Nisei of World War II Learned Japanese in Minnesota
by Masaharu Ano
Fall 1977 (Volume 45, number 7 pgs. 273-287)
Fifty-one people of Japanese descent lived in Minnesota in 1940, according to the census.
Ten years later Minnesota had 1,049 Japanese.
This numerical jump, although impressive in terns of percentage, is nothing phenomenal in
comparison with the number of Japanese – about 5,000 – who lived in Minnesota in 1944-46 during
World War II and just after. These people were mainly Japanese-American (Nisei) students at
the United States War Department's Military intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) at
Camp Savage and later at Fort Snelling, plus the students' brothers, sisters, sweethearts,
and parents. The 1,049 figure for 1950 merely indicates the residual number who stayed in
Minnesota after a greater number of Japanese had returned to the West Coast after the war
or moved to other areas.
The main purpose of this article is to study the language school (where the English-speaking
Nisei learned Japanese to serve with Allied forces in the Pacific) as a vehicle for some
5,500 Nisei to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. Another, lesser, purpose is
to consider the MISLS as a factor of resettlement of an Oriental ethnic group in Minnesota.
These Nisei men served in the United States military forces against Japan, from which
they were removed by only one generation. Because of the secret character of the MISLS
during the war, dependable primary sources available to the author are extremely limited.
In order to compensate in part for the scarcity of written materials, he sent out 110
letters and questionnaires to former MISLS instructors, staff members, and students.
Sixty answers were received: four from instructors, three from staff members, and
fifty-three from students. In addition, some ten Issei (Japanese aliens) and Nisei
residing in the Twin Cities were interviewed in person. Also, the author corresponded
with Colonel Kai E. Rasmussen, school commandant, and John F. Aiso, the school's
director of academic training.
When the Pacific war broke out in December, 1941, two of the groups whom anti-Japanese
agitators and government authorities most suspected of being threats to United States
security were those connected with local Japanese language schools and Kibei, children
of Japanese immigrants who returned to the United States after receiving a substantial
amount of education in Japan. Ironically, most of the Nisei student-soldiers in the
MISLS had attended local vernacular schools or had been educated in their parents' land.
In early days, Japanese schools in large communities, mostly in western United States,
functioned in two ways: to teach American-born children the use of their parents'
tongue and to assist Japanese-born children in learning English so that they could
attend the public schools with less handicap. With the enactment of the
Immigration Act of 1924, which banned Japanese immigration, the latter function became
unnecessary, and the schools became bona fide Japanese language institutions.
Generally speaking, the schools were held on weekends and/or weekdays after public
school hours, when most American children were playing. Many of the schools seem to
have included even summer programs and excursions. School hours varied from one to
two on weekdays to six on weekends. According to a survey conducted in the early 1930s,
some 69 percent of Nisei on the mainland attended local Japanese language schools
for an average of 3.0 years, while Hawaiian-born cousins went for an average of 4.75 years.
The result of the author's limited survey reveals that, among forty-three MISLS men
who were not Kibei, only one did not go to the local Japanese language school.
Among twenty-two respondents who stated the length of their schooling, the average
was eight years, with a range from "a few years" to twelve years. Apparently the
MISLS Nisei went to Japanese schools for more years than the average Nisei did.
Not a few respondents to the author's questionnaires regretted that they did not utilize
more fully the learning opportunities offered at the language schools. One of them,
who attended a school in Los Angeles for ten years, said: "If I had to do it over again,
I would have studied harder and longer. During the war, I could have been of more
service to my country had I been able to read and write more Kanji
[Chinese characters used in Japanese writing].
Although Japanese language schools succeeded in various secondary functions dealing
with conduct and behavior, they were largely unsuccessful in their primary
function – teaching the Japanese language to American-horn children whose mother tongue
was English. Conversational Japanese was still endurable, but written language was
dishearteningly complicated. The limited accomplishment in learning Japanese should
also he related to the fundamental obstacle arising from the cultural environment
and the reluctance of most Nisei to use their parental tongue. Nisei received their
general education in public schools where English was used, and these children of
Oriental immigrants were much concerned about derogatory remarks made by their
Caucasian classmates and playmates. They desired, therefore to obliterate rather than
retain their ethnic and linguistic identities.
While a majority of the Nisei boys and girls attended local vernacular schools in
the United States, adults were sent to Japan for their education. In the days prior to
the 1924 law, both the Nisei who returned to America and the Japanese-born youngsters
who came to the United States were called Yobiyose Seine ("young people who are summoned").
When the law prohibited the entry of Japanese immigrants, only the American. born
were able to enter this country. Since that time these young people have been
characterized as Kibei Seinen ("young people who return to America"). In time the name
was abbreviated to Kibei.
In the prewar days it was a fairly common practice to send at least one child back to Japan.
A majority of these briefly visited their grandparents there and obtained a smattering of
schooling. Others lived in Japan for a longer period and got a more substantial
education. Some received schooling prior to 1930 when liberal political leaders still
prevailed in Japan; others went to school in the 1930s when Japanese militarism was
rampant. The reasons for receiving a Japanese education varied from one person to
another. Some were sent solely to learn, some went because of family circumstances
like the death of the mother, some crossed the ocean with their elderly parents who
would spend the rest of their lives in the country of their birth. Some doubtless were
also sent to their grandparents in Japan to fulfill the psychological contiguity and
nostalgia of their parents. Because of their diverse experience in Japan, the Kibei were
far from a homogeneous group.
Although no strict definition of the term Kibei exists among Japanese-Americans, United States
intelligence authorities defined them as "those who had received 3 or more years of
education in Japan, particularly after the age of 13." On this basis, the Kibei numbered
about 9,000 among some 72,000 Nisei (approximately 12.5 percent) who were evacuated to
camps after the start of World War II.
In an older survey of Nisei in California in which 10 percent of them were interviewed,
it was discovered that, of 5,000 Nisei, 665 (13.3 percent) had studied, or were studying,
in Japan. They had received an average of 7.5 years of education in Japan.
In this writers limited survey of former MISLS members, seventeen of sixty respondents
(28.3 percent) are Kibei. The average length of their schooling is 7.4 years.
In spite of their crucial role in the war and the occupation of Japan, soon to be dealt
with in this article, the separate assignment of the Nisei linguists to various military
forces and their rather veiled character and role in the actual military battles seem
to have prevented them from receiving suitable recognition and publicity.
Well before the surprise attack of December 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a group of
army officers who had served in Japan sought to establish an intelligence and language
institution. Eyeing the increasingly strained relations between the United States and
Japan, such army men as Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier General) John Weckerling and
Captain (later Colonel) Kai E. Rasmussen predicted there would he a desperate need for
linguists to do intelligence work once war broke out. The operational plans and orders
between the Japanese mainland and military outposts would be exchanged in an utterly
foreign tongue of great difficulty, especially for Caucasians. A key to successful
intelligence work would be the mastery of both the spoken and written Japanese language.
When the farsighted officers offered a rough blueprint of a military intelligence
language school, it was reluctantly accepted by the still drowsy and skeptical War
Department in Washington. Belatedly, permission for the school was granted, plus a
nominal amount of $2,000 to finance it. The school was made part of the Fourth Army near
the latter's headquarters in San Francisco instead of being placed directly under
the War Department.
Especially active in seeking the school was Rasmussen, who became its long-time commandant (194,1-46).
His background qualified him to head the school. A Danish-born graduate of the United States
Military Academy at West Point (1929), he served three years in the Philippines and
then spent four years–1936-40–with the United States army in Tokyo, Japan.
For six months of this time he was an official observer of the Japanese army during the war
The Japanologist officers had to create a school out of nothing. They anticipated,
correctly, that Caucasians familiar with the Japanese language would be almost nonexistent,
so they would have to find the essential qualified personnel among people with Japanese
background, even the children of' the potential enemy country. It is unknown to the
author when the decision was made to recruit Nisei for this crucial military mission.
The decision doubtless appeared to be sheer insanity to those who felt that
"a Jap is a Jap." To many others who thought that ''Nisei could not be trusted to stand
the acid test of battle employment against their own race and blood," it would
Ime a gamble. To Rasmussen and the other school officers, in contrast to Lieutenant
General John E. De Witt, head of the Western Defense Conmand, Nisei loyalty to the
United States depended upon individuals rather than their ethnic group as a whole.
Officers hoped at first to find enough Nisei sufficiently qualified in their
parents' tongue so that a brief brush-up of Japanese vocabulary and a cramming
of military terminology and combat intelligence could fit the recruits for field
duty. This plausible and optimistic plan did not materialize. During the late
summer of 1941, Colonel Rasmussen personally conducted a survey to find out
"if the Army had sufficient skill to satisfy our intelligence requirements."
He visited various military establishments on the West Coast and screened all
mainland Nisei personnel in the service to learn their Japanese language
capabilities. He also interviewed Caucasians who had listed on their classification
cards that they had command of the Japanese language. Of the 3,700 enlisted
Nisei included in the survey, only 3 percent were found to be "accomplished linguists"
who hall reached "plenary level." Another 4 percent were "proficient," and still
another 3 percent could become of use for field duty "only after a prolonged
period of training." Ironically, the survey showed that the children of Japanese
immigrants had become far more Americanized than they were thought to be.
It also left no doubt that a language school was needed to give Nisei intensive
training in Japanese.
As Rasmussen went about the difficult task of selecting trustworthy and qualified
Nisei to man the school as instructors and students, sixty of the most promising
from his screening (and who also passed background investigations) were brought
to San Francisco to attend the new Fourth Army Intelligence School. Their
instructors were selected by personal interviews, examinations, recommendations,
or a combination of such methods.
Iwao Shimizu, one of those who was personally approached by Rasmussen, later
recalled the meeting. "The Colonel took out an infantry drill book and a cavalry
drill book written in Japanese and asked me if I could read them. Eventually
He made me translate the summary of these copies into English. Taking out
Shinsekai Asahi Asahi (a newspaper in Japanese) which I edited and issued in
those days, he said to me, 'Read this.' I answered him, 'I could read the
newspaper which I wrote,' but I did not read it. The final question was regarding
Japanese language grammar. I answered, 'In Japanese language there is nothing
like grammar. If anything, probably particles such as de, ni, o and wa.'
My provocative responses apparently irritated the Colonel not the least, but
I was later informed of the acceptance as an instructor. The war had already
started. I did not become an instructor. Instead I was moved from one camp to
another with the hordes of the evacuees from the West Coast." It is uncertain
whether Shimizu's refusal was an exceptional case or not.
On another such screening tour John F. Aiso, who as a major later became
director of academic training at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling, was discovered.
Aiso was originally inducted into the army at Los Angeles in April, 1941, and
was a buck private assigned to a truck repair outfit when interviewed by Rasmussen.
Aiso was transferred to the enlisted reserve corps to accept a civil service position
with the language school at San Francisco, where he started as chief instructor.
After the war, Aiso became a municipal judge and then a judge of the superior
court of Los Angeles – "the first Japanese American on the continental mainland
to be appointed to the bench..." On the same recruiting tour, Private First Class
(later Lieutenant) Arthur Kaneko, who was a Sansei (third generation), was found
to be a qualified linguist. Two civilian instructors, Akira Oshida and Shigeya Kihara,
were also earmarked for the teaching staff. These four started to prepare textbooks
and classroom exercises for the Japanese language study.
On Novemeber 1, 1941, five weeks before Pearl Harbur, the Fourth Army Intelligence School
opened at the Presidio in San Francisco. The school was located almost within a
stone's throw of the Fourth Army headquarters, which in 1942 became the headquarters
for the Western Defense Command. The school building was an old, converted airplane
hangar, half of which was allocated for classrooms and half for barracks. Equipment
was so scarce at first that fruit boxes and crates substituted for chairs.
The new school was staffed by the commandant (Rasmussen), an adjutant, and eight
civilian instructors and had sixty enlisted students, of whom fifty-eight were
Nisei and the other two Caucasian. To gain entrance to the school and the enlarged
ones in later days, a Nisei had to be a high school graduate and possess
"reasonable" knowledge of the Japanese language. Caucasians had to have an I.Q.
rating of 125 to 150 and, of course, a desire to learn Japanese. Not a few of
them were Phi Beta Kappa men whom Rasmussen contacted through the national
Phi Beta Kappa office. Other Caucasian students had lived in Japan and already
gained a basic knowledge of Japanese.
Studies were intensified when actual war broke out with Japan. All day and late into
the night, the language students were taught "Japanese reading, writing,
interrogation, translation and interpretation; analysis of 'captured documents;
Japanese geography and map-reading; Japanese military organization and technical
terms; and social, political, economic and cultural background of Japan."
Fifteen students failed, but the remaining forty-five were graduated from the school
half a year after it opened. 'Thirty-five of them were sent to the Pacific
theater of operations. About half of these, in turn, were attached to a marine
division destined for the Guadalcanal area, and the other half went with the Seventh
division of the army to help "drive Japanese raiders out of the Aleutian Islands."
The remaining ten graduates were added to the teaching staff for the planned enlargement
and reorganization of classes.
At that time there doubtless was much uncertainty about how these first Nisei
linguists would do on the battlefields. Officers of the regular divisions doubted
the loyalty of these Japanese-faced GIs. A year later, when the Nisei language
specialists were highly praised by various army groups, they were given their
"first stripes." The Guadalcanal campaign in the fall of 1942 and the winter of 1943
in the Solomon Islands of the southwest Pacific was the first in which the
language school graduates demonstrated their ability and importance. By translating
captured battle plans, they contributed to the devastating defeat of the Japanese
navy off the northeast coast of the Philippines.
In the early months of 1942, amidst the mass hysteria on the West Coast that followed
Pearl Harbor, the United States government indiscriminately herded some 112,000
Japanese-Americans (including aliens) from California, Oregon, and Washington
into ten inland "relocation centers" that were really concentration camps.
There were no hearings to help determine who might or might not be threats to
national security. At great loss of their personal property (not to mention their rights),
the Nisei and Issei remained under guard at the uncomfortable camps until 1945.
20 . Meanwhile, Nisei soldiers attending the language school faced hostility and were confused by it. Although the school was just "a street carride away" from downtown San Francisco, the students rarely visited social and recreational facilities in the city. The YMCA was one of the few places where they met. Curious San Franciscans wondered why these men were still in the city in view of the fact that Japanese civilians had been sent to relocation centers and regular Nisei soldiers had been removed from the West Coast.21
Instructor John Aiso later wrote: "There were a good many members of the general public
in California at the time who were enormously antagonistic to all persons of Japanese
ancestry, even those in the uniform of the United States Military Service. We in the
school were of the opinion that we should move elsewhere in order to minimize any
possible friction with these people, especially when our soldiers would be on the
public streets during the weekends." After the school sent out its first graduates
in May, 1942, it was temporarily deactivated, in part because it needed "better and
larger facilities." Other factors, though, were certainly the intense anti-Japanese
feeling in California and the antipathy of the Western Defense Command, especially of
General De Witt. A parallel circumstance that seems to underscore hostility as
motivation for the move came in June, 1942, when the Navy Intelligence Language
School at the well-equipped University of California was transferred to the
University of Colorado at Boulder. Here only instructors were Issei and Nisei.
While he continued his search for urgently needed Japanese language specialists,
Kai Rasmussen conducted a nationwide survey to find another area for the school.
He sought "a suitable location where a community would accept oriental-faced
Americans for their true worth, American soldiers fighting with their brains for
their native America." After a careful investigation and a conference with Governor
Harold E. Stassen (who resigned in April, 1943, to enter war service), Rasmussen
decided to move the school to Camp Savage, on Minneapolis' southern outskirts,
because Minnesota "not only had room physically but also had room in the peoples hearts."
To many, the location must have seemed strange because the area's climate and
geography were far different from those of California and, more to the point, the
Pacific theater where most of the graduates would go. But doubtless of more
importance to Rasmussen were such factors as the location nearby of an established
army post (Fort Snelling) and of two sizable cities whose inhabitants would
accept the Japanese-Americans with relatively little racial discrimination.
(it is said that Minnesota was chosen "because the European background of
its people stemming from many nations had resulted in the most favorable social
climate in the United States.") Also, the camp could be readied for the school
with but minor repairs and expansion. Located on the edge of the town of Savage in
the Minnesota River Valley, the 132-acre camp originally was used by the Civilian
Conservation Corps in the 1930s and later housed elderly, indigent men. The state
of Minnesota leased the camp to the army for a nominal sum.
When favorable reports came from the Pacific on the important work being done by
the first language school graduates in San Francisco, the War Department placed
the school under its direct jurisdiction. On June 1, 1942, the full-fledged Military
Intelligence Service Language School began its first Camp Savage class with 200
men and fifteen instructors. In spite of the larger student body in the larger new
location, the first Camp Savage students received instruction in much the same
subjects their predecessors had in San Francisco. Versatility was an important
requisite. It was too much, however, to expect from each student that he master both
general and military Japanese language in half a year of education. By the time the
second Camp Savage class began in December, 1942, the school reflected its unique
character as a military intelligence language center. It curtailed the teaching
of general Japanese and revamped its curriculum to emphasize the military
aspects of the language.
Faculty members at Savage consisted not only of ten enlisted Nisei chosen from
the first class in San Francisco but also of civilian instructors procured directly
from the relocation centers where they were incarcerated. With its new status
under the War Department, the MISLS apparently was able to bypass the Western
Defense Command and recruit both instructors and students from behind the barbed wire.
In a personal survey conducted by the author, twenty-seven out of fifty-three
respondents were trained at Camp Savage. Among them, eleven students (40 percent)
were recruited and reassigned to the MISLS from noncombatant units and the army's
442nd Combat Team, a Nisei unit that distinguished itself in European service.
The other 60 percent were volunteers or draftees from Hawaii and relocation centers.
Their average age when entering the MISLS was twenty-four and a half years. The
Reverend Daisuke Kitagawa said of them: "We lost a good number of Sunday school
teachers, youth work leaders . . . and [Tule Lake Relocation Center, California]
Community Council members." The MISLS recruits were already mature enough to play
important roles in Japanese communities.
The recuritment of Nisei for the MISLS brought different, if not always antipodal,
reactions from Issei and Nisei. To many Issei, who were Japanese aliens not
permitted to become American citizens, such recruiting was a "dirty, crooked and
cowardly" trick. They were willing to have their sons serve with American forces
against Germany and Italy, but it was another matter to send Nisei sons off to
fight against their own fatherland. Even if Issei parents consented, it can be
imagined that they were hardly convinced psychologically. Reverend Kitagawa
expressed the anxiety of the majority of Issei: "How could they face their relatives
here on earth and their ancestors hereafter? This had been the one thing that
they dreaded when war broke out between the United States and Japan, and that they
thought they had been spared when they were herded into the camps."
Even if many Issei were skeptical about Japan's justification of its aggression
in East Asia, they showed sympathy toward the Japanese cause. Because they were
Japanese nationals they were not eligible for citizenship in this country.
Furthermore, they were concerned about possible private expulsion from their
ethnic community. But no trouble developed in November, 1942, when thirty-five
MISLS volunteers at the Tule Lake, California, camp were given a typical
send-off party, with Issei parents and Nisei friends present. All were
"under tension and restraint," Reverend Kitagawa remembers, but "with everybody
saying the right things at the right moment, the program was carried out in
perfect order." Soon after, the volunteers left the center quietly for Camp Savage.
In the author's study, twenty-five out of fifty-seven respondents (44 percent)
were volunteers, including all four from Hawaii, where Japanese were not relocated.
To those Nisei behind the barbed wire who were seeking something more positive
than mere compliance with the evacuation order, the major motives of their
response to recruitment were to prove their United States citizenship, to win
the war for America, and to demonstrate their loyalty to their country, because
Nisei were considered "untrustworthy, unloyal Americans" until they were able to
prove otherwise. The MISLS appealed to these Nisei, therefore, not only as an
opportunity but as a challenge. To others who were already in military service,
one motive was to serve better as a qualified linguist (after Pearl harbor,
Nisei GIs were shifted inland and placed in noncombatant positions, and some
were discharged). Some of them originally applied for the 442nd Combat Team
just to be asked to serve through the MISLS. One of them volunteered for the school
because he "did not wish to bear arms to kill."
Notwithstanding the unfair treatment by their government, the mature Nisei
who volunteered for training at the MISLS felt strongly that the defeat of the
Allies would be the demise of democracy.
Some cases of overt rupture between MISLS students-to-be and their parents were reported.
In a few, exceptional cases they were "disowned" by their parents. A few others were
beaten by "pro-Japanese elements" in relocation centers. It is the opinion of the
author, however, that considerable numbers of Issei were rather perplexed by the blatant
militarism of Japan which particularly came to the fore after the Manchurian incident
at Mukden in September, 1931, that led to Japanese invasion of all of Manchuria.
Since all the Issei had come to the United States before the immigration Act of
1924 excluded firther Japanese immigration, the Japan they knew was still a
progressive and civilian dominated country afresh as a "new Japan." Since then
the Issei learned of Japan's chauvinist deviation from its democratic path from direct
and indirect American mass media and even more from their Kibei children.
Among fifty respondents to the author's questionnaires, none of them remembers
experiencing absolute opposition of parents. Twenty-five (50 percent) answered
that their parents were "happy," "proud," "favorable," and predominantly affirmative.
Masaji G. Uratsu, who was drafted and assigned to the school before the war,
said: "My parents were very happy and proud that I was selected by the Army to attend
language training in San Francisco." Paul T. Ohtaki, on the other hand, attended the
school only after he was drafted because his father was "very much against my
volunteering because Japanese Americans were put in Relocation Camps." When he
was drafted, however, his father thought that as a United States citizen his son
"should serve in the service."
The experience of Marshall M. Sumrida may sum up the reaction of a majority of
Issei fathers in relocation centers: "When the question of military service came
up, my father told me that wars were just a short period in man's life. The
question of being a Japanese or American was a difficult one to answer. What he
considered important was that a man be a man – and do whatever a man must do.
All he asked was . . . 'Don't lose your kintama' [decently translated, guts]. . . .
My father told me that it was important to do one's duty for one's country."
The answer of another respondent, Mitsuo Usui, may also have provided a common
denominator of parents' feelings: "At first, my parents were against me for volunteering.
They felt that evacuation was a 'kick in the pants' and 'now you are going to volunteer?'
(That's like saying, 'Now polish their shoes' and you're going out just to do that to
people who made your father lose everything – his business, home furnishings, etc., etc.).
But, after the first Nisei were killed in Europe, I felt the change in my father's
attitude – first in his letters, then when I came back to camp on my furlough.
His last words as I Ieft camp to go overseas were, 'You, stupid son. First you
volunteered, then you went into the paratroops, You're sure sticking your neck out.
But as you go, I say, give them hell and come hack fighting."
This response was one of ten in the survey in which "mixed emotion" on the part of parents
was expressed. The parents of all ten were confined behind barbed wire. It could be
mentioned, therefore, that they would have wholeheartedly supported their sons' cause
if they had been treated like German and Italian alien residents, and much more so if
they had been allowed to be naturalized in this country. Because they took for granted
the Japanese concept of "A man should serve his master," they expected their sons to
"stick to the end" once they had made their decision to serve.
In the summer of 1943, before the third class at Camp Savage began, the school
system was considerably modified and enlarged. The classes were divided into
three – "upper, middle, and lower" – according to the students' capabilities.
A military research and liaison section and a translation section were newly set up.
The latter was manned with some Issei who lead graduated from Japanese universities
and who were translating into English the documents of the Japanese general staff
for the 1903-06 period.
Students at the school were kept busy with the painstaking task of studying the Japanese
language day in and day out, seven hours in the daytime (from 8:00 A.M. to 4:30 P.M.,
with an hour and a half for lunch break) and an additional two hours at night,
from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M. After "lights out" at 11:00 P.M., many students crammed with the
help of flashlights, and some found study room in the latrines. Lights out
helped the MISLS men get used to some of the hampered conditions they would find
later on combat intelligence duty. Wednesday afternoon was reserved for military training,
which often consisted of a long, stiff cross-country march of five to ten miles.
Saturday mornings were reserved for examinations. Only Saturday afternoons and Sundays
were free for recreation – maybe a little football or basketball on the base, dances,
a trip to downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis for a meal at Mun Hing Cafeteria on
Hennepin Avenue or another restaurant, poker sessions, and the like.
Restaurants – even steak houses – in the Savage-Shakopee area learned to serve steamed rice
as the Nisei liked it, and townspeople nearby welcomed the wives and children of civilian
instructors as they shopped in the stores on weekends.
When the school began in San Francisco, teaching materials were scarce, and Rasmussen
and others had to scurry around to mimeograph any helpful works they could lay their
hands on. At Savage, however, satisfactory textbooks and other materials became
more plentiful. To assist in the students' learning experience, trophies such as
Japanese machine guns and a Japanese jeep arrived to bring the war closer to home.
As part of the third group at Camp Savage, a separate class of thirty-five Caucasian
officer candidates was initiated. At the same time, nine officers and seven enlisted
men of the Canadian army and ten marine corps officers were enlisted as students.
In January, 1944, when the fourth and last class at Camp Savage was started, the
school accommodated some 100 instructors and 1,100 students. The academic system
was once again modified. The former upper-middle-lower classification was now
superseded by a "collegiate" division (resembling a separate college within a university),
with no distinction as to student abilities. The academic tern also was extended from
two quarters (six months) to three quarters (nine months).
Apparently Camp Savage was not conceived of as the school's permanent location in
spite of an active building program that saw, among many structures, a theater and
gymnasium replace makeshift barns that were early utilized for some classrooms and
recreation units (some of the first students at Camp Savage enjoyed dance parties in
a barn where cows had just been driven out to pasture after milking). The incessant
addition and enlargement of school facilities never caught up with the balloonlike
expansion of the student population. The classrooms were crowded, and space for
recreational and social events left much to be desired. As the school's supply and
administrative functions were partially handled through Fort Snelling, it was
logical and expedient for the commandant to shift the whole school to this historic
and more permanent military installation. The MISLS was moved to Fort Snelling in the
middle of August, 1944. What had been accomplished so far at San Francisco and Camp Savage
was summed up in the MISLS Album: "By the fall of 1944, the MISLS was an established
service school which had turned out some 1,600 enlisted graduates, 142 officer
candidates, and 53 officers, who had had courses in reading, writing,
and speaking Japanese; translation, interpretation, and interrogation;
captured document analysis; heigo (Japanese military and technical terms);
Japanese geography and map reading; radio monitoring; social, political, economic,
and cultural background of Japan; sosho (cursive writing); and order of
Battle of the Japanese army.
The buildings that housed the school at Fort Snelling were for the most part a
great improvement over the crowded barracks and classrooms at Camp Savage. Classrooms,
for instance, were in a tasteful line of light colored brick buildings set amidst tall
elm trees and expansive lawns along Taylor Avenue. To students conditioned to lack of
space at Savage, the Snelling structures were "the very blueprints for convenience"
as well as "bulwarks against Minnesota's climatic ferocity." Far from attractive,
however, were substandard huts of what was called the "turkey farm" in a remote part of
the fort. These housed incoming casual personnel and outgoing graduates.
When the school shifted to Fort Snelling, not only had it "hurdled the incubation periods"
but its students were aware that the war situation had improved considerably for the
United States. Even though students found cramming still necessary, they also found
school life less monotonous. Well-equipped recreational facilities were provided, and
students competed in most sports and enjoyed dances within the post. To some,
Minnesota snow and cold weather were new experiences, and they tried skiing for the
first time. An Office of Special Service was also set up which assisted students in
participating in recreational and cultural events around the Twin Cities. Local
organizations like the Red Cross, YMCA, YWCA, the St. Paul International Institute, and
the Twin Cities USOs provided various services.
A greater number of Nisei were sent to Fort Snelling than to Camp Savage as volunteers
and draftees. The average age of twenty-six Fort Snelling students who responded to
the author's questionnaire was younger at time of entrance than earlier in the war –
22.9 years. Apparently none of them was transferred from regular army units and just four
persons (15 percent) were from the 442nd Combat Team. The remaining twenty-two men
voluntarily enlisted or were drafted from relocation centers or the "free zone"
where they had already resettled as students.
After their arrival at the fort, students enjoyed the Fort Snelling Bulletin,
a weekly newspaper usually issued in four pages. The third page was devoted to
MISLS news and announcements, such as informal reports by school graduates overseas,
invitations to dance parties, sports results and comments, news of the school choir,
and the like. One brief but welcome schedule change was instituted at the fort:
Students were sent out to the playground at 3:30 P.M., apparently to help keep them
alert both mentally and physically. And every Thursday afternoon an army orientation
program was presented. Qualified speakers sought to stimulate discussion on topics
"of worldwide and national moment." Reasonably enough, the most concentrated
question was, "Why are we fighting?"
After the defeat of Germany in the spring of 1945, the United States increased
military pressure on Japan in the Pacific. Acceleration of operations in the Far East
meant that even more linguists were needed. In order to prepare the maximum number
of men and send them out as fast as humanly possible, the MISLS at Fort Snelling –
the only source of linguists – made some revisions. The school training period was now
divided into six- and nine-month courses, depending on the ability of each student.
In some sections, and in exceptional cases, the school term was drastically
shortened "from six to eight weeks." Not only were regular class hours maintained on
weekdays and evenings, but Saturday mornings, which traditionally had been
reserved for examinations, were now utilized for additional instruction.
Practical training was provided by using actual documents sent to the MISLS from
the battle fronts and by interpreting and translating Japanese messages actually
intercepted by a short-wave radio station at the MISLS. This was constantly beamed
on Tokyo and picked up all broadcasts from the Japanese capital. In addition to its
vital role as a training source, the radio shack functioned as a direct source of
infornation about the enemy. Messages broadcast by Tokyo were intercepted, recorded,
translated, and forwarded to Washington, D.C., within a matter of hours. This
proved an advantage, since some other stations had to turn intercepted messages over
to translators elsewhere, thus taking up several days before the information was
finally received in Washington. One message received and translated at MISLS and
sent on to Washington revealed "the commanding officer of Japanese forces in Attu,
their approximate strength, and what part of Japan they were from,"
As increased numbers of Japanese prisoners of war were brought in and military
victory in the Far East became only a matter of time, more and more oral linguists
were needed. To meet this new situation and its demands, an oral language course
was organized at Fort Snelling. This was a radical departure from the original
MISLS policy of placing primary emphasis on written Japanese.
The official surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, did not mean the end of the
Fort Snelling school. On the contrary, linguists continued to be needed for the
United States occupation of Japan and to replace earlier graduates from the school
who were now eligible for discharge. But again there were drastic changes in the
traditional curriculum. The school at Fort Snelling now dropped the teaching of
military Japanese and emphasized conversational "everyday Japanese." Military courses
such as "military reading, field service regulations, applied tactics, captured
documents, military interpretation and PW interrogation" were now superseded by
civilian courses such as "Civil Affairs terms and Japanese Government and
Administration." The task of "winning the war" was supplanted by the task of
"winning the peace." At its peak, which came at the beginning of 1946, the MISLS
accommodated some 160 instructors and 3,000 students in more than 125 classrooms at
Alert to the kaleidoscopic situation in the Far East, the MISLS organized a Chinese
language division in early February, 1945, and added a Korean language class the
following October. It was another group, however, that created quite a stir at the
almost exclusively male base, In November, 1944, some members of the Women's Army Corps
(WACs) made their debut at the school. Their curriculum was identical with that of
the men except for oral language subjects (they were not used as interpreters or
interrogators). By February, 1946, when the WAG detachment was deactivated, a total
of fifty-one women linguists had been trained at Fort Snelling as translators. Of
these, three were Caucasians, one an American-Chinese, and the rest Nisei.
Meanwhile, the school kept producing male graduates at regular intervals and
shipped them to Pacific areas. After the school sent out 307 students at the final
commencement at Fort Snelling in June, 1946, the MISLS was temporarily closed and
moved again to California – to the Presidio of Monterey. By then some 6,000 men and
women, roughly 85 percent of whom were Nisei, had been trained at the school. And
for the most part these strangers to Minnesota and the people of this area got
along very well. At a farewell tea dance sponsored by five Japanese-American
societies in Minneapolis, Colonel Rasmussen paid tribute to Twin Cities residents:
"Without the guidance afforded us by this community, it would have been impossible
to carry out a successful program such as we think we have had here." He also
thanked the area's Issei in particular for their co-operation with the school.
The Minneapolis Tribune commented: "This is heady praise for a community which
has had relatively little experience in harmonizing relations between citizens of
oriental and caucasian ancestry." The paper warned, though, that "the concrete
test of our sincerity is yet to come" when Nisei families settle in this area
permanently. Since significant numbers did stay here after the war, Minnesotans
in general must have passed that test.
These Japanese language specialists, numbering almost as many as the Nisei who
fought in combat units in Europe, made an important contribution to the military
intelligence service throughout the entire Pacific theater after their training in
Minnesota or California. Let us follow the experiences of some of them. After
graduation in San Francisco in June, 1942, the first group of linguists to be attached
to a combat zone went to an Alaskan base, Adak, off the Aleutian Islands and
to Guadalcanal in the south Pacific. While the latter group was involved in open
battles a couple of months later, the Alaskan teams, which eventually consisted
of nearly fifty MISLS graduates, did not see action until the next spring. During
the lengthy period spent in Alaska before action took place, these natives of
California and Hawaii weathered the discomforts of the bleak, damp, and cold
Aleutians. In May, 1943, combat intelligence work started for them with the
offensive on Attu Island, which Japanese soldiers had occupied since June, 1942.
Fogbound Attu was the scene of the first major offensive launched by United States
forces in the northern Pacific area. Although most of the language specialists
went in with the second wave, they were subjected to the worst of combat conditions.
The frequent changes in the front lines made their work doubly dangerous,
nevertheless they made spot translations of captured documents and conducted
interrogations which aided immensely in formulating an offensive plan and bringing
the campaign to a quick ending with a total annihilation of some 2,500 Japanese
enemies. Much of the information collected by the linguists on Attu was directly
responsible for the next offensive – the invasion of Kiska Island. Although this
campaign turned out to be abortive because of the early retreat of Japanese forces,
the information and documents which the language teams obtained on Attu and Kiska
were instrumental in the future strategic bombing of the Japanese northern islands.
It was proved in the northern theater, which receives little attention in the
annals of World War II, that language specialists were essential to the successful
prosecution of the war against the Japanese. Pacific field commanders, suspicious
at first of the reliability and usefidness of the Nisei, saw how the latter performed
during the battle tests in the north, and began clamoring for language teams.
Headed oftentimes by a Caucasian officer, one team usually consisted of ten Nisei
linguists. Termination of the Fort Snelling school in 1946 found at least 5,000 MISLS
graduates overseas, attached to about 130 different units of the various armed forces.
Some of them were also lent to Allied armies fighting Japan.
One of the first published letters from an MISLS graduate overseas was sent by
Cosma Sakamoto On August 12, 1944, from Saipan and was run two and a half months later
in the Fort Snelling Bulletin. It briefly reported the situation on Saipan a month
after the United States occupation of the island: "Perhaps this is the first time
that an interpreter team had so much work with the civilians. . . . This place
is quite similar to that of the Hawaiian Islands except that there are no towns or
villages now – and that we do not have a PX as yet – so, no coca-colas or beer –
even plain cold drinking water is hard to get." This tiny island in the Marianas
had been under the mandatory rule of Japan before World War II, and, in addition
to Japanese soldiers, a substantial number of Japanese civilians were to be found there.
Upon graduation some of the linguists remained at school for further training,
waiting for their assignment. Once their task was determined, travel to their
destination could be swift. Charles Tatsuda, a native of Alaska and a graduate of
Camp Savage who practices law in Minneapolis today, depicted his island-hopping
trip to the south Pacific: "Left Frisco at midnight and arrived in Honolulu in
time for lunch – we received a three-hour pass which enabled the men to go home,
eat and say goodbye. As soon as we got back to the airfield the plane took off
and that nite about midnite we stopped at Canton Island and had a bite to eat.
The next morning about six we had breakfast on the Fiji Islands. . . . For lunch
we dropped in at New Caledonia, and by dusk of that day we arrived in Brisbane,
Australia, and had supper.
"In Brisbane we met a lot of men from [Camp] Savage. . . . We were there about 10
days looking on and observing what we could of their methods.
"From Brisbane we flew to New Guinea and joined our present organization. . . ."
Tatsuda's letter was mailed November 2, 1944, "Somewhere in the Philippines,"
but it took several weeks before it appeared in the Fort Snelling Bulletin. Since
letters took less time to appear later in the war, the communication system
between overseas outposts and the United States mainland improved as American
forces got closer to Japan.
Although the soldier students' capabilities were repeatedly tested at the MISLS,
it was on the combat fronts overseas, of course, that they were actually challenged
as "interrogators, interpreters, translators, radio announcers, propaganda writers,
and cave flushers." One of them was James T. Kai, who wrote: "We landed on Angaur
Island which is part of the Palau Group [east of the Philippines] on the 17th
and have had a lot of experiences. This island is known for their phosphate and
it certainly is hard to dig a fox hole. It is just like trying to dig in cement.
The rainfall is about 16 inches a month so it really pours and when the sun is out,
it really is hot. There are lots of ants, crabs and worms . . . always crawling
all over us and we spend half the night knocking them off of us. All in all
I enjoy this life because for the first time since getting in the Army, I feel
as if I'm doing anything.
"We have had 5 prisoners so far and hell-uv-a-lot of papers and documents. . . .
"The first day we landed, I talked [stalked?] in a cave where they thought there
were some enemies. I finally got one out and he said all the rest were dead.
I crept and crawled...in the cave and sure enough there were about 20 all dead.
Some had held grenades to their belly, etc. so it was quite a mess and it stunk.
The prisoner was a Cpl which incidentally is the highest ranked prisoner we have.
He was wounded so we couldn't get too much out of him...We captured a Japanese
food dump...and 'takenoko' [bamboo shoots], beef, 'gobo' [burdock], and rice
are common everyday food for us."
In the crucial battles of the Pacific, the Japanese apparently did not notice that
they were confronted by American sons of their compatriots who already had much
detailed information about the Japanese plans for attack and defense. They had lulled
themselves into a complacent sense of security. They thought that the complexities of
the Japanese language in which their plans were written and communicated would be
unfathomable to the Americans. According to a postwar Associated Press report from
Tokyo in October, 1945, language specialists scrutinized every document seized in
combat and brought in by regular GIs and others, from periodicals and diaries to
maps and notes on scratch paper. The linguists operated so skillfully that they knew
"not only the location of many Japanese units, but also their officers by name
and experience and the rosters of the companies down to the lowest private."
Often, too, they knew even "the telephone numbers of Japanese billets."
MISLS graduates are also reported to have contributed to the severe defeat of
the Japanese navy in the Philippines in the fall of 1944 by translating a set
of Japanese battle plans. These documents were captured with a Japanese admiral
when the plane in which he was hurrying to join his fleet made a forced landing
in the Philippines. Likewise, Japanese plans for the defense of the Philippine
islands were made known through the work of language specialists from the school
long before United States forces landed on the island of Leyte in early action that
led to the capture of the Philippines.
But the land battles for the Philippines were hard going, as Charles Tatsuda
(already quoted from in an earlier letter) testified to in a letter of December 30, 1944,
from the Philippines and published weeks later in the Fort Snelling Bulletin:
"The fighting has been tough...close combat, picking off a great toll of the
enemy with rifles and not with big guns. Up and down impassable mountains thru muddy
trails in which the men often had to be dug out in order to proceed." Several sentences
further on, he mentioned work of linguists: "A good scanner is a most important person
in the makeup of a language team. Much time can be saved...by a man who can scan
quickly documents and classify them."
After the Allies captured the Philippines in 1945, Nisei linguists faced an
unexpected racial problem with the Filipino natives. The latter, obviously unaware
of the important tasks performed by the Nisei, would stare at them and insult them
with shouts of "Happen!" (Jap). Upset by the hostile attitude of natives they helped to
liberate, some sixty Nisei officers and men expressed a desire to be transferred from
Manila. They were promised that the role of the Japanese-Americans would be publicized
to aid in "educating the Filipino."
In addition to battling the Japanese and difficulties with natives, the Nisei
linguists, like other GIs, encountered hostile climate, insects, and disease.
Not a few were struck down by tropical epidemics. And one way that they were hampered
in doing their special work was a result of the souvenir-hunting tendencies of
most American soldiers. They were reluctant to turn in what they got from Japanese
soldiers. To meet this problem, one language team set up a "grab bag" holding
"all captured documents and equipment" that they found useless for their purpose.
Whenever a GI turned in a document that the team retained, he was entitled to
take anything he chose from the grab bag. In this way the team "got a lot more results."
In April, 1945, in response to a request for special intelligence servicemen for
the impending Okinawa campaign, eleven men whose parents had emigrated from Okinawa
were selected by the MISLS. This was one of many thoughtful case-by-case selections
for which Colonel Rasmussen was responsible. Seven of the eleven had resided on
their parents' native island for some years as Kibei, and some still had their
parents there. Among them was Frank S. Higashi, who met his father for the first
time in eight years at Nago after the invasion of Okinawa.
58The Okinawa linguists knew the geography of the island as well as the Okinawan dialect, which held little resemblance to standard Japanese. They were amazed, however, and of course disappointed, to discover the tremendous effect that Japanese propaganda and brainwashing had had upon Okinawa civilians as well as military personnel. The United States army dropped more than 5,000,000 leaflets on the island, "but this did not dispel the fear of death and torture that the Japanese had implanted in their minds."59
In November, 1945, Thomas Ige, a veteran of the Okinawa campaign, returned to
Fort Snelling on convalescent furlough and was interviewed by a Fort Snelling Bulletin
reporter. Ige was a November, 1944, graduate of the school and was one of the eleven
whom Rasmussen chose to serve in the Okinawa campaign. Ige told of a captured Japanese
army nurse who was seriously wounded on Okinawa and then surprised by the kind
treatment the Americans gave her. In tears, she told how only a few out of 250
Japanese nurses survived, most of the others having committed suicide rather than face
Ige said the linguists were "instrumental in saving over half of the civilian population"
of Okinawa by broadcasting over loudspeakers that the people should move north to
avoid the military confrontation in the southern part of the island. Apparently many
Okinawans who were historically influenced by the prejudice and discrimination of
mainland Japanese responded generously to the fair approach of the Japanese-speaking
Americans. Often the natives willingly located the enemy positions in camouflaged
hills and caves that were ubiquitous in southern Okinawa. Also, not a few Japanese
prisoners of war were impressed with their humane treatment, Ige said, and were
"more than willing to go into their own lines to persuade their own men to surrender."
Ige related his experience with one prisoner: "At night [Ige] would take the POW to
the island where he knew there were Japs hiding, have the Jap POW swim to shore, and
meet him at a pre-designated rendezvous the next morning. The largest group that
surrendered to the sergeant [Ige] was 60 men; however, he reported that
[among all the operating linguists] the largest group to surrender numbered over 400."
The official surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, by no means ended the need
for Nisei linguists or for the language school at Fort Snelling. Just as they found
the help of the noncommissioned Nisei essential in conducting peace negotiations,
the admirals and generals also needed them more than ever in occupying Japan.
Speaking at Fort Snelling in August, 1945, at commencement exercises for the
fourteenth class of Nisei to be graduated From the MISLS, Major General
Clayton Bissell, head of military intelligence, emphasized the new mission of the
graduates. He said: "Just as the former graduates served as the vital connecting
link between Allied soldiers and the Japanese in combat, the Nisei will now
serve as the language bridge between the Allied occupation forces and the
80,000,000 people of Japan."
The language specialists' share in the task of peace in Japan was immense. After the
United States occupation forces landed in Japan, the Nisei veterans worked, with the
aid of a greater number of Fort Snelling graduates, at war crimes trials as translators
and interrogators. After questioning thousands of war prisoners, they linked a
number of atrocities to individual Japanese by the captured diaries and letters,
written during wartime, that the linguists had studied. The linguists gathered vital
statistics for the Atomic Bomb Survey conducted by the Morale Division of the army.
In the Civil Affairs branch, their indispensable work was censorship – screening the
press, inspecting the postal system, watching communications of all kinds, and
helping to find out what "has gone on in Japan these many years." These
linguists classified approximately 2,000,000 Japanese documents according to tactical,
strategic, or long-range value. In all, they translated some 20,000,000 pages.
To sum up, the roles of the language specialists were not those of headliners.
There existed few war heroes among them, although several won citations.
In general, what they accomplished was neither exciting nor sensational. Their
weapons were language, skill, and intelligence, not bayonets and machine guns.
Their tactic was persuasion rather than destruction. Their role in Japanese
demilitarization and reconstruction was no less important than their distinguished
accomplishment in warfare. Their contribution to "win the peace" in Japan
should be remembered as much as that to "win the war" for the United States.
Since the Oriental ethnic identity is so visually evident and their cultural
traces so foreign, the Nisei have made every effort to discard rather than retain
their Japanese background. By doing so, they have tried to prove that they are
"100 percent Americans." The experience of attending the MISLS was both a challenge
and a chance for the Nisei, in particular for the most "unwanted children" who had
gone to local vernacular schools and who had been educated in Japan. It proves
that to judge an ethnic group as a whole is totally misleading and irrelevant, no
matter how convenient it is in a critical moment. It also indicates that acquaintance
and affiliation of immigrants' children with their parents' culture do not serve
as yardsticks to measure their loyalty to the country of their birth. By gallantly
fighting in the nation's battles, and by wholeheartedly serving in occupied Japan,
they proved their loyalty to their native land, the United States. The history
of the MISLS and its expansion tells the extent of the Nisei's accomplishment
and recognition. Among many sad stories of exclusion and discrimination toward
Japanese-Americans, this is one of trust and confidence.