite in Courtroom? Maybe!" Ibid., March 14, 1938, p. 3; "Fantastic Attempt Described," Ibid., March 15, 1938, p. 3; "Liner Bomb Suspect Tells Details of Plot," Ibid., March 17, 1938, p. 4; "Bombing Case Nearing Close," Ibid., March 18, 1938, p. 4; "Youth Cleared of Complicity in Bomb Plot," Ibid., March 20, 1938, p. 1; "Plot Here Said To Be Only First," The Seattle Times, January 21, 1938, p. 1; "Bomber's Accomplice Tells Details of Plot on Liner," Ibid., January 22, 1938, p. 12; "More Dynamite Is Hunted in Second Suitcase," Ibid., January 22, 1938, p. 1; "480 Pounds of Dynamite Recovered in Stream," Ibid., January 23, 1938, p. 1; "Morgue Visitors Give Clue in Bomb Plot; Victoria Oriental Hinted as 'Higher-Up,'" Ibid., January 24, 1938, p. 7; "Bomb Plotter Sold Mother's Diamond Rings," Ibid., January 25, 1938, p. 1; "Vain Bomb Plot Is Bared in B.C.," Ibid., January 26, 1938, p. 7; "Bomb Plotter Hears Charges," Ibid., January 29, 1938, p. 1; "Plotter Hoped to Collect Cash," Ibid., January 29, 1938, p. 2; "Ship Bomb Jury Request Denied," Ibid., March 19, 1938, p. 2; "Partridge Is Jailed for Deportation Proceedings," Ibid., March 20, 1938, p. 1.

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