Conducted by Thomas Saylor, March 1, 2002, Bloomington, Minnesota
TS = Thomas Saylor
TA = Toshio Abe
TS: This is the 1st of March 2002, and this is the interview with Mr. Toshio Abe. First, Mr. Abe, I want to thank you very much for taking time to sit and talk with me. Thank you very much.
TA: You’re welcome.
TS: Can you just tell me briefly when and where you were born?
TA: I was born in San Diego, California on June 27, 1919.
TS: Did you grow up in San Diego, too?
TA: Yes, I was born and raised in San Diego. Up to college age.
TS: Now your parents were both born in Japan. Is that correct?
TA: Yes, sir.
TS: When did your dad come to the States?
TA: As I remember, he came to Seattle, Washington in 1906.
TS: And your mom? You mother came soon after?
TA: I don’t recall exactly the date that she came, but as I understand it, she came a year or two later to join my dad.
TS: What memories do you have growing up as the son of Japanese immigrants?
TA: As children we didn’t think all that much about it. In retrospect, as I look back, young kids are colorblind and amongst the kids there is very little negative social reactions. So as [a child] I had no problem. And it didn’t occur to me that there was any problem until maybe later on, getting into high school and college age.
TS: Is that when you began to perceive that maybe people perceived you as different?
TA: I suppose. On the West Coast there were some negative attitudes towards the so-called Oriental race, being mostly Chinese and Japanese, so even as kids you do sense there is physical difference between you and other people. Then later on, as you get older, you sense that there is a social separation between minorities and the so-called majority of people.
TS: You finished high school in 1936, is that right?
TS: How many of the students at your school were also Japanese or Japanese-American?
TA: In my class, as I remember, there were six of us that graduated. I would say maybe there were a couple dozen of us, either Chinese or Japanese, in high school. At least in that three year period while I was going to high school.
TS: Did you notice or sense discrimination from your teachers or from fellow students while you were in high school?
TA: I don’t recall any unpleasant incidents while I was in high school either from associates or from the teachers.
TS: How about your folks? Did you get an impression from them how they felt about being Japanese in the United States?
TA: I don’t recall any comments from our parents other than maybe generally speaking. They realized that they were a minority. Maybe on occasion they ran into some problems, but other than that I don’t recall any negative comments on the part of my parents.
TS: Did your attitudes or perceptions change when you went to college, either at San Diego State College or at [University of California at] Berkeley?
TA: Amongst my personal friends there was no big change in attitude. But I believe, as you get to college age, your associates become rather sensitive or feel that there is a difference between the so-called majority and minorities. And socially, for whatever reason, there is sort of a gap or chasm of negative attitudes between the two groups of people. I think while you’re very young the individuals are colorblind but as they grow older, I think from comments of older people, their parents, et cetera, et cetera, they feel that it is proper to have such a negative attitude toward minorities. And that causes a gap between the two groups and eventually it becomes obvious socially and otherwise. For example, in college socially, what I call an Iron Curtain drops and everything socially involved is separate.
TS: So most of your friends were Japanese-Americans in college?
TA: Yes. I don’t say that people didn’t speak to each other, but fraternities, sororities and different other groups, there’s a definite separation. Minority people were invited to the different events, which involve the so-called majority of the people. Consequently, the minority people start forming their own groups, to have their own social events. That sort of backfires because the majority group will point the finger at you and say, “See, those guys or those people cannot mingle with us. They can’t associate with us. Consequently, they’re causing the problem.” Which we beg to differ with, but that was life in the big city.
TS: In early 1941 you received a draft notice from the U.S. Army.
TS: What was your response when you got that letter?
TA: My response?
TS: Yes. How did you feel when you got that letter?
TA: I felt that I didn’t want to go in the Army.
TS: Why not?
TA: For one thing, the reason I was home was I trying to take care of my mother.
TS: Your dad had passed away on 3 January 1941, right?
TA: Right. I still wanted to finish up school. So there were several things that made me feel that the Army wasn’t the place for me. This was, of course, prior to Pearl Harbor [the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941]. At that time, the draft was in full swing. They were picking up draftees. There weren’t a lot of volunteers that I heard of. In fact, the general impression of the Army was probably negative as far as personal development was concerned. The popular conception of the Army was people were in the Army because they couldn’t find any other job.
TS: I see. Would you say that your reluctance or resistance to the Army was based more on personal factors or was it based on the fact that as a Japanese-American you didn’t want to participate in the military?
TA: No. That’s not true. It was from a personal point of view. As far as patriotism goes, there was no question in our minds as to where we stood. Our parents, my dad, always said, “You guys are Americans. That’s where your feelings should be.” I had heard from other guys that said their parents said the same thing. I think that’s true of the Japanese parents. Their conception of patriotism is somewhat different the Chinese people. They’re more consolidated in their family attitudes and the way they live, which was different from the Japanese and Japanese-American people. It was evident, from my personal point of view and others, that the Chinese family is very close and they (the Chinese parents) held their kids together, which we as Japanese-Americans thought was kind of odd. That’s the impression we got. There was evidence also that Chinese kids our age in school and so forth, they’d speak Chinese to each other where, in contrast to us, we only spoke English.
TS: Really? Japanese-American kids in school spoke English and the Chinese-American kids spoke Chinese to each other?
TA: With each other. I don’t know if it was one hundred percent true, but that’s the impression we as Japanese-Americans had of the Chinese guys.
TS: That’s very interesting.
TA: Most of the Japanese we’d learned, in my case especially, reading and writing was what we’d learn at home.
TS: From your folks?
TA: Yes, but my mother, she was a teacher in Japan. My brother and I never went to so-called Japanese school. They had Japanese language after the regular school period during the day, and the kids went. Most of the classes were in churches. They went to the physical facilities in churches where they learned reading and writing and so forth. The Japanese language. Many of us never went. We didn’t have all that much interest.
TS: Can you read and speak Japanese yourself?
TA: I can read first and second grade language level. I can say that when I went to Camp Savage [Minnesota] they had nine sections, section one being the top grade guys.
TS: As far as language proficiency?
TA: Yes. All the way down to section nine. I was in the first cycle. I was in section eight, which was one rung above the bottom.
TS: You got your draft notice in April of 1941. When did you actually report for active duty then?
TA: The day after.
TS: And you went for basic training. Where was that?
TA: Fort Ord, California.
TS: What kind of experience was basic training for you?
TA: We got segregated into a so-called 7th Medical Battalion. There were about 175 Japanese-Americans in that group. I should also mention there were 4 or 5 Japanese-Americans that were somehow or another assigned to the infantry groups, but most of us were put in medical battalions.
TS: This is right during basic training?
TA: Yes. We questioned that. The standard reply was, “You people are inherently proficient at this kind of medical work,” which we thought was a lot of bullshit.
TS: Was your reaction more to laugh at stuff like that or to get really angry?
TA: I don’t think we laughed at it or got angry. We just accepted it. There might have been some guys who reacted, but what could one do about it?
TS: You just accept that’s the way it is?
TA: Especially in the Army. The Army is not democratic living. When your commander said jump, you jump. You didn’t question it.
TS: Do you feel you adjusted to Army life pretty well?
TA: I think most of us did. We had no choice.
TS: Don’t some people find it easier than others to accept a very new and very rigid style of life?
TA: I suppose, yes.
TS: For you it was not a difficult adjustment?
TA: No. It was different. It’s something you had to accept.
TS: After Fort Ord where were you sent then, Mr. Abe?
TA: I was sent to Camp Wolters, Texas.
TS: What did you do at Camp Wolters, Texas?
TA: There was about 175 of us that were sent there from Fort Lewis, Washington, and Fort Ord. The Japanese-American guys in uniform were sent there. Camp Wolters, Texas was the infantry replacement training center to accommodate some 35,000 people. We were put in labor battalions where we hauled garbage and trash and were given sledgehammers to break rocks for motor pool surfaces. Generally, this was all done by Army prisoners.
TS: So you were doing the lowest kind of labor?
TA: That was about it, yes.
TS: Were you at Camp Wolters when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
TA: No. That was after. We went there in March of 1942.
TS: So you were at Fort Ord still when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941?
TS: How did that impact you?
TA: [Pauses five seconds] You mean as a Japanese-American?
TA: I didn’t even think about it. The enemy attacked Pearl Harbor. People like you ask that question because we are Japanese-Americans and, consequently, we may have had some negative thoughts about patriotism. [Rather angry] “How do you feel? What’s your attitude toward the Japanese, and being an American?” I think ninety-nine percent of us didn’t even give that a thought. It was the enemy versus us, as Americans.
TS: Really, more than that, I think what I’m curious to know is how your personal situation changed, or how the attitudes of other people (other non Japanese-Americans) toward you changed. I’m not questioning your patriotism or feeling as an American, Mr. Abe.
TA: After Pearl Harbor social attitudes might have changed. I think a lot of people were confused as to how they should regard us (Japanese-Americans in uniform) in the U.S. Army uniform. In answer to your question, my reaction is somewhat neutral. I never even thought about that, other than possibly there might be some few people that would really let you know how they felt positively or negatively about it. Probably I think in the minds of many of the majority of people, being Caucasians, they might have had negative reaction, yet I don’t recall any unpleasant incidents.
TS: Was your family—that is your mom, your brother, and his wife—were they moved to an internment camp?
TA: Yes. They were sent to Arizona. That happened in March of 1942.
TS: How did that make you feel when you heard that was happening?
TA: We weren’t happy about it. Here again, we felt that there was nothing we could do about it. There’s an old Japanese phrase, they say shika taganai, which means, “There’s nothing that we can do about it.” I mean, it’s happening and that’s it. We learned that from our parents. You see something happening that you don’t quite agree with, and yet if you don’t have the power to change it you have to more or less “accept” it. I think most of us in the service saw our friends and parents being sent to these camps. It was something that we weren’t all that happy about, and yet there was nothing we could do about it. Our attitude was that we all accepted it. I don’t recall any unpleasant incidents as far as we in the service were concerned, or any negative reaction. We just felt bad about it.
TS: Did you talk to your mom or brother at all during this time and get an indication of how your mom was handling this?
TA: Some people were given a week. Say that they lived in a house forty years, they were given a week to get the hell out of there. That’s pretty hard to do. I don’t know if I could move out of [my residence here] in a week and take care of all my personal stuff. Consequently, on their part, they were real unhappy about it. At the same time, they had to get out. The only thing they could take was what they could carry. They didn’t have too many friends that they could depend on to take care of their personal things, not only physical, furniture and stuff like that, but how about all their personal papers, et cetera. They were a little bit busy.
TS: More than a little bit busy, I imagine.
TA: Yes. There was nothing else they could do. Do what they could do for themselves. If you sat down there and revolted, that wouldn’t help you at all. And you do as much as you can. You’re doing it for yourself. As far as we were concerned, our reaction was—here again, we in the service, I would say that we were insulated from all these unpleasant details of evacuating the civilians, our friends, our relatives. We didn’t really realize what they were going through. Our friends and our relatives didn’t have time to be writing to us and telling us what they were going through.
TS: With only a week to pack up your house you don’t have time to sit down and write letters.
TA: Yes, right. My dad had some minor partners in tuna fishing and they picked them up December 7th and they were gone.
TS: Right away?
TA: Right that day.
TS: Let me move to the next step here, Mr. Abe. How did you end up at military intelligence school at Camp Savage, Minnesota?
TA: That’s a good question. Going back a ways, prior to Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army and the military realized that there was something coming on, on the part of the Japanese military. They felt that in the United States, who were the individuals that are proficient in the realms of reading and writing? So they literally went out looking for so-called Japanese linguists among the Caucasians, because they didn’t trust any people of Japanese ancestry. They found that they couldn’t find all that many heads out there, that many bodies. So they started looking at Japanese-Americans, the Niseis. They looked at guys that had spent some time in Japan, assuming that they knew the language a lot better than some of us.
To make a long story short, in August of 1941 they rounded up some sixty Nisei (Japanese-Americans) and sent them to Presidio, San Francisco, for a refresher course in the language. They were supposed to be the elite as far as language went. They started an intensive course in reviewing the language and then Pearl Harbor broke out. Then they were in a panic. Here again, they couldn’t trust any of us. They couldn’t find any linguists.
Eventually in March, when they evacuated all the Japanese-Americans, they selected Camp Savage. The question comes up, “Why Camp Savage in Minnesota?” The military went out to ten metropolitan areas in the U.S. to get a reaction as to what the social attitudes might be toward Japanese-American guys in uniform when, say, on a Saturday night, when they came into town. To make a long story short, they found that the Twin Cities area was the least negative toward that, so that’s how they decided to start this intelligence school at Camp Savage in Minnesota. They rounded up 175 of us from Fort Lewis, Washington and Fort Ord.
TS: Did they ask you if you wanted to participate in this program?
TA: No. Prior to that we were sent to Camp Wolters, Texas, to labor battalions. That’s where the 175 of us went. Then in June of 1942 they started recruited the linguists. They didn’t feel the 60 guys in Presidio, California were enough, so they started recruiting from various camps. I happened to be at Camp Wolters, Texas. Out of the 175 guys they called out 20 names. I was one of them. They sent us up here to Savage, Minnesota in June of 1942. The program being what it was, intelligence, they didn’t publicize all that. In fact, they wouldn’t even tell us where we were going when they put us on the train from Texas.
TS: They didn’t even tell you where you were going?
TA: No. We wound up in Kansas City to transfer to another train, and then we found out we were going to Fort Snelling, Minnesota. We came up here and the people here didn’t know who we were or where we came from or why.
TS: Really? They weren’t expecting you?
TA: No. It took them a couple days to find out where we were supposed to go.
TS: That’s the Army for you, right? [Both laugh]
TA: Yes. Then, of course, they said intelligence was not publicizing all the stuff. Eventually we wound up at Savage, Minnesota.
TS: What was the training like there?
TA: A six-month cycle. We were in class eight hours a day, five days a week. On top of that, we had two and a half hours of studying at night.
TS: That’s a full program.
TA: Yes. We were off on Saturdays and Sundays.
TS: Did you take different courses or was it all just language?
TA: They taught us reading, writing, conversational Japanese. We studied the Japanese military system. We studied Japanese religion, Buddhism, and how the Japanese government operated. We became familiar with all this stuff. We’d do a better job eventually, rather than being totally ignorant. The majority of us had never been in Japan.
TS: You had never been to Japan, right?
TS: Was it clear to you when you were at Camp Savage what you were going to do when this was over?
TA: We knew that we were going to be involved in the translation of documents and interrogation of prisoners of war. We knew that was why we were going through all of this.
TS: They told you that right up front.
TA: Yes, when we were at Savage. Yes.
TS: There was no suggestion you were going to be behind enemy lines or acting as spies or anything like that?
TS: The six-month cycle at Savage gave you time to get acquainted with Minnesota a little bit?
TA: Yes. Minnesota winters. Because most of us were from Hawaii and California.
TS: How was that? Adjusting to radically different weather?
TA: It wasn’t easy. In fact, the first winter here, I looked at an outside thermometer. It said thirty-six degrees below. I told myself, “I swear to God this will be my last winter here!” We didn’t even know how to dress. The idea in cold climates that you put on layers of clothing, loose clothing in order to keep warm. Not knowing how to dress. Many of us suffered frostbite on our feet and hands and ears.
TS: The Army didn’t tell you about how to dress?
TA: I don’t think there were any native guys.
TS: You guys were all Japanese-Americans?
TS: Did you have opportunities to get off base, to go into town?
TA: Sure. Weekends.
TS: How was that?
TA: My typical answer to that question is the difference between night and day from the West Coast. Because here again, we’d go into town and the civilians don’t look at you like you’re some kind of subhuman animal walking down the street like they did on the West Coast. People were pleasant, friendly.
TS: Were you in uniform when you went to town?
TA: Yes, because this was wartime. You have to be in uniform. Prior to Pearl Harbor you could wear civilian clothes when you were off base. But anyway, we were in uniform. Which reminds me—when we first came to Savage there was no transportation, no bus service or anything to town. We used to hitchhike. There was another guy and I, I remember one Saturday we were hitchhiking and a guy picked us up. We were in uniform, and he asked us if we were prisoners of war. I thought, “Why would a guy ask us that question and still pick us up?” [Laughs]
TS: He was friendly enough, it sounds like.
TA: Yes, he was friendly. We told him that we weren’t prisoners of war, but also we were instructed not to talk too much about the intelligence work. So there were a lot of civilians that saw us around there, but they really didn’t know why we were there.
TS: And it was a sizeable group, so people saw you regularly.
TA: Back to going into town on Saturday nights; they had a USO. The Army had a social area.
TS: What was the condition of your mom and brother who were in the camp in Arizona at this time? Did you hear from them occasionally? By letter or phone call?
TA: Yes, by letter. No phones.
TS: What kind of impression did you get from them at this time?
TA: I don’t know of any unpleasant incidences. Just like a prisoner of war camp, you know, barbed wire. Trenches and Army guards. They weren’t allowed to leave the area. Eventually, if they could find sponsors or definite areas where they could relocate, they were allowed to leave. That included schools, if kids wanted to go to school, but they had to be held accountable as to their location if they left the place. They all wanted to leave these camps but there were many of them that felt that, “The government put us here, and we’re going to stay here until they find a place for us to go.”
TS: Did you have feelings on what you wanted your Mom and brother to do as far as leaving or staying in the camp?
TA: Yes. I wanted to get them out. That’s why I brought them out here [to Minnesota].
TS: Were they happy to leave?
TA: Yes. The camps—they weren’t abused or anything, but it wasn’t anything like home. About the closest thing you could say was, it was like an Army camp, barracks, mess hall, latrines. That’s about it. Eventually, after a couple years, they built a motion picture hall where they had movies, and they built a gymnasium.
TS: Where was this camp in Arizona?
TA: Posten, Arizona, which is just east of the Arizona-California border. They were all remote areas. There were ten camps in remote areas of the country.
TS: Down by Yuma, Arizona, is that where Posten is?
TA: I think it was close to it, yes. There were three camps—Posten 1, 2 and 3. I remember north of there, there are some mountains. What was the name of that town, couple towns there?
TS: In the north, Kingman’s up there, up in the north by the border region.
TA: It wasn’t too far north of Posten, Arizona. Anyway, I don’t think it was too far from Yuma. Near the border.
TS: When did you have your mother and your brother join you here in Minnesota? You got here in June of 1942 and you mentioned it was a six-month cycle that you were on.
TA: I think it was in 1943.
TS: Is that when you went overseas as well?
TA: I went overseas in 1944. I don’t know if I mentioned it or not, but in that six months, the first six-month course, they were sending guys up to the Aleutians [Islands, Alaska] and the southwest Pacific and Guadalcanal [in the Solomon Islands], and to the Marine Corps and Navy. I was the only single person who was not put on the shipping list. I inquired about that and they said, “Your family background. Your dad was in the fishing business,” and this and this and that. “And so you’re still under question as far as your loyalty goes.” I said, “I’ve already been in the service for two years.” Eventually they cleared me. That was six months later. While I was still sitting around there I went back into class to the second session.
TS: So you were at Camp Savage for quite a while.
TA: I was there over a year.
TS: And you didn’t ship out overseas until 1944.
TA: It was December 1943.
TS: Just briefly, when you brought your mother and brother here, did they move to Minneapolis?
TS: Was their adjustment pretty smooth?
TA: As far as I know.
TS: When you think about it, did your mom or brother seem bitter or upset about the camp experience once they got out? Or was it something they preferred just to forget about?
TA: As far as I was concerned, they never related to me their feelings about it. I don’t know if they were bitter or not. They didn’t give me that impression. But I don’t think they were all that happy about it, either.
TS: Let me shift to you going overseas. The end of 1943 you finally get orders to go overseas. Do you know when you get your orders? Is it clear where you’ll be going and what you’ll be doing?
TA: No. They gave me an APO number, an Army Post Office number, and that was it.
TS: Did you report to the West Coast to ship out that way?
TS: Where did you ship out from?
TA: Los Angeles.
TS: What was your destination then?
TA: Destination was eventually to Calcutta, in India. We didn’t know we were going there.
TS: What was the path to Calcutta from Los Angeles?
TA: Liberty ship [mass-produced American cargo ship], sixty days.
TS: Sixty days in a Liberty ship to India?
TA: Yes. We felt that we could swim faster than that! [Laughs]
TS: Were you in a convoy of ships, or just one?
TA: Single. Liberty ships, which they were being built by the dozens during the war, they weren’t built for speed.
TA: We were on the ship that was hauling airplanes as cargo, so they built out of wood a couple of enclosures on deck. There were ten of us in each of the two enclosures. There were twenty of us.
TS: All Japanese-Americans?
TA: Yes. We were the only passengers. This was a cargo ship. We had cots in the wood enclosures.
TS: Like bunks?
TA: Yes. Five high and five on each side of an aisle. Ten guys in there. There were two of those.
TS: Pretty cramped, was it?
TA: Yes. But we didn’t spend all our time inside there. Just sleeping. Food was pretty good because we ate the same thing that the crew did.
TS: Was it a Navy crew or a Merchant Marine crew?
TA: Merchant Marine.
TS: Sixty days on a ship. You could read a lot of books or write a lot of letters, I suppose.
TA: Yes. We were forty-three days before we hit Ceylon [now known as Sri Lanka]. We were there one day, then another seventeen days to Calcutta.
TS: That must have been just crawling up the coast to Calcutta.
TA: Well, we said we could probably swim faster.
TS: This was the first couple months of 1944 that you actually arrived in India. You were all going to Calcutta, is that right? Or did some guys get off in Ceylon?
TA: We all went to Calcutta. Then they put us on a train. We were five days on a train to New Delhi, India. CBI [China-Burma-India Theater] had their headquarters for the U.S. Army. Northern central India, the capital of India.
TS: When you arrived in New Delhi, what kind of accommodations did you find and what was your job there?
TA: It was a CBI Theater Headquarters so our accommodations weren’t all that bad. My main job was translating documents, captured documents, strategic documents that didn’t require immediate translation. I don’t remember if we had any prisoners. I think there were a few.
TS: So you were doing office work for the most part?
TA: Yes. It was all office work. We’d sleep in one area and went to another location during the day.
TS: Kind of an eight to five job it sounds like.
TA: That’s what it was until we got shipped out to CBI, into Burma.
TS: How long did you stay in India, in Delhi?
TA: Several months.
TS: Doing pretty much the same thing all the time?
TS: What did you think of that work?
TA: All I know is we had to do it, and so we did. I didn’t have any positive or negative attitudes toward it.
TS: Did you feel it was a valuable contribution or did you feel like, “I could be doing more than this”?
TA: I felt that we were doing something toward the effort. Reading documentation during and after. One general, he felt that the Japanese-American intelligence group shortened the war by two years with our efforts. We don’t know if that’s true or not, but who knows. And a lot of the people felt that our efforts were…
TS: Mr. Abe, you were shipped from Delhi to Burma [now known as Myanmar]. This is in mid-1944, approximately. Did the kind of work that you were doing change when you went to Burma? In Delhi you were essentially doing office work translating documents. Is that the same kind of work you were doing in Burma?
TA: Our location was a little different. We were getting shot at and all that stuff.
TS: It would be correct to say this was closer to the front lines?
TA: Yes. We were right there.
TS: Were you still translating documents the same as you had been before or were you doing more interrogation of prisoners now?
TA: Well, both. The situation was, we had teams of ten people, ten guys. Then when division headquarters sent us out to battalion, then to company, then down to the front lines, they would send us out in pairs. One guy is usually more proficient in language than the other guy. He would do most of the translation of documents. The lesser guy would interrogate prisoners. If he needed help, he’d ask his partner. That’s the way you worked, in pairs.
TS: Did you usually work with the same person?
TA: Yes, the same guy.
TS: So you had a partner you worked with regularly?
TS: What was his name?
TA: He was from Hawaii. He had a degree. I think he picked up a degree in Japan. I think he was also a Buddhist minister.
TS: So his command of Japanese was pretty good? His spoken Japanese?
TA: Right. His name was Takuzo Araki. That was his last name. He was proficient in the language. We addressed him as “Tyronne,” as I remember. [Laughs] I do not remember why.
TS: So you interrogated Japanese prisoners of war on a regular or semi-regular basis?
TA: Yes. When they came in, yes.
TS: Can you remember the first time that you interrogated a Japanese prisoner of war?
TA: There was a wounded POW. They picked him up out in the field there. Of course in Burma, if a guy lays out there in the fields for any length of time, he dies because of the weather. It’s humid and it’s hot. There are a lot of casualties due to the conditions (geographical conditions and the weather) in addition to the enemy action. American guys were also affected by weather. Some of them were sent back because they fought the weather and it affected their mental condition.
TS: Did it affect you, Mr. Abe?
TA: It was hot, but we just told ourselves, “Don’t fight it.” During the monsoon season it’s wet twenty-four hours a day. Your clothes were always wet. There’s nothing you can do about it.
TS: How long were you in Burma all together?
TA: The total time I was overseas was some twenty-two months and I think I spent about twelve of that in Burma. I don’t remember, exactly.
TS: As a linguist and an interrogator, were you ever involved in combat situations?
TA: Just about one hundred percent of the time.
TS: Did you carry a sidearm or a rifle?
TA: I carried a .45 [caliber pistol] and a carbine. Here’s another thing. The impression that most of the people have of us in intelligence is, like you say, you sit in an office and translate this and that. But that is just part of the war. Most of the real work is out there in the field. Due to the nature of our job, the publicity was practically nil as far as the world was concerned. So, here again, it kind of bothers me when people feel that many of us were not up there in the forward area. Not because we want to be heroes or anything, but the impression that people have of us is that we’re office people. In a way, it’s kind of a disservice.
TS: [Office work] was part of the work you did, and from your own descriptions of Delhi some minutes ago, that was a lot of what you did early on.
TA: Yes. We were doing that because we were just sitting there waiting for assignment into Burma.
TS: Mr. Abe, when you interrogated prisoners, was there like a standard group of questions that you were supposed to ask?
TA: We didn’t have any guidelines or anything.
TS: How did you decide what to ask someone then?
TA: It was more or less natural. You wanted to know why they were there, the strength of their unit, what their objectives were. We call that tactical questions. We want to know answers right now so we can let other people know as to how they are going to react. In contrast to that, the strategic questions were something that you sent back to the rear areas. Gives the overall picture. As far as questions go, it’s almost natural as to what you want to know. What they’re doing there, how many guys, and how they’re feeling. Stress and problems they might have. Were they advancing or retreating? How much reinforcements they got? Questions are almost natural when you’re at the site.
TS: Did you find that, in general, these prisoners of war were willing to answer questions or unwilling to answer questions?
TA: When we were at Savage they gave us the mental makeup of the Japanese soldier who is, you know, totally devoted to the emperor at any cost. They were willing to give up their lives, which was probably true during the early part of the war. This is my personal impression of the Japanese soldiers: they were invincible. Especially their attitude toward Americans, I thought, was that they looked on Americans with disdain because they felt that the Americans lived a soft life in the U.S. and out there, especially in the jungles of Burma, there was no supply.
The bottom line, in my opinion, of the Japanese and why they lost the war was they underestimated their enemy. As the war progressed in favor of the Allies, the Americans, particularly in Burma, the Japanese found out that maybe they underestimated the enemy and consequently they started losing the war. They started losing people. Their replacements were younger people. The younger people weren’t all that devoted to the emperor. They were thinking maybe they wanted to live through this instead of dying for the emperor. In my interrogation, some of these younger guys couldn’t care less about winning the war. They wanted to get home.
TS: And they wanted to get home alive.
TS: So once it became apparent to some of these younger fellows that maybe Japan wasn’t going to win the war, you found them more willing to talk?
TA: That’s right. They were resigned to their fate and they weren’t about to die for their emperor. That’s the impression I got from some of these guys I talked to.
TS: Did you have a way that you liked to approach things like this? Did you try to be their friend, or did you try to come off aggressive when you talked to people?
TA: The guys we talked to, a lot of them were wounded. They were in tough shape. We’d try to comfort them. Sure they were our enemies, but the American troops handled prisoners very well. Human. Tried to comfort them. In those days you’d give them a cigarette. We weren’t aggressive, and I think they appreciated that, especially in fighting out there in Burma. They were fighting the weather too, and the terrain, jungles and all that stuff. Sometimes I got the impression they were glad to be captured. [Laughs]
TS: You said the weather was pretty rough out there in Burma.
TA: During the monsoon, which is the hot and rainy period.
TS: Is that equivalent to a summer here in Minnesota?
TA: Yes, so when I came back here and people would tell me how uncomfortable and humid it was, I didn’t think so. I thought, “It’s not too bad around here.” The monsoon season lasts about six months. Then the weather gets milder. In wintertime in Burma it’s almost pleasant. The temperature is so moderate. Sometimes I would compare it to southern California. It doesn’t rain, and it’s dry.
TS: So two really distinct seasons.
TA: Yes. Both extremes.
TS: Were you in Burma when the war ended?
TA: No. I was at a rest camp in the Himalayas.
TS: In India?
TA: Yes. V-J Day was in August . We were up there in the Kashmir area when they dropped the atom bomb.
TS: You were on R and R at that point?
TA: Yes. Of course, at that time when we dropped the atomic bomb, none of us knew what an atomic bomb was. That was a big deal. Then they start talking about how the Japanese might surrender and all that stuff. Then we start getting excited. I said, “We better get back to headquarters so we can go home.”
TS: So you were in Burma really without a break until you went on R and R, and that was about the summer of 1945.
TA: Yes. It was about that time when the Japanese were running south. They were literally running south in retreat. As I remember, that’s when we got relieved and went back to New Delhi.
TS: Around the same time, in April 1945, President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt died. How did you react when you heard that news?
TA: I don’t remember. I don’t think there was a violent reaction. Everybody thought it was tragic. I don’t recall what the general reaction was.
TS: Was there a stronger reaction to the news that Germany had surrendered in May of 1945?
TA: Yes. I think there was a little bit of elation there. In the CBI and the Pacific (the CBI especially) equipment, replacements and all that stuff was secondary, because the main effort was in Europe. So when V-E Day came, we felt that we were going to get some new jackets and new boots and things like that.
TS: Dry clothes maybe?
TA: Yes. [Both laugh] So we were a little happy about that. We were in a theater that was secondary as far as priority. We were on the bottom rung. After V-E Day we thought things would get a little better.
TS: You mentioned on R and R when you got the news that the U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. At the time, and this is a question we ask everyone, did you feel that the U.S. government was correct to use atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
TA: Yes. I didn’t have any second thoughts about it. Afterward, ten years or so, we read all these articles about civilians, but at the same time you can say it saved a lot of American lives. It saved an invasion of the main islands.
TS: Have your feelings changed on this since 1945?
TA: About the bombs?
TA: No, my feelings haven’t changed. You read about the casualties and the effect of one bomb. It’s overwhelming. I think at the time they dropped the bomb they weren’t going to be all that specific about the facts of the bomb because of the war. Reading about the details of the later effects of the bomb, one bomb could practically erase—devastate a whole city. It’s kind of overwhelming. You see pictures of it. Also about the civilian casualties, which is too bad. But that’s war. You read about the casualties these days, terrorists and so forth. And you talk about the U.S. dropping bombs, and you read articles that say ten of the casualties were civilians. Well, during the war two or three hundred people would die and you don’t make that a big headline.
TS: That really has changed, hasn’t it? How we are hypersensitive now to the fact that a few civilians may have been killed.
TA: I’m not being critical about it, but in contrast it’s kind of an eye-opener.
TS: Let me fast-forward then to coming back to the States. When did you arrive back in the United States from Burma?
TA: I think the last week of October 1945.
TS: Was that a Liberty ship again back from India or Burma?
TA: No, it was a Navy transport. We were back in a week. We hit New York from the west coast of India, through the Mediterranean and straight across the Atlantic.
TS: And you were discharged about a month later, in November?
TA: Yes, November 13th , from Camp Grant, Illinois.
TS: Mr. Abe, what was your initial reaction to being out of the military?
TA: I was happy, yes. The war was over. There was nothing else to do.
TS: You’d been in the military for—?
TA: Four years, seven months, eleven days.
TS: That’s a long time. What was the very first thing you did as a civilian?
TA: I came home here [to Minnesota].
TS: Is there something you did the day you were discharged, something you’d been dying to do since you went into the service?
TA: Nothing other than dying to get home. I can’t remember wanting to do anything other than that.
TS: Did you get a train straight from Illinois to Minneapolis?
TA: Yes, I think so, yes. I can’t remember whether it was a train or a bus. It must have been a train.
TS: How was it to see your family and your loved ones again?
TA: It was great. I was glad to be home.
TS: Were your mom and your brother pretty settled in Minneapolis by that time?
TS: Were either one of them working?
TA: My brother was working.
TS: Did they like it here?
TA: Yes. I think they liked it.
TS: And your mom too?
TS: What was the hardest thing for you, Mr. Abe, with readjusting to civilian life? I mean, four years and seven months is a long time.
TA: I don’t remember having any problems. Of course, I went back to school as soon as I could, so I was busy studying.
TS: So you knew you were going to do that even before you got out, it sounds like. Get out and go back to school.
TA: Yes. That was my goal.
TS: What was the easiest thing with readjusting to life as a civilian?
TA: I don’t know. I didn’t feel that it was all that much of a problem, readjusting. Let’s put it this way, I don’t remember any problems of readjusting.
TS: Last question here. At the time between 1941 and 1945, in a larger sense, what did the war mean for you personally?
TA: Well, I felt that it interrupted my personal life. At that time, you know, I was thinking of school all of the time. I was still going to school then, prior to Army life. I didn’t really have a job to be looking for or to go back to. My main concern was finishing school and then finding employment someplace. I had no intentions of going back to the West Coast at that time.
TS: Did you join the Army Reserve?
TS: Why not?
TA: I wasn’t all that fond of Army life.
TS: I ask because a number of guys did join, and other guys did not join. It seems that some guys liked it and wanted to stay in touch, and other guys like yourself said, “No, thank you.” That’s why I ask. This is the last question: In what ways do you think the war changed your life?
TA: It changed it dramatically because, number one, when they evacuated all the Japanese people from the West Coast inland to various parts of the United States, that gave at least the younger people, it gave them an overview of what life was like outside of the West Coast. Many of us believe that if it hadn’t been for the evacuation because of the war, many of us would never have left the West Coast. At that time it was true—most of us never knew what it was like east of the Rockies. They read about it a lot, New York, Chicago, et cetera, but no one did much traveling.
TS: So, ironically enough then, there was something good that came out that forced relocation?
TA: Right. Many people comment on that. In so far as their attitude. If it wasn’t because of that, they would never have seen the rest of the United States.
TS: Has that helped you maybe build a less negative opinion of the whole relocation process or not?
TA: There’s two sides of the coin. Let’s put it this way: there’s a positive side and a negative side. Because of the evacuation some people might see things and do things that might never have happened if it wasn’t for the evacuation. At the same time, it was something they wouldn’t celebrate.
TS: Mr. Abe, have you stayed in contact with anybody, any of the other Japanese–Americans that you met in the war? Have you stayed in contact with them since 1945?
TA: Some people we exchange Christmas cards with. People on the West Coast and here and there that we knew from a long time ago, but as far as visiting, I think that’s minimal.
TS: Like unit reunions, these kind of things. These are popular with some branches of the service.
TA: Yes, but I don’t belong to any of those. There are some reunions on the West Coast and Hawaii, but I haven’t attended any of the reunions.
TS: Anything else you want to add, Mr. Abe, before we conclude?
TA: I have a list of books here on the evacuation, and I can make you copies of those.
TS: I’d be most appreciative to have the list of books on the camps. And thank you for your time today.