Looking Back: OSI’s first Korean War espionage investigation

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

On June 2, 1953, a court-martial hearing began at Taegu Air Base in South Korea. The defendant, Air Force Staff Sgt. Giuseppe Cascio, was accused of attempting to conspire and sell military secrets to the enemy. This was the first known case of an American to be accused of committing espionage during the Korean War. Following an investigation conducted by the Office of Special Investigations, Cascio was charged with four violations of the uniform code of military justice. If convicted on the most serious of these charges, conspiracy, he faced a potential sentence of life imprisonment. Entering a not guilty plea, Cascio’s attorneys claimed that his client was “mentally ill.”

Cascio enlisted in the military in 1943, joining the Army Air Forces. During World War II, he served as a bombardier on board B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, flying with the 303rd Bomb Group over Europe. He flew 26 combat missions and was twice decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. In July 1944, he was removed from flight duty for what was described as “mental trouble.” Cascio was returned to the United States for treatment and he received a general discharge from military service in November 1945.

In 1946, following an examination by a Veteran’s Administration doctor, Cascio was described as a “dangerous paranoiac – a person afflicted with delusions of persecution and greatness.”  Despite this diagnosis, Cascio was later permitted to rejoin the military. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1949, returning to service as a staff sergeant. He received training as a photography laboratory technician and was deployed to South Korea in December 1951, assigned to the 49th Air Base Group at Taegu.

After receiving a tip from the base post office, OSI began investigating Cascio during August 1952. The month before, a postal clerk was randomly approached by Cascio and was asked to prepare negotiable postal money orders on behalf of a third party. Cascio intended to ship the money orders back to the United States. He offered a share of any potential profits to the postal clerk if he agreed to help Cascio with the scheme. The postal clerk refused, instead reporting this interaction to his supervisor, a lieutenant, who reported the incident to OSI.    

When the investigation began, OSI special agents suspected Cascio of dealing in the black market, with the intent to use the post office to transmit illicit profits back to the United States.  Special agents solicited undercover help from the post office, asking the lieutenant to approach Cascio with an offer to help him with the scheme. The lieutenant was simply instructed to “play along with him” in order to learn the details of his plan. The focus of the investigation soon changed when the lieutenant informed special agents that Cascio proposed a new idea. He told the lieutenant that instead of just laundering money through the post office, he also wanted to “get secret Air Force information from Far East Air Forces Headquarters in Tokyo and sell it to the Communists.” Cascio claimed to have an inside contact in Tokyo who could help procure classified documents for use in the plot.

Over the next several weeks, special agents arranged for a series of meetings between the lieutenant and Cascio at a hotel room in Tokyo, Japan. Their conversations were recorded using hidden microphones. During these meetings, Cascio revealed that his inside contact, Staff Sgt. Donald Jones, was assigned to the Far East Air Forces Headquarters Squadron in Tokyo. Jones had direct access to the classified documents that Cascio was seeking and was willing to participate in the plot. Special agents arranged for several meetings between the lieutenant and Jones in the same hotel room, though the three men never met at the same time together. Over the course of the six week investigation, a total of 29 hours of tapes were recorded.

Under careful and constant observation of special agents, Cascio was allowed to acquire classified documents from Jones and remove them from Japan and take them back to South Korea. At first, Cascio tried unsuccessfully to solicit the help of a South Korean national to locate any Communists in the Taegu area who he could sell the information to. When he was unable to find anyone willing to help him sell the documents on his own, special agents facilitated a false buyer for Cascio through their undercover operatives. Cascio eventually agreed to meet with and sell the documents to a South Korean national whom he was told was working as a spy for the North Korean intelligence services. During the investigation, Cascio never made any actual contact with any enemy agents. In fact, the investigation revealed that Cascio never had any particular country targeted to sell the information to. He was simply looking for a buyer, any buyer, and he figured a Communist sympathizer would be his best bet.

On Sept. 21, 1952, Cascio was arrested by special agents at the off-base residence of his South Korean girlfriend, who was in Taegu. Within a footlocker in the apartment that belonged to Cascio, special agents found the classified documents that had been brought to South Korea from Japan. Jones was arrested at Far East Air Forces Headquarters the same day. Both were transported under maximum guard to Johnson Air Base, near Tokyo. Due to wartime conditions, the Air Force instituted a nearly complete information blackout on the details of the arrests and investigation. The media was not allowed any access. The order from Far East Air Forces Headquarters to all personnel was: “No photographs. No interviews.  No admittance.”    

Before formally charging Cascio or Jones, the Air Force formed a medical review board to conduct psychiatric assessments of both airmen in order to determine whether or not they were fit to stand trial. Cascio’s defense team argued that despite his service record showing nearly a decade of otherwise “honorable service,” the fact that he was treated for “mental troubles” eight years prior during World War II, must surely be an indicator that was still mentally unstable and should be declared insane. Through their review, the Air Force medical review board, in a decision that was endorsed by the Far East Air Forces Surgeon General, determined Cascio was “sane and thus responsible for his actions.” Cascio would indeed face trial.

The Air Force medical review board came to a different conclusion with his accomplice. The determination was made that Jones had “cracked under the strain of the arrest” and as a result suffered a nervous breakdown. Despite having no previous documented issues of mental instability, Jones was declared to be mentally insane and not fit to stand trial. He was returned to the United States for treatment.

Once the psychiatric reviews were completed and charges were filed formally, the Air Force lifted the information blackout. Cascio was reportedly quite shocked when he first heard his name and the description of the charges against him while he was sitting in his jail cell listening to a radio news broadcast. Until then, he was certain the Air Force would keep the incident quiet due to the war. 

Cascio’s trial began with the Air Force charging he “conspired to knowingly give intelligence to the enemy and that he did wrongfully offer for sale to unauthorized persons a classified military writing classified as secret, with reason to believe said writing would reach the enemy.”  Specifically, Cascio was accused of attempting to sell classified documents which contained flight performance data records for the F-86 Saber jet fighter. At the time, the F-86 was the fastest and most advanced American fighter jet in operation in Korea, which Air Force officials claimed had earned an 8-1 victory margin over its North Korean competitors during the Korean War. 

Key witnesses during the trial included the postal clerk, the lieutenant, Cascio’s South Korean girlfriend, and the South Korean national he first solicited to try to help him sell the documents.  After his defense team failed to have the classified document evidence blocked from being introduced into the trial, Cascio briefly took the stand. His only haphazard claim was that some documents had been taken from a footlocker without his permission, never acknowledging the classified material which was contained within those documents. The defense team also argued  since Cascio did not have any particular country in mind which he was going to sell the classified documents to when he originally acquired them, then he surely could not be guilty of attempting to sell them to an enemy. The Air Force countered he must have known that anyone who would buy them would certainly be an enemy. 

The trial lasted six days. Upon its conclusion, the eight-officer court-martial board took just three hours to reach a guilty verdict. Cascio, who appeared restless and nervous throughout the trial, turned pale when the verdict was read. It took the board only 30 minutes more to decide his punishment. Cascio was sentenced to 20 years hard labor and a dishonorable discharge, avoiding the potential life sentence on the conspiracy charge.     

In addition to being found guilty on the espionage related charges, Cascio was also found guilty of accepting military payment certificates from a South Korean national worth $46,000. At the time, military payment certificates were the only legal currency for military personnel in South Korea. This was a standalone charge, in no way related to the selling secrets charge. Instead, it was directly related to black market activities which somewhat returned everything back to the original reason the investigation into Cascio was begun in the first place.