The army's Japanese Language School opened in November 1941 with 45 Japanese Americans and 15 non-Japanese. Army intelligence needed Japanese-language experts to translate documents and broadcasts and interrogate Japanese prisoners-of-war. Because of the military exclusion orders, the Japanese Language School, which operated in San Francisco within the exclusion zone, had to move in May 1942 to Camp Savage, Minnesota, outside the Western Defense Command. At Camp Savage, the school was enlarged and given the name, Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS), and placed under the army's Military Intelligence Division.
As the number of instructors and students grew to nearly 200, the course of study also enlarged from Japanese language to Japanese history, geography, and the specialized language of the military. When the facilities became too small, in 1944, the school moved to Fort Snelling about five miles away. After Japan's surrender on September 2, 1945, the school reached its peak with 1,836 students in October 1945, and by then MISLS had graduated some 6,000, mainly Japanese Americans but also Chinese, Korean, and white Americans. President Harry Truman called them “our human secret weapons,” and their existence remained a classified secret until 1973. The MISLS soldiers were vital to U.S. strategists in the Pacific war, and their service on the frontlines saved American and Japanese lives at the risk of their own, being targets for U.S. and Japanese snipers. Nisei soldiers were commonly mistaken for the enemy by U.S. soldiers, and some had to have white bodyguards to protect them.
Kazuhiko Yamada, the only MISLS soldier attached to 3,000 U.S. marines fighting on New Britain Island, confessed that his main worry was being shot by his fellow American troops. Perhaps he knew of the case of Sergeant Frank Hachiya who parachuted behind enemy lines in the battle to retake the Philippines, and was later killed by an American soldier who mistook him for an infiltrating Japanese soldier. Before his death, Hachiya delivered a set of
tactical maps used by the Japanese Army. The identity confusion could also save enemy lives. MISLS Kenny Yasui impersonated a Japanese officer, and ordered a group of Japanese soldiers to surrender in the battle for Burma.
Translator Minoru Hara volunteered from Poston concentration camp, and went to the MISLS at Camp Savage, thereby going from the 135-degree heat of the Arizona desert to the minus 42-degree bitter cold of Minnesota. He trained from November 1942 to July 1943 in Japanese language and translation, and from July to August 1943, he underwent basic training in Mississippi. In January 1944, Hara and a team of translators shipped out to San Francisco where they stayed on Angel Island, and the next month sailed for the combat zone in the South Pacific. In May 1944, Hara interviewed the first of several hundred Japanese prisoners-of-war who were mere skin-and-bones from starvation. The nisei soldiers made and fed them rice balls, which the Japanese soldiers thankfully gulped.
Meanwhile captured documents began pouring in, and the men worked to translate them. At one point, Hara recalled, so many U.S. soldiers crowded around him and the others that they could not read the documents. One of them refused to move back so Hara yelled at him, “Get your ass back!” and the soldier said, “Okay, okay” (Ichinokuchi, 65). When Hara looked up, he saw the sheepish grin of his commander, General Charles Hurdis. Later, a Japanese prisoner asked him who the man he yelled at was, having noticed the two stars on his lapel. When Hara told him, the Japanese soldier was amazed, saying he would have been shot had he said that to his commanding officer. In the battle, one of the nisei translators was killed by enemy fire. “Losing Terry Mizutari the previous night,” Hara wrote, “all of us were a bit shaken and jittery” (Ichinokuchi, 68).
In subsequent battles, Hara remembered interrogating captured Korean and Taiwanese forced laborers who were conscripted to build airfields and fortifications for the Japanese Army. They, along with the captured Japanese soldiers, Hara noted, were just as human as the Americans. Many Japanese uttered the word mother with their last breath. His parents, Hara wrote, often dreamed of Japan, knowing they could never become U.S. citizens. They did everything they could to advance Japan's cause. How would they feel, he mused, if a Japanese soldier killed him? At the same time, the nisei soldiers enjoyed listening to Japanese music on captured records, which U.S. soldiers resented.
Even after the war ended, the MISLS men proved invaluable in the Allied Occupation of Japan. Major General Charles Willoughby, military intelligence chief for General Douglas MacArthur's command, summed up the achievements of the MISLS soldiers: “The Nisei saved a million lives and shortened the war by two years” (Ichinokuchi, 79). Most of the MISLS men were volunteers, and many were kibei, a group suspected of disloyalty in the wartime concentration camps. Like other nisei soldiers, the MISLS men fought two wars, one against the enemy abroad and the other, against racism at home.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Ichinokuchi, Tad. John Aiso and the M.I.S.: Japanese-American Soldiers in the Military Intelligence Service, World War II. Los Angeles: MIS Club of Southern California, 1988.