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Nisei Role as America’s “Eyes and Ears” Against Japan During War II and as a “Bridge” Between the Two Nations During the Occupation - Part 1

Brig Gen Frank Merrill, commander of "Merrill's Marauders," poses with Herbert Miyasaki and Akiji Yoshimura. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Washington, D.C.—When World War II began, the U.S. government and many Americans viewed all ethnic Japanese as potentially disloyal and collaborators of Imperial Japan. The War Department stopped enlisting Nisei and forcibly placed 110,000 ethnic Japanese residing along the Pacific Coast in internment camps guarded by sentries on the ground and from guard towers with machine guns. The Department of Justice and FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, concluded mass internment was not necessary. Army, Navy and FBI intelligence penetration of Japanese communities disclosed no subversive activities. Nevertheless, the White House and War Department gave in to the demands of prejudiced leaders on the West Coast and decided to break up the Japanese communities and imprison the ethnic Japanese.

Decades later, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, mandated by the U.S. Congress, concluded that internment was not justified by military necessity, but that it was caused by war hysteria, racial prejudice, and the failure of political leadership.

In Hawaii, the military governor, LTG Delos C. Emmons, was directed by Washington to prepare plans to place all ethnic Japanese on one small island. However, that did not occur because Emmons assessed, after a thorough review, mass internment of ethnic Japanese similar to the U.S. Pacific Coast states was not necessary. His Army intelligence chief and the FBI special agent in charge for Hawaii assured General Emmons that 1,500 suspects were detained, and the rest could be controlled under martial law. Laying his rank and career on the line, Emmons stonewalled Washington, including the President, for two years, long after the threat of land invasion by Japan had passed. Ultimately, nearly 2,000 Hawaii Japanese were relocated.

Nisei, individually and in groups, petitioned the government to allow them to serve in combat to prove their loyalty. For this and other reasons, the government removed 1,432 Nisei from their former Hawaii National Guard units in mid-1942, reorganized them as the newly formed 100th Infantry Battalion, shipped them to Wisconsin for training, and subsequently deployed them to Italy for combat. In 1943, the government also activated the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, consisting of 4,000 volunteers from Hawaii and the mainland, trained and shipped them to Italy to join the 100th. Ten thousand Nisei would serve in this unit, judged and publicized at the end of the war as the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army for its size and period of combat.

Need for Nisei Linguists

Even before war with Japan became imminent, War Department officials anticipated a large number of Japanese linguists would be required to prosecute any war. Their judgment soon proved to be correct as huge volumes of documentary and other reports containing intelligence information came into American and Allied hands.

These documents included the complete list of Japanese army officers and their ranks, units and locations, information vital to U.S. commanders to identify and assess their adversaries; lists and locations in Japan where ammunition and military hardware were stored, vital data for U.S. bombing targets; an intercept of Japan’s ambassador to Berlin’s report of the German Atlantic Wall defenses he had just visited, vital information for Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion; interrogation of Japanese prisoners on the front lines that produced tactical intelligence describing their battle plans that commanders used to prepare counteractions that won battles and saved thousands of American lives; and, a top secret Japanese Navy master plan to defeat the U.S. Navy in the battle of the Philippine sea, vital information for U.S. naval commanders whose forces virtually eliminated Japanese naval air power in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The “Z Plan”, as the Japanese Navy called it, was translated by a team including two Nisei. It came into U.S. hands via Filipino residents of Cebu Island and Filipino guerrillas.

U.S. and Allied powers’ only resource to translate accurately the large number of Japanese documents captured on Pacific battlefields was the Nisei. Those Nisei who had attended schools in Japan before the war, especially middle schools and universities, called Kibei (Americans who studied in Japan and returned), were the most qualified. At the same time, they were considered as having the highest security risks.

Many had colloquial or native-level knowledge of Japanese, acquired through long residence with Japanese families and schooling in Japan. This knowledge was valuable for reading the Japanese script called sosho and for understanding the nuances of the language. Very few Caucasians achieved this advanced knowledge in Japanese. Most Nisei were not Kibei, but spoke Japanese language at home with their immigrant parents and attended Japanese language schools. The Army determined they would need intensive training to be of military value as linguists.

A school was established at the Presidio of San Francisco the month before Pearl Harbor, but moved to Minnesota the following spring, renamed the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS). The largest classes of MISLS Nisei were recruited in 1943 and consisted mainly of volunteers from Hawaii and transfers from the 442nd RCT, which was training in Mississippi, and the 100th Bn. Some MIS Nisei failed their pre-induction physical examination, but the Army was willing to waive this requirement because of the pressing need for their special skills. The MIS also accepted a few Nisei World War I veterans. Despite their government’s harsh treatment of them and their families, Nisei were proud to serve in the military to help win the war and to prove their loyalty.

View of the Military Intelligence Service Language School, 1944, Camp Savage, Minnesota. Courtesy of Densho, the Akira Nakamura Family Collection

During the early period of the Pacific war, Army infantrymen and Marines were trained to “take no prisoners; kill all Japs.” This explains why some Nisei sent to the Pacific in the early months of the war were puzzled to be assigned to jobs like truck or jeep drivers.

Captain John A. Burden, a Caucasian graduate of the MIS Language School, who was born in Japan, educated there and later lived in Maui, HI as a sugar plantation doctor, was sent to Guadalcanal to serve in the XIV Corps, commanded by MG Alexander Patch.

When Burden recommended the assignment of Nisei linguists, Patch declined, saying he preferred to take no prisoners, but rather to kill them. Other generals and enlisted infantrymen and Marines shared the general’s assessment. When Patch later saw the value of Burden’s intelligence reports produced in real time, he relented and agreed to allow Nisei on the front lines.

Burden arranged to have linguists Masanori Minamoto, who was assigned to Tonga as a jeep driver, and two Nisei in Fiji transferred to the Solomon Islands. The value of their real time translation of captured documents and interrogation of Japanese prisoners impressed Patch, who recommended Nisei to other commanders. Later, when Patch was transferred to France as Seventh Army commander, an officer offered to brief him on the 442nd RCT, which was attached to the Seventh Army, Patch waived the briefing, saying he already knew about Nisei courage and performance.

Nisei Linguists’ Duties

Military Intelligence Service Language School group photo of Class C-1, 1944, Camp Savage, Minnesota. Courtesy of Densho, the Akira Nakamura Family Collection.

While some 31,000 Nisei men and women served in the U.S. military during WW II, including some 10,000 who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the MIS Language School produced approximately 6,000 linguists during the war. About 3,000 of this number would serve overseas.

Actionable intelligence produced by Nisei made them indispensable to front line units. A Caucasian bodyguard sometimes was assigned to protect each Nisei serving on the front line, as well as to report any security transgressions.

MIS Nisei received a large number of combat awards, a testimony to their frontline service. Nisei interrogation technique was non-hostile; it was friendly, respectful, caring by offering food, cigarette, water, and medicine. This made a huge psychological difference to a prisoner who was trained he would be severely tortured if captured.

Where Nisei Linguists Served

Nisei linguists served in large numbers in translations centers such as ATIS (Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, Australia); SEATIC (Southeast Asia Translations and Interrogation Center, New Delhi, India; SINTIC (Sino Interpreter and Translator Center, China); and JICPOA (Joint Intelligence Central Pacific Ocean Area, Hawaii).

They also served in small teams (2-10 linguists) as described below. Nisei linguists were loaned to allied forces such as Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, and India. Geographically, MIS linguists served under military commands from Paris, France, westward to the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska, Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanesia, the Philippines, Australia, Southeast Asia, China-Burma-India, and, eventually, Japan. The presentation below is designed to show the different ways Nisei linguists served in the war effort.

European Theater of Operations

Toward the end of the European War, three MIS linguists were dispatched to General Dwight Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in France. One of them was Kazuo Yamane of Honolulu, HI and a Waseda University graduate, who trained with British commandos in preparation for an airborne raid on the Japanese embassy in Berlin. Yamane’s role was to identify and seize key documents. This operation did not occur because the Soviets had entered Berlin first.

Continental United States

MIS Nisei served at various locations, including: three Nisei linguists in the Pentagon; forty Nisei linguists at the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section (PACMIRS), located at Camp Ritchie, MD, where captured enemy documents were stored; sixty Nisei linguists at the U.S. Army Signal Security Agency activity (known as Vint Hill Farms Station), located near Warrenton, VA. Messages from MG Hiroshi Oshima, Japan’s ambassador to Berlin, were intercepted in Turkey and relayed to Vint Hill Farms, where they were translated. Two were assigned to the Manhattan Project, to an office in New York City’s Fulton Fish Market; thirty were assigned to the once luxurious resort hotel, Byron Hot Springs, located at Tracy, CA, sixty miles east of San Francisco, to interrogate high-level POWs believed to have unique military, political and scientific information.

Alaskan Defense Command

In May 1942, five Nisei linguists were deployed to Anchorage, Alaska. The following winter fifteen additional Nisei arrived to serve in the liberation of the Aleutian Islands region. MISer Pete Nakano sustained bayonet wounds during a Japanese banzai charge on Attu. Following the Alaska assignment, some MISers were transferred directly to the South Pacific.

Central Pacific Command

From his command center in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was responsible for the area from Hawaii, to Micronesia and westward to Okinawa. Fifty Nisei linguists served in JICPOA, a CINCPAC entity located in a former furniture store in downtown Honolulu because the Navy would not allow Nisei to enter Pearl Harbor Naval Base.

Beginning in November 1943, Nisei participated in the amphibious invasions of the Gilbert Islands, Tarawa, Makin, the Marshall Islands, and the Marianas; the February 1945 invasion of Iwo Jima; and the April 1945 invasion of Okinawa. Terry Doi of California, armed with a flashlight, entered caves in Iwo Jima to persuade Japanese soldiers to surrender.

In Saipan, Hoichi Kubo of Maui, HI, obtained a report from a Japanese prisoner on July 5, 1944, subsequently confirmed by another prisoner, that the enemy was planning to mount a gyokusai, an all-out attack more fierce than a banzai charge, at daybreak the next day. The intelligence report was sent through the chain of command to the commanding general of the 27th Infantry Division, who realigned his forces.

The following morning, the enemy struck and was crushed: 4,000 Japanese killed; 406 Americans killed and 412 wounded. After the battle, Kubo entered a cave to negotiate with eight armed Japanese soldiers who were holding 120 Japanese civilians hostage. Two hours later the civilians surrendered followed by the eight soldiers, their weapons left behind.

Kubo was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Ben I. Yamamoto, Pearl City, Oahu and a student at Waseda University, interrogated Japanese prisoners at Byron Hot Springs, served with the Marine invasion force in Iwo Jima, in the postwar demobilization of Imperial Japanese forces and the Occupation of Japan.

Nobuo Furuiye was assigned to the Aleutians to serve with the Canadian Grenadiers, then assigned to JICPOA, then served with the Marines for the invasion of Iwo Jima, where he was wounded and received the Purple Heart. Dozens of MIS Nisei, trained in communications intercept, served in bombing runs over Asia to monitor communications between Japanese pilots and their base stations.

Southwest Pacific Area

After Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941, General Douglas MacArthur moved his headquarters to Brisbane, Australia. Left behind was Richard Sakakida of Honolulu, who had served as an undercover agent for U.S. Army intelligence in Manila before the war. He and another Nisei spy from Hawaii, Arthur Komori, donned their Army uniforms when Japan invaded and fought on Bataan. They were ordered to leave on the last flight from Corregidor, but Sakakida gave his seat to another Nisei who had also been working undercover in Manila.

When the island fortress of Corregidor fell, Sakakida was captured, one of the very few Nisei taken prisoner by the Japanese. He was tortured by the Japanese military police, who might have been more fierce if the Japanese Army headquarters in Manila did not need an English-speaking linguist. Sakakida, who pretended to work diligently, gained their confidence and was left alone in the office during their long lunch break. Sakakida read their documents, gathered intelligence from them such as movement of vessels and details about prisons in the Manila area.

He passed intelligence information clandestinely to Filipino guerrillas to transmit to MacArthur’s headquarters in Australia. He arranged a mass escape of Filipino guerrillas who were held in a Japanese prison near Manila. Sakakida himself did not escape from Japanese custody until the end of the war.

Japanese naval defeat at the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942 and the defeat of their army at Buna, New Guinea, in January 1943 ended Japan’s plans to invade Australia. T/Sgt Charles Tatsuda, who was born in Alaska, led an 11 Nisei paratrooper squad of the 11th Airborne Division in the invasion of Leyte in the Philippines.

Nisei such as Phil Ishio of Salt Lake City, UT (see photo above) who attended Waseda University; Harry Fukuhara, who attended school in Hiroshima where his mother and four siblings lived during the war; Team Leader Lt Horace Feldman; and Terry Mizutari of Hilo, HI, who was killed by Japanese troops at the battle of Lone Tree Hill at Maffin Bay, New Guinea in May 1944, served in these campaigns. James Yoshio Tanabe, a radio intercept specialist, was wounded while serving in New Guinea with the Australian forces. After he recovered at an Australian hospital he served in the Saipan invasion and subsequently went to Japan for demobilization and occupation duties.

After defeating the Japanese Army at New Britain in December 1943 and the Admiralty Islands in May 1944, all while leap-frogging up the spine of New Guinea, General MacArthur, fulfilling his vow to return, landed at Leyte, Philippines on October 20, 1944.

In February 1945, George Kojima, a trained paratrooper, and Harry Akune, who had no parachute jump training, both jumped into Corregidor in February 1945. Spady Koyama was seriously wounded when his troopship was hit by a Japanese bomber at Tacloban, Leyte. He was declared dead and his body was placed with other dead soldiers to be picked up for burial. While a chaplain was offering last rites, Koyama awoke. He spent over a year in Army hospitals near his home in Seattle and was discharged. Subsequently, the Army offered him a commission and duty in Japan, where he reunited with a Japanese prisoner he had interrogated during the war. A warm lifetime relationship was formed.

Also among the MIS serving in the Southwest Pacific was Frank Hachiya of Hood River, OR. While serving with the 7th Infantry Division in Leyte, Philippines, Hachiya, before leaving for Honolulu on rest leave, volunteered to interrogate a prisoner. After the interrogation and while returning to his command post, he was shot by a sniper. Severely wounded, he reported to his commander and died. Hachiya provided vital information for the counter attack. Hachiya was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.

Another MIS in the Southwest Pacific was John Tanikawa, a WW I veteran who served in France where he received the Purple Heart and a French Medal. Tanikawa was 42 years old when he served as a translator and interrogator in Hollandia, New Guinea. He later served in Mindanao, Philippines.

Part 2 >>


*This article was originally published in the JAVA e-Advocate on February 4, 2021.


© 2021 JAVA Research Team

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