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 "Before World War II, I entertained some doubt as to the loyalty of American citizens of Japanese ancestry in the event of war with Japan.  From my observations during World War II, I no longer have that doubt."
(Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"War In The Pacific"

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MIS and The Nisei

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben and Fred Kuroki grew up in the small town of Hershey, Nebraska….population less than 500. When Pearl Harbor was attacked their father called a family conference and urged his sons to enlist in the Army. "America is your country," he told the boys. On December 10th, three days after the opening volley of World War II, the two young Japanese-Americans joined the line of young men at recruiting headquarters in Grand Island, Nebraska. Both were refused enlistment because they were "Japs". Hurt and discouraged, the two young patriots refused to give in to the prejudice that faced them. Two months later they drove to North Platte, where they were finally accepted.

Both young men faced tremendous prejudice as they trained with all white volunteers during basic training in Texas. Shunned by fellow soldiers and permanently assigned to KP duty, Ben Kuroki later described the two of them as "the loneliest soldiers in the U.S. Army." Still, they refused to quit.

For nearly a year before the 100th Infantry Battalion arrived in Europe and began making headlines to echo the valor of the Japanese-American soldier in combat, Sergeant Ben Kuroki flew in the skies over Europe and North Africa. He flew more than the allotted 25 missions , 29 in all, most as a top turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator, including participating in the ill-fated bombing mission over the Ploetsi oil fields. Wounded in his last mission, he returned home with an impressive array of medals including the Distinguished Service Cross. He was featured in Time Magazine, hailed a hero by the War Department, and toured the internment camps as a popular speaker.

In 1944 Ben Kuroki requested assignment with the Army Air Force flying B-29 bombers over Japan. Despite his status as an American hero, he was initially denied. Only after enlisting support from one of his Nebraska senators did he finally get the assignment he sought. By war’s end, Ben Kuroki had flown an incredible 58 bombing missions.

Because of the intense media praise heaped upon the soldiers of the 100th/442d Regimental Combat Team, one might quickly forget that Japanese-Americans fought elsewhere during World War II. While four of the five Masaoka brothers indeed fought with the Nisei Regiment, their fifth brother Henry fought with men of the 101st Airborne Division. (All five of the Masaoka brothers were wounded in action, and Ben Masaoka was killed in action during the rescue of the Lost Battalion. In all, the 5 brothers earned more than 30 combat decorations for their service.) And, scattered throughout other units, were other brave Nisei. 

Some 6,000 Nisei served in the Pacific Theater of operations, but their exploits were less publicized and are still less known. Part of this stems from the fact that there was no single Japanese-American unit in the Pacific, the Nisei were scattered individually throughout other units. Primarily, however, this fact is true because most of those serving in the Pacific were working for MIS (Military Intelligence Service), in roles that were kept classified. In fact, the secrecy under which many of them served in the Pacific theater was so thorough, citations for the many awards earned by these patriots were brief, general, and in some cases non-existent. Even half a century after the end of World War II, the valor and exploits of these brave soldiers is still generally unknown to most Americans.

The fact remains that these brave soldiers fought in every battle and every campaign in the Pacific, in roles that became vital to victory.


The groundwork for the use of Nisei in the Pacific began in earnest six months before Pearl Harbor.  With diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan at a stalemate, the potential for hostilities between the two nations was obvious.  The War Department began to secretly recruit Asian-Americans living on the West Coast for use as Japanese-language interpreters and translators.   When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December, some sixty of these soldiers were already undergoing specialized training in military intelligence and communications at the Presidio of San Francisco.  Classes were held under the leadership of four Nisei instructors, and of the 60 initial students at the top secret school, 58 were Japanese-Americans.  By the spring of 1942 the first 35 graduates of the school were transferred to duty in the Pacific, serving in Guadalcanal and the Buna-Gona campaign.

While these were the first graduates of the MIS training program and the largest initial group to be assigned to duty in the Pacific, a similar program had also been underway in Hawaii.  Young Nisei had been trained in the Corps of Intelligence Police (CIP) and Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) early in 1941, and were already serving in the Pacific when the first 60 West Coast Nisei began their schooling.  Richard Sakakida was serving as an interpreter in the Philippines by May of 1941, where he was also used by the CIP in clandestine espionage.  When the Japanese attacked the Philippines shortly after Pearl Harbor, Sakakida was transferred to Bataan to translate Japanese documents obtained from captured or killed enemy soldiers.   He served throughout the first dark months of the battle at Bataan, moving to Corregidor at the same time General MacArthur moved his headquarters to the island fortress.  On May 6, 1942 it was Richard Sakakida who broadcast the surrender announcement in Japanese, and it was also Mr. Sakakida who accompanied General Jonathan Wainwright's Chief of Staff to meet the enemy in the surrender negotiation.  After the fall of Corregidor, Sakakida suffered cruel torture at the hands of the Japanese, who found little sympathy for a man of Japanese ancestry serving in the uniform of the United States of America.


In the summer of 1942 the MIS linguistics school was moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota where, by war's end close to 3,000 Nisei were trained for duty as interpreters in the Pacific.  More than 2,000 of them actually served in the combat zones.

These Nisei interpreters faced unique challenges, not the least of which was the fact that, if separated from their white fellow-soldiers they could be quickly mistaken for an enemy soldier who had disguised himself as an American soldier.  For this reason, the Nisei interpreters often had body guards, and were carefully protected.  Their service was extremely valuable.  General Douglas MacArthur maintained a small group of MIS graduates on his staff.  In 1944 Japanese Admiral Yamamoto's successor, Admiral Fukudome was carrying battle plans for the Japanese fleet when his airplane crashed in the Philippines.  Translated by two Hawaiian-born Nisei, Technical Sergeant Yoshikazu Yamada and Staff Sergeant George Yamashiro, these documents became invaluable in planning for the Battle of the Philippine Sea, where Japanese air and sea power were literally crushed.

In the India-Burma Campaign, Nisei also served.   General Frank Merrill of the 5307th Composite Unit (Merrill's Marauders) had fourteen Nisei working with him behind enemy lines throughout his heroic campaign.   These were graduates of the MIS school, again serving in secretive roles unknown in most circles.  In fact, when the movie Merrill's Marauders was filmed in 1962, these brave Japanese-Americans were erroneously identified in the movie as Filipino interpreters.  All were Japanese-Americans.

Sergeant Roy Matsumoto was with General Merrill during the the 15 day siege at Maggot Hill in the Spring of 1944.   One night, with only the darkness to shelter him, he crawled close enough to the enemy camp to hug the ground and eavesdrop on the enemy's plans for an attack the following morning.  Such information became invaluable to General Merrill.

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Brigadier Frank D. Merrill with two of his Nisei interpreters, Technical Sergeant Herbert Miyasaki and Technical Sergeant Akiji Yoshimura.

 

More than half a century after the end of World War II, with volumes of books, documentaries, and historical articles about American service during the war, two erroneous myths often remain concerning the service of the Japanese-Americans in the Pacific.  The first is that the role of MIS linguistics was a relative safe position.  Indeed, Sadao Munemori who was the only Japanese-American to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II, had declined MIS duty in order to be sent to a combat unit.  This mis-conception of the role of the MIS graduates is quickly dispelled by the fact that 3 received Distinguished Service Crosses, many more won Silver Stars, and Purple Heart awards were spread liberally among the MIS graduates...many of them posthumous awards.

The second erroneous myth is that the role of linguistics was the only role the Nisei were allowed in the Pacific theater.  Early in the war Lieutenant Colonel Harrison A. Gerhardt outlined three reasons the War Department was reluctant to commit Japanese-American soldiers to combat in the Pacific:

  1. The enemy might put on the uniforms of dead American soldiers to infiltrate the ranks as American Nisei soldiers, thus wreaking havoc;

  2. There was a substantial risk of severe torture in the event a Japanese-American soldier was captured by the enemy; and

  3. Integrating Japanese-American soldiers into American units deployed to the Pacific would require extensive screening of each unit (a subtle indication of the suspicion with which the military still regarded the Japanese Americans.)

Despite this official policy, nearly 4,000 Japanese-American soldiers (excluding the nearly 3,000 MIS graduates)  served in combat theaters throughout the Pacific, landing with each new invasion, fighting honorably in each campaign, and leaving their blood on the beaches of islands like

Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.



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."

9_interrogation.jpg (24000 bytes)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.

recip_calugas.jpg (9154 bytes)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.

recip_wai.jpg (8242 bytes)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.

9_wai_grave.jpg (17286 bytes)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.

 

 

 

 

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