War In the Pacific
Hoichi "Bob" Kubo gripped the rope tightly as he began to slide over the edge of the 100 foot cliff on the Island of Saipan. The Hawaiian-born Nisei soldier had faced danger before, had participated in the invasions of the Makin, Majuro, Saipan, and Tsugenjima. A few days earlier on July 7, 1944 the enemy had attacked in a banzai charge. Two American battalions of the 27th Infantry, short on ammunition, had been forced to pull back. The enemy pressed forward, assaulting the headquarters where Kubo worked as an interrogator and interpreter. American soldiers jumped into an anti-tank ditch and fired their weapons as the bodies of the suicidal enemy piled up around them. For days afterward Kubo's job called for him to sift through the bodies of the enemy for documents and papers that, when translated, might offer information helpful to American war planners.
As the Japanese fell back from the Islands that they had held, Kubo had one of the most dangerous jobs in the Pacific....he was a "cave flusher". The Pacific Islands were covered with deep caverns carved out of the lava that had created many of the islands. Into these caves fled the enemy, as well as the innocent Japanese civilians who populated the regions. Enemy propaganda had filled the civilians with great fear of the now advancing Americans, stories of mass torture, rape and mutilation of civilians at other islands that had fallen. So terrified were many of the civilians on these Pacific Islands that, as the Americans advanced, thousands committed suicide rather than endure the fate the Japanese soldiers warned would befall them at the hands of US soldiers. In droves, young mothers clutching infants, often plunged off high cliffs and into the sea to avoid becoming victims of the Americans. The senseless deaths of these civilians shocked the American soldiers. They were stunned beyond belief, upon witnessing piles of bodies below the cliffs, at the effectiveness of the enemy propaganda machine. Soldiers like Bob Kubo worked to discredit that propaganda machine and save civilian lives.
The Nisei cave flushers were effective in turning the tide of this propaganda, not only because they could speak the language of the civilians who retreated for safety to the deep caverns, but simply by their presence. Japanese soldiers had been told and believed, that the United States had executed all Japanese immigrants at the outbreak of World War II and in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. The appearance of a Japanese face in an American uniform was the first step in discrediting such reports both among the fleeing Japanese soldiers and the local civilian populace. Cave flushers repeatedly entered the caverns to speak to civilians in their native tongue, coaxing them to safety with assurances that what they had heard about American atrocities to civilians were untrue.
As Bob Kubo slipped down the rope into yet another cave, he knew danger lurked ahead. Such caves usually held not only civilians, but frequently also contained enemy soldiers. On this day the group of 122 local women and children seeking refuge in the cavern also included 8 enemy soldiers who were trapped with them. Armed only with a pistol, carefully hidden under his uniform, and carrying a case of C-rations, Bob Kubo slipped into the darkness to negotiate the surrender of the enemy and rescue the lives of the civilians. Alone, his greatest weapon would be his ability to think fast and speak their language.
Quickly Kubo built a rapport with the enemy soldiers, explaining that what they had heard about American treatment of prisoners was false. He shared his C-rations with the hungry, trapped Japanese. He gained their respect by relating to the enemy commander that his grandfathers had fought in the Sino-Japanese war. As the enemy came to grips with the unexpected appearance of a Japanese face in the uniform of a United States soldier, they asked how Kubo could fight for the Americans. Kubo's parents back in Hawaii had taken great pains to insure that their son, though American, would never lose a sense of his heritage. In that cave his understanding of Japanese history and culture served him well. He replied with a quote from ancestral lore when a son faced his father on a battlefield. When asked by the father how he could fight against him, the son replied: "If I am filial, I cannot serve the Emperor. If I serve the Emperor, I cannot be filial." It was a statement the enemy soldiers quickly recognized and understood. After four and a half hours, Bob Kubo emerged from the cave with eight prisoners, and 122 freed civilians.
It was actions such as these that vividly portray the heroism of the Nisei who served in the MIS. Bob Kubo had initially resisted assignment as a linguist, preferring to fight with his Nisei brothers in the 100th Infantry. "I tried to fail it," he later said of his exam for MIS training. "I didn't want to go to the Pacific and sit in a corner somewhere with a dictionary in my hand." Such was the impression of the role of the MIS graduates THEN, a myth many still believe today. For his action in the cave at Saipan, Bob Kubo was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He went on to join his unit in the deadly assault at Okinawa, continuing his work of saving civilian lives. He was one of ten such Nisei "interpreters" serving in the 27th Division under the command of Second Lieutenant Benjamin Hazard. Hundreds more served in similar roles throughout the Pacific. He emerged from World War II the most decorated Japanese-American in the Pacific Theater. (Bob Kubo passed away on February 1, 1998 in San Jose, California where he moved after the war and retired in 1984 as a successful grocer.)
The role of the MIS linguists was indeed a unique and challenging one. The young Nisei, often the only Japanese face in an American unit, were at first suspected and avoided, later prized and protected. There were moments of incredible accomplishment as in the translation of captured, vital enemy war plans or the rescue of innocent civilians. There were also moments of macabre duty, sifting through enemy bodies, often bloated and decaying, for documents that might provide valuable information. "There are things you want to forget," Bob Kubo said in a 1994 interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "You want to make them vague. But some things you cannot forget."
And there were some moments when friend and foe were unable to be separated by a war that could not escape their heritage. Technician Third Grade Takejiro Higa had volunteered for service in Hawaii in 1943, and two years later found himself working as a linguist on Okinawa...the island where he had grown up himself. One day as he sat before enemy prisoners to interrogate them, he found himself facing two of his former classmates from the 7th and 8th grades. Wearing the uniform of a United States soldier, the frightened Japanese prisoners hadn't recognized him."Don't you recognize your own classmate?" He asked in surprise. "They looked up at me in total disbelief and then started crying...in happiness and relief," Higa later recounted. "That hit me very hard and I, too, could not help but shed some tears.
Not all of the Asian faces behind American uniforms in the Pacific were Japanese. Thousands of Filipinos, both native and American, served throughout the Pacific Islands and elsewhere. Rudolph Davila of the 442d Regimental Combat Team in Italy and France was an American born of Hispanic and Filipino heritage. In the Philippine Islands, other Filipinos fought bravely for their homeland. Among them were the famed Filipino Scouts that made up much of General Douglas MacArthur's valiant army. These citizens of the Philippines had been trained by American military instructors, carried weapons supplied by the United States, and were commanded in the field by American Army officers. They were a brave group of men who met the enemy when the Philippines were invaded by the Japanese in December, 1941. Those who escaped capture continued to wage guerrilla warfare on the enemy until their homeland was again liberated.
Among the Filipino scouts at the time of the Japanese invasion on the peninsula of Bataan was a 34 year old mess sergeant named Jose Calugas. Sergeant Calugas directed the efforts to feed the scouts who went into the jungles to meet and repel the advancing Japanese. On January 16, 1942 Sergeant Calugas had finished serving breakfast and was leading a detail of KPs to get water to clean up when Japanese artillery began landing in and around the large guns of his Battery B, 88th Field Artillery. The enemy barrage was followed by low level bombing attacks, as some 900 enemy soldiers half a mile north of the position began moving forward to attack.
For hours into the afternoon the enemy continued to rain death on the small compound, forcing the men to remain under cover in nearby caves. When Sergeant Calugas noted that one of his battery's big guns had been knocked out, its crew killed, he raced through 1,000 yards of open ground, heedless of the enemy fire, to round up volunteers to man the gun. As he moved his small band of volunteers toward the now silent artillery piece, enemy fire continued to fall on the area. By the time he reached the overturned big gun, Calugas was alone. Enlisting assistance from a wounded member of the original gun crew, he righted the heavy artillery piece. Then, for four hours, the Army mess sergeant single-handedly operated the gun, his effective fire keeping the enemy at bay.
On February 24, 1942 the general order announcing the award of the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Jose Calugas was read before the entire battery. The "Voice of Freedom" radio broadcast the account of his actions and proclaimed him a hero. Two months later Bataan fell to the Japanese, Sergeant Calugas himself becoming a prisoner of war. He survived three years as a captive of the Japanese, including the infamous Bataan Death March. On April 30, 1945 the repatriated hero finally received his Medal of Honor from General George C. Marshall at Pampanga, Camp Olivas, in the Philippine Islands.
Although Asian-Americans served valiantly throughout both theaters of action during World War II, few were allowed combat leadership roles. Few and far between were officers like Captain Kim of the Purple Heart Battalion. Most Nisei and other Asian- Americans served under white officers. One of the exceptions was Hawaii's Captain Francis B. Wai.
Wai was born of mixed ancestry, his mother a native Hawaiian, his father was Chinese. After graduating from Punahou School in Honolulu, young Francis Wai enrolled at the University of California in Los Angeles. He enlisted in the Hawaii National guard and was called to active duty in 1940. In 1941 he received his commission through OCS (Officer's Candidate School).
By the fall of 1944 Francis Wai was an Army captain assigned to Headquarters, 24th Infantry. On October 20th he landed with his unit at Read Beach on Leyte, in the Philippine Islands. It was the first steps in General MacArthur's return to the Philippines.
The attack on Leyte began early on the morning of the 20th with heavy aerial and Naval bombardment. At 10 A.M. the ground forces of X Corps, composed of the 24th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions, began their amphibious assault near Palo on the north coast of Leyte. Captain Wai's men waded ashore at Red Beach. As they broke through the surf and crossed the open expanse of the sandy beach, the enemy opened fire. Hidden in a palm grove bounded by submerged rice paddies, the enemy had both concealment and a broad field of fire. Four waves of advancing American soldiers walked into their withering fire, all of their officers falling and the men reeling back in fear and confusion. Heedless of the enemy fire, Captain Wai moved forward, issuing clear and concise commands, bringing order out of the chaos among the first four ranks. Then he began moving forward, into the rice paddies and fully exposed to the enemy fire, to assault his positions.
Watching the lone officer proceed into the hail of death alone and determined to succeed, the men were inspired to rise up and follow. As they followed, Captain Wai repeatedly exposed himself to draw enemy fire and allow the advancing Americans to locate the hidden enemy and destroy them. One by one the Americans began to take the well fortified Japanese positions. While assaulting the last remaining Japanese pillbox in the area, Captain Wai was killed. The vivid picture of his courage at Red Beach remained in the minds of his soldiers, continued to motivate them forward after his death. Before the initial assault was completed in those critical first 24 hours, the 24th Infantry Division moved a mile inland to secure their objectives along Highway 1. Out of the chaos that could have spelled disaster, the courageous Chinese-American had brought incredible victory.
Captain Francis Wai was buried at the Punchbowl in Honolulu, and posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was the only Chinese-American of World War II to receive his Nation's second highest award for combat valor. On June 21, 2000 when President Clinton awarded Medals of Honor to twenty Japanese-Americans and one Hispanic-Filipino for their World War II heroism, Francis Wai of Honolulu became the only Chinese- American Medal of Honor recipient of World War II.
(Photo of Captain Wai's grave courtesy of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.)
On September 2, 1945 a contingent of Japanese government and military leaders slowly boarded the USS Missouri from their launch in Tokyo Harbor. Waiting for them on board was General Douglas MacArthur. Above their heads flew the American flag, ironically and appropriately, the same identical flag that was flying over our Nation's Capitol on December 7, 1941 when World War II began. As they stepped to the table to sign the historic documents ending World War II, a line of Allied military leaders watched the historic proceedings. Among them stood the Nisei, graduates of MIS, called to interpret and translate the proceedings to end the war, just as they had so valiantly served to interpret and translate millions of pages of documents that led immeasurably to the Allied victory. Unfortunately, because of the secrecy within which many of them worked, few Americans would ever know the vital role they played by their sacrifice.