America’s Superb Secret Human Weapon in World War II
The history of Japanese Americans who resolutely served the United States in World War II to bring about the Allied victory over Japan is a magnificent story.
6,000 Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) served in the U.S. Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during World War II and fought covertly against the land of their ancestry, contributing tremendously to the Allied victory. They were, literally, America’s superb secret human weapon then, and what they did has been one of the best-kept secrets of the war.
Their role was truly indispensable and unique, for they employed a devastatingly effective weapon, their knowledge of the enemy’s complex and difficult language, which very few persons besides them on the Allied side could understand or use. They were superbly resourceful, courageous and loyal soldiers who served without fanfare in all campaigns and all fronts of the far-flung war throughout the Pacific, in China, India and Burma, and even in Europe where they secretly intercepted the enemy’s diplomatic communications.
Yet, despite the contributions and sacrifices made by them, their role in that war had to remain an untold military secret all these years until only very recently. It is a remarkable story without parallel.
The Role and Accomplishments of the Nisei Military Intelligence Soldiers
The “Go For Broke” exploits of the Nisei 442nd Infantry Regiment have been well publicized and recognized, and rightfully so, as the unsurpassed combat record of Japanese Americans who fought as an integral military unit in Italy and France. The MIS story, on the other hand, is one of numerous small units of Nisei soldiers who operated in detachments of ten to twenty men assigned to every combat division, Army corps and every campaign in the war against Japan.
It is also the story of much larger groups who served at intelligence centers at army and area headquarters level. Three main intelligence centers were operated, in the Southwest Pacific Area under General Douglas MacArthur, the Central Pacific Ocean Area under Admiral Chester Nimitz, and the China-Burma-India Area (CBI) under General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. The largest of these centers was at MacArthur’s headquarters and known as ATIS (Allied Translator Interpreter Section), which had as many as 3,000 Nisei at its peak. The other centers were JICPOA (Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Area) and SATIC (Southeast Asia Translation and Interrogation Center).
Through it all, as indispensable translators of captured enemy documents, interrogators of enemy POWs and persuaders of enemy surrender, they were superbly effective. They also worked laboriously over tons of enemy documents—maps, battle plans, diaries, letters, records, manuals—at area headquarters, producing voluminous intelligence of all sorts that affected Allied strategy and operations. The men of ATIS, for example, produced 20-million pages of translations.
Winning the War
Strategic Contribution of the MIS
In the Solomon Islands, the MIS translated an intercepted enemy radio message that revealed that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of Japan’s naval forces, was to arrive at a certain time at Rabaul. The Admiral’s arrival was successfully ambushed and the planes were destroyed. General MacArthur referred to this as the one most singularly significant action of the war.
Prior to U.S. landings in the Philippines in October, 1944, thanks to translation done by MIS men, the Japanese Navy’s master plan for defending the Philippines was known to Allied forces. As enemy fleets responded to U.S. landings on Leyte, the U.S. navy was able to thwart the counter attacks and annihilate the enemy forces.
Another major coup was capture and translation in 1944 of the enemy’s Z-Plan, the Imperial Navy’s strategy for defending the Marianas Islands against the U.S. Navy’s carrier forces. As the U.S. invasion of the Marianas (Guam and Saipan) unfolded, Admiral Raymond Spruance’s carrier fleet and submarines dealt a death blow to the counter-attacking Japanese carrier forces. The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot resulted, a complete debacle for the enemy. Hundreds of enemy planes were swept from the skies, and Japanese aircraft carriers were never again able to fight the war. The MIS Nisei made all this possible.
On Okinawa in 1945, the last and bloodiest battle of the war, lasting over two months, the enemy’s fate was sealed by two vital pieces of intelligence translated by the Nisei. One was the enemy’s final main defense plan, issued a month before the U.S. landings, which accurately predicted the date and site of the U.S. landings and the strategy of the U.S. forces.
The other was a minutely detailed full contour map of Okinawa. The enemy map was translated overnight and 72 hours later 12,000 copies were delivered to Okinawa and distributed to all units. From then on it guided all the U.S. ground action and artillery fire.
“The Nisei Saved Countless Lives…”
From the frozen tundra of Attu, to the coral atolls of the Pacific, the jungles of New Guinea, the Philippines and Burma, the lava terrain of Iwo Jima and the bloodied escarpments of Okinawa, the Nisei were everywhere, obtaining intelligence from enemy documents, POWs and enemy communications, and calling upon the enemy to surrender. When needed they operated behind enemy lines and parachuted on assignments without real parachute training. In Burma and elsewhere they crept to within hearing distance of enemy troops to learn their movements, at times tapping and listening to the enemy’s telephone communications.
Maj. General Charles Willoughby, G-2, intelligence chief of MacArthur’s command, unequivocally stated, “The Nisei saved countless Allied lives and shortened the war by two years.”
General MacArthur was able to state with pride, “Never in military history did an army know so much about the enemy prior to actual engagement.”
Major General Frank D. Merrill in Burma said, “As for the value of the Nisei, I couldn’t have gotten along without them.” And he ordered his men, Merrill’s Marauders, to protect with their lives the 14-man team of MIS Nisei under his command.
“Bought…with their blood.”
The heroic and resourceful actions of the MIS Nisei were simply myriad. As the war progressed closer to Japan, they further performed an unequalled, compassionate role on Saipan and Okinawa, saving the lives of thousands upon thousands of non-combatant enemy civilians by flushing them from caves, often at the risk of their own lives.
Some were killed in action, in New Guinea, Leyte, Luzon and Okinawa. The names of three of them, Sergeants Frank Hachiya of Oregon, George Nakamura of California and Yukitaka Mizutari of Hawaii, appear on three major buildings named after them at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. Mits Shibata died on Ie Shima, near Okinawa, shot in error by a BAR-wielding GI as he sought to rescue some civilians. Eddie Fukui perished in a kamikaze attack on his ship at the Kerama Islands off Okinawa as he intercepted enemy radio communications. Bill Imoto, Shoichi Nakahara and Satoshi Kurokawa are others who died in different places. And over twenty ATIS men were killed in a plane crash on Okinawa. Their names were Japanese, but they all served and died as American soldiers.
As General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell said, “The Nisei bought an awfully big hunk of America with their blood.”
Reviewing the exploits of the MIS men, Major General Clayton Bissell, Chief of the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department, told a graduating MIS class: “If you Japanese-Americans are ever questioned as to your loyalty, don’t even bother to reply… Your gallant deeds under fire will speak so loudly that you need not answer.”
Occupation of Japan
When the war ended in August of 1945, their work was not over, for now they were needed to bridge the language gap in the Allied Occupation of Japan. This they did, performing again an indispensable role.
The U.S. occupation of Japan was one of the most benevolent and benign in world history. Japanese Americans helped write new laws and create new institutions. They helped in the institution of the modern Japanese constitution. They helped institute progressive land reforms and civil rights for Japanese women. One of the reasons Japan is the modern industrial giant that it is today is due to the role of the Japanese Americans in facilitating the transition from a military state to a democratic one.
Most of them were volunteers. Many were Kibei, or “returnees to America,” who had been sent to Japan by their parents to be educated there before the war. Not all were bilingually expert, for the Japanese language was exceedingly hard to learn and use. But they teamed up with the Kibei whose Japanese was stronger to do their job.
Like the Nisei who served with the 442nd Regiment in Europe, these MIS Nisei fought two wars—one against the military enemy and the other against racial prejudice and distrust toward their kind at home. By fighting the first, they would overcome the other.
For the Nisei of MIS, further, there was a certain compassionate dilemma to be resolved in their hearts and minds. Being Japanese by blood, whose parents had come from Japan, they would literally be fighting their kin, but their loyalty to country had to be upheld. They had been taught at home, “To thy parents be truly respectful and to thy country be utterly loyal.” For the Samurai of old Japan, the path of loyalty would have been the only honorable one to take, even at the price of warring on one’s own kin. Because they were so resourceful and also loyal, the MIS Nisei have been appropriately called the “Yankee Samurai of World War II.”
The MIS Language School
Surprisingly, even before Pearl Harbor in the summer of 1941, several U.S. Army officers, with admirable prescience and faith in the loyalty of the Nisei, set about establishing a secret school to train them in military intelligence. These officers, including John Weckerling and Kai E. Rasmussen, had been American military attaches in Japan in the 30’s and were acquainted with the difficulty of mastering the Japanese language. They foresaw a dire need for American soldiers capable of deciphering the language in the event of war with Japan.
The standard Japanese language, especially its writing, is difficult to learn, but military Japanese was even more difficult due to its peculiar, complex structure and form. It provided an effective barrier to the intelligence operations of an adversary.
The officers succeeded in obtaining the War Department’s approval to proceed, and with a meager budget of $2,000 for supplies, they launched the school on November 1 in a small hangar, which still stands today, at Crissy Field in the Presidio of San Francisco. There were four civilian Nisei instructors and 60 students (58 Nisei and 2 Caucasians) assembled from various army units.
From this sparse beginning, when war came the school was rapidly expanded as the need and demand for its graduates mushroomed. The total relocation of Japanese persons from the West Coast in June, 1942 also caused the school to be moved at that time to racially more hospitable Minnesota—to Camp Savage, a former Civil Conservation Corps log-cabin camp 20 miles south of Minneapolis. There the school underwent great expansion as combat units in the Pacific demanded more and more MIS soldiers. In 1944 the school was moved to more comfortable quarters at Fort Snelling in St. Paul.
By the war’s end, the school had trained and sent afield 6,000 men. Then after the war it was moved back to the West Coast in 1946, to the Presidio of Monterey, where it became the now permanent and extensive U.S. Defense Language Institute, which has trained through the years since then more than 70,000 valuable military linguists in various strategic languages.