Museum chronicles secret role of Japanese Americans in WWII effort
Two Nisei veterans search the Military Intelligence Service Honor Wall containing the names of more than 13,000 MIS soldiers, instructors, support staff and others. The MIS Historic Learning Center opened on the Presidio of San Francisco on Nov. 26, 2013.
San Francisco Chronicle
A museum at the Presidio has just opened to tell the story of a top-secret U.S. Army program to train Japanese Americans as interpreters and intelligence personnel in the war against Japan.
The Military Intelligence Service School started only five weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the new museum is on the school's site. The program was kept quiet for more than a quarter of a century after World War II ended in 1945.
"It is an American story," said Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society.
Their story was not only secret, it was also poignant, because while the Presidio Japanese school was still in session, the families of all persons of Japanese descent were being locked up in internment camps.
Fifty-eight of the 60 students in the first class of the linguist school were Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, and while they were doing secret work for their country as soldiers in the U.S. Army, their families were behind barbed wire.
The work was secret because the Japanese military often sent uncoded messages, never dreaming that Americans could read their complex language.
The students at the Military Intelligence Service School served as interpreters, interviewing captured enemy soldiers, translating intercepted messages, maps and diaries, and providing U.S. forces with invaluable information about the enemy's forces, plans and morale.
Their work shortened the war by two years, said Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, the top Army intelligence officer in the Pacific during the war.
"The United States of America owes a debt to these Nisei linguists and their families which it can never repay," says a plaque just inside the Presidio museum.
The school opened on Nov. 1, 1941, at Building 640, an old airplane hangar not far from Crissy Field. The classes were tough -- only 43 of the first 60 finished.
"They were told under threat of court-martial not to tell anybody, not even their families, what they were doing," Tonai said.
After the first class graduated in May 1942, the school was moved to Minnesota. The Presidio site was too close to the Golden Gate, and in the first months of the war, it was feared that the enemy fleet, fresh from its Pearl Harbor victory, might appear off the coast of California.
More than 6,000 Nisei were trained at the school's new home in Minnesota, and two of them were on hand the other morning at the Presidio museum to talk about their war.
They looked at old uniforms, checked out World War II proclamations ordering their families into internment, looked over captured enemy documents and showed old snapshots.
They talked about it guardedly. Their work remained secret until more than 25 years after World War II ended. The symbol of the intelligence service is the Sphinx, a mythical creature that spoke in riddles.
'Just regular GIs'
Though their work was important to the war effort, none of the Nisei linguists were officers. "We were just regular GIs," said Asa Hanamoto, 88, who served as an interpreter in military intelligence from 1944 to 1946.
He was a teenager living with his family in the Placer County foothills above Auburn at the start of the war. "I was just a farm boy," he said.
Not long after Pearl Harbor, the word came down: The family and all other Japanese in the area had to leave. They could take only one suitcase apiece.
"I had a brand new bike I was very proud of," Hanamoto said. "But we couldn't take it. I had to sell it for five bucks."
The families were sent at first to a relocation camp at Tulelake, on the Oregon border. "I call them concentration camps, because that's what they were," Hanamoto said. "I had to get out of there."
He got various jobs outside the camp, helping harvest crops. Then he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Other Nisei were trained as infantrymen and sent into combat in Europe with the famed all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team. But Hanamoto's family had sent him to a Japanese school in the Sacramento Valley, and he had a rare skill for an American soldier.
"I could speak Japanese," he said.
He was sent to the Intelligence Service School in Minnesota to become an expert in the enemy language, culture and customs. After graduation, he interrogated prisoners of war and later worked on war crimes investigations in the Philippines.
A soldier's story
Koji Ozawa, 90, was born and raised in San Francisco. He was a student at Lowell High School when Pearl Harbor was bombed. His father, an immigrant from Japan, had an ice cream store and a cleaning business in the Western Addition. Then they received the relocation order.
"We had to sell it very cheaply, sold it for a song," he said.
In due time, Ozawa was drafted into the Army and recruited for the Military Intelligence Service by his old barber from Japantown in San Francisco. He served overseas, too, interrogating prisoners. One of his mentors was Richard Sakakida, a Nisei who was a respected spy for the U.S. during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.
Tom Sakamoto, the last living member of the first class to graduate from the Intelligence Service Language School at the Presidio, did not survive long enough to see the museum. He died at the age of 95, two weeks before the museum opened on Nov. 1.
However, his spirit is there, and so is his picture. There is a quote under it: "I hope and pray we did some good for our country," Sakamoto said.