Camp Savage, Minnesota June 1, 1942

On this date in 1942 Japanese linguistic classes began at the U.S. Army’s Camp Savage, 15 miles from Minne­ap­olis, Minne­sota, for 200 en­listed men, of whom 193 were Nisei (second-genera­tion U.S. off­spring of Japa­nese immi­grants) and the remainder Cauca­sian. Camp Savage’s 6-month curric­u­lum trained Japa­nese-speaking sol­diers in gath­ering, trans­lating, ana­lyzing, inter­pret­ing, and for­warding intel­li­gence from sources deemed to have cred­i­ble tacti­cal impor­tance; e.g., cap­tured Japa­nese mili­tary docu­ments, enemy sol­diers and civil­ians, radio inter­cepts, diaries, and corres­pon­dence. Grad­u­ates of the Mili­tary Intel­li­gence Ser­vice Lan­guage School (MISLS) were attached to com­bat and non­com­bat units of the United States Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as to simi­lar units in the British, Aus­tra­lian, New Zealand, Canadian, Chinese, and Indian services.

Recruitment of primarily Nisei volun­teers for MISLS began one month before Japan’s sneak attack on Amer­i­can and British terri­to­rial and mili­tary inter­ests on Decem­ber 7 and 8, 1941, which triggered World War II in the Pacific. Owing to the large num­ber of ethnic Japa­nese living in the conti­nen­tal U.S. (127,000, mostly on the West Coast) and Hawaii (158,000), the first set of 60 MIS lin­guists were trained and housed at San Fran­cisco’s Presi­dio, where 45 students grad­u­ated in May 1942. These MISLS students were among the roughly 5,000 Nisei already serving in the U.S. Army. Then came Frank­lin D. Roose­velt’s Exec­u­tive Order 9066, which forcibly removed Japa­nese nationals, their U.S.-born chil­dren, and Japa­nese Amer­i­can sol­diers from the U.S. West Coast with­out due process and, with respect to the U.S.-born, in vio­la­tion of their birth­right under the Four­teenth Amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. The order prompted the lan­guage school to relo­cate to the wel­coming state of Minne­sota, home to all of 51 peo­ple of Japa­nese descent. In 1944 the school out­grew Camp Savage and moved to near­by Fort Snel­ling. There the lan­guage school con­tinued to grow, occupying 120 class­rooms staffed by more than 60 instruc­tors. Over 6,000 GIs passed through the MISLS pro­gram by the time it shut down. At its peak in 1946 the school had 160 in­struc­tors, 3,000 stu­dents, and a June gradu­a­ting class of 307. By then MIS lin­guists had trans­lated 20.5 mil­lion pages, 18,000 enemy docu­ments, created 16,000 propa­ganda leaf­lets, and interrogated over 10,000 Japanese POWs.

The Presidio’s May 1942 grad­u­ates were imme­di­ately deployed to front lines in Asia Pacific com­bat zones: Alaska, Aus­tra­lia, South and Central Pacific, South­east Asia, and China. Following the naval Battle of Mid­way (June 4–7, 1942), MIS lin­guists were com­mitted to every major engage­ment against Japa­nese forces until Japan’s sur­ren­der on Septem­ber 2, 1945. Two examples: three Japanese-language teams in dif­fer­ent parts of the world pro­vided infor­ma­t­ion that led to the ambush and death of Japa­nese Adm. Iso­roku Yama­moto’s air­craft over Bou­gain­ville Island on April 18, 1943. In March–June 1944 Nisei lin­guists stationed in Aus­tra­lia pro­vided the key to the lop­sided U.S. victory in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19–20, 1944).

After Japan’s surrender MIS-trained spe­cial­ists assisted in demobi­lizing Japa­nese mili­tary person­nel returning from over­sea out­posts, and they provided ser­vices that aided in the arrest and prose­cu­tion of Japan’s mili­tary leaders during the 1945–1948 Tokyo War Trials. But the ser­vice of these Nisei patriots was slow to be appre­ci­ated publicly. In April 2000, five decades after World War II, the MIS was awarded the Presi­den­tial Unit Cita­tion, the highest honor given to a U.S. mili­tary unit. Ten years later Con­gress approved awarding the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal to the 6,000 Japa­nese Amer­i­cans who served in the MIS as well as to Nisei in the 100th Infan­try (“Go for Broke”) Bat­tal­ion from Hawaii and the 442nd Regi­men­tal Com­bat Team (“Purple Heart Bat­tal­ion”). The latter two units, merged in August 1944, served with distinction in Europe.

Japanese American Linguists Became America’s Secret Weapon During World War II

MISLS Nisei students in Presidio classroom, early 1942MISLS Nisei students practice Japanese-to-English translation, Fort Snelling, 1944

Left: The inaugural MISLS class of April 1942 at the Presi­dio of San Fran­cisco in 1942. In this photo students attend a class in legal ter­mi­nol­ogy as part of their training to better their know­ledge of the Japa­nese lan­guage. The year before, in March and April 1941, dis­cus­sions and infor­mal plans were formu­lated for estab­lishing a school for Nisei enlisted men who were conver­sant in Japa­nese. Facing the proba­bil­ity of war with Japan, the U.S. War Depart­ment in late sum­mer 1941 directed the Fourth Army on the West Coast to imple­ment the plan for a Japa­nese lan­guage course to train sol­diers to become Army inter­ro­ga­tors, inter­preters, and trans­lators who could remove lan­guage dif­fi­cul­ties in prose­cu­ting a war against Japan. (This was all top secret until many years after the war.) The Fourth Army Intel­li­gence School, as the lan­guage school was ini­tially known, was estab­lished a few buildings from Fourth Army Head­quarters (soon to become the HQ of the Western Defense Com­mand) at the Presi­dio in San Fran­cisco, Cali­for­nia. The school opened in an aban­doned air­plane hangar on Novem­ber 1, 1941, with 58 Nisei and 2 Cau­ca­sian students and 4 teachers but had little funds ($2,000), hardly any text­books, no chairs, no tables, borrowed type­writers, paper, and few supplies. Given the short­age of texts at the time, students studied from mimeo­graphed sheets. The school nearly shut its doors when the War Depart­ment issued orders that no Nisei would be allowed to serve over­seas. The order was rescinded.

Right: MISLS students Isami Sam Osato and George Ryoichi Sakanari trans­late Japa­nese civil ser­vice regu­lat­ions into English in a class­room exer­cise at Fort Snelling, c. 1944. Camp Ritchie, which trained German-language lin­guists as inter­ro­ga­tors, inter­preters, and trans­la­tors, was MISLS’s equiv­a­lent in Maryland on the U.S. east coast.

MISLS student translators, Fort Snelling, 1945Tec Sgts. Herbert Miya­saki and Akiji Yoshi­mura with Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, May 1, 1944

Left: A team of translators practice their skills at the Mili­tary Intel­li­gence Ser­vice Lan­guage School at Fort Snel­ling, 1945. (The ser­geant with the three chev­rons and “T” on his sleeve is techni­cian fourth grade, T/4 or Tec 4.) In the same year Fort Snel­ling enrolled about 40 Nisei WACs (Women Aux­il­iary Corps), 13 of whom were deployed to Japan to serve in the MIS in occupied Japan.

Right: Posing with semiautomatic M1 Garands MISLS grad­u­ates Tech­ni­cal Ser­geants Her­bert Yoshiki Miya­saki and Akiji (Akigi) Yoshi­mura flank Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, North­ern Burma, May 1, 1944. Hawaiian-born Miya­saki was Merrill’s per­sonal inter­preter. Some of the most cele­brated Nisei of the war fought with the 5307th Com­po­site Unit (Pro­vi­sional), better known as Mer­rill’s Marau­ders, between Febru­ary and August 1944. Three of 14 Nisei linguists assigned to Merrill’s Ma­raud­ers 50‑man intel­li­gence and recon­nais­sance (I&R) platoons—Camp Savage class­mates Hiroshi Roy Mat­su­moto (recruited like three other team members from U.S. intern­ment camps), Henry “Hank” Gosho, and Grant Hira­ba­yashi—were inducted into the Army Rangers Hall of Fame. (Mat­su­moto was awarded the Legion of Merit, the pres­ti­gious medal pinned to his chest by Merrill himself.) Merrill’s jungle-trained offi­cers and men became famous for their long-range pene­tra­tion mis­sions deep behind Japa­nese lines, often engaging Japa­nese forces supe­rior in num­ber. Through­out com­bat in the Asia Pacific area Nisei lin­guists were accom­pa­nied by one or more Cau­ca­sian sol­diers to ensure that the Army’s “eyes and ears,” as Merrill called his Nisei lin­guists, were not mis­taken for the enemy and shot by other GIs.

MIS interrogators Phil Ishio and Arthur Ushiro question prisoner, Papua New Guinea, January 2, 1943MIS graduate Lt. Pat Neishi discussing surrender terms, Philippines, February/March 1945

Left: Embedded with the U.S. 32nd Infan­try (Red Arrow) Divi­sion MIS-trained lin­guists Sinao Phil Ishio and Arthur Katsu­yoshi Ushiro inter­rogate a prisoner taken in the Battle of Buna-Gona, Papua New Guinea, Janu­ary 2, 1943, the day Buna was taken. In count­less in­stances infor­ma­tion from POW inter­ro­ga­tions pro­duced vital tac­ti­cal infor­ma­tion such as maps, opera­tional orders, loca­tion of machine guns, mortars, and other wea­ponry), largely due to the average Japa­nese sol­dier not knowing his rights under the 1929 Geneva Con­ven­tion (provide only name, rank, and serial num­ber), which by the way Japan (and the Soviet Union) refused to ratify.

Right: MISLS graduate Lt. Torao Pat Neishi, who first saw com­bat in late 1942 during the Battle of Buna-Gona, discusses sur­render terms with a Japa­nese lieu­ten­ant general some­where east of Manila, Febru­ary or March 1945. Given Bushidō (Way of the Warrior), the samu­rai code of honor that con­sidered sur­ren­der a dis­grace, taking Japa­nese pri­soners was a rarity—35,000 POWs between 1942 and 1945—com­pared with 945,000 German and 490,000 Ital­ian POWs taken cap­tive during the war in Europe. For instance, in the 5-week Battle of Iwo Jima (Febru­ary 19 to March 26, 1945) only 216 enemy pri­soners were cap­tured out of the 20,530–21,060 island defenders. U.S. Army sol­diers of Japa­nese descent cap­tured on the battle­field in the Pacific and South­east Asia thea­ters were treated as Japa­nese traitors to the emperor rather than Amer­i­can POWs. Their fate, it was said, was to die a tortured death.

Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service in World War II (Skip first 13 seconds)