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Second-generation Japanese-Americans, called Nisei, played an important role in the Pacific Theater during World War II. This is the U.S. Army’s 314th Headquarters Intelligence Team, 96th Infantry Division, at the Military Intelligence Language School at Camp Savage, Minn., in 1943.

Second-generation Japanese-Americans, called Nisei, played an important role in the Pacific Theater during World War II. This is the U.S. Army’s 314th Headquarters Intelligence Team, 96th Infantry Division, at the Military Intelligence Language School at Camp Savage, Minn., in 1943. (Photo courtesy of Takejiro Higa)

Second-generation Japanese-Americans, called Nisei, played an important role in the Pacific Theater during World War II. This is the U.S. Army’s 314th Headquarters Intelligence Team, 96th Infantry Division, at the Military Intelligence Language School at Camp Savage, Minn., in 1943.

Second-generation Japanese-Americans, called Nisei, played an important role in the Pacific Theater during World War II. This is the U.S. Army’s 314th Headquarters Intelligence Team, 96th Infantry Division, at the Military Intelligence Language School at Camp Savage, Minn., in 1943. (Photo courtesy of Takejiro Higa)

Teruto “Terry” Tsubota, now 84, is credited with saving hundreds of Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa.

Teruto “Terry” Tsubota, now 84, is credited with saving hundreds of Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa. (David Allen / S&S)

Takejiro Higa, 84, of Honolulu, was a Nisei who spent 14 years of his youth on Okinawa before the war. He returned during the Battle of Okinawa and is creditied with saving hundreds of Okinawans who huddled in fear in "suicide" caves.

Takejiro Higa, 84, of Honolulu, was a Nisei who spent 14 years of his youth on Okinawa before the war. He returned during the Battle of Okinawa and is creditied with saving hundreds of Okinawans who huddled in fear in "suicide" caves. (David Allen / S&S)

Army Sgt. Teruto “Terry” Tsubota, center, with armband, interrogates Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa. Now 84, Tsubota was a Nisei linguist who worked in military intelligence during the war, interpreting captured documents, interrogating prisoners and assiting civilian refugees. He later married an Okinawan and remained on the island.

Army Sgt. Teruto “Terry” Tsubota, center, with armband, interrogates Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa. Now 84, Tsubota was a Nisei linguist who worked in military intelligence during the war, interpreting captured documents, interrogating prisoners and assiting civilian refugees. He later married an Okinawan and remained on the island. (Photo courtesy of Teruto Tsubota)

Less well known than the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American unit that fought in Europe, the Nisei who served as linguists in the Pacific are credited with shortening the war by years and saving thousands of American lives. “Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II,” by James C. McNaughton, was recently published by the Department of the Army.

Less well known than the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American unit that fought in Europe, the Nisei who served as linguists in the Pacific are credited with shortening the war by years and saving thousands of American lives. “Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II,” by James C. McNaughton, was recently published by the Department of the Army. (Christopher B. Stoltz / S&S)

GINOWAN, Okinawa — It was on the island of Leyte, not long after Gen. Douglas MacArthur returned to liberate the Philippines in August 1944, that a young Army enlisted man learned he was going home to Okinawa.

And that he’d be playing a big role in the invasion.

Staff Sgt. Takejiro Higa, 21, was a second-generation Japanese-American, or Nisei, from Hawaii, serving on a special language team when he was called to the headquarters tent of the Army XXIV Corps.

“When I stepped into the tent I got the biggest shock of my life,” Higa, now 84, said by telephone from his home in Honolulu. “There on the wall was a huge map of the southern half of Okinawa. I nearly froze in front of it like someone poured a bucket of ice water over my head.”

Intelligence officers then started showing him pictures taken after American planes bombed Naha that October. Higa said he stared intently at the places he knew so well.

Higa left Hawaii with his family to visit relatives on Okinawa when he was 2 and stayed on with his mother when she became ill. The others returned to Oahu.

It wasn’t until he was 16 and afraid of being conscripted by the Japanese that he got his sister to sponsor his return to Hawaii.

Now he was looking at pictures of Naha and the surrounding countryside.

“I breathed a sigh of relief — my grandfather’s house was still standing and there was the entire block of my village,” Higa said. “Then the officer showed me a picture of what were believed to be massive concrete fortifications. He had a worried, dumbfounded look.”

The officer said it appeared Okinawa was heavily fortified.

Higa said a light went on in his head and quickly explained the officer had it all wrong. The “fortifications” were actually just hundreds of traditional Okinawa family tombs, concrete burial vaults that looked like turtle backs.

“That’s when I became an official part of Army intelligence,” Higa said.

He was one of more than 6,000 Nisei who trained in a secret school that opened in San Francisco just before the Pearl Harbor attack and later moved to Minnesota when the entire West Coast was cleared of thousands of people with Japanese ancestry.

Less well-known than the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American unit that fought in Europe, the Nisei who served as linguists in the Pacific are credited with shortening the war by years and saving thousands of American lives.

According to James C. McNaughton, author of “Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II,” recently published by the Department of the Army, they faced discrimination and suspicion concerning their loyalty, but never faltered.

“Their courage, skill, and loyalty helped win the war sooner and at lower cost than would otherwise have been possible,” McNaughton wrote. “During the American occupation of Japan they helped turn bitter enemies into friends.”

But it wasn’t easy. Many of the Nisei had close ties to Japan. Many still had relatives there.

“I had very mixed feelings,” Higa said. “I had the obligation of a citizen solider to do my duty for my country, but the Ryukyu Islands were the home of my ancestors. How should I act? I had a duty to perform, but I didn’t want to hurt anybody.

“I am happy to say I was able to serve both countries without having to fire a shot,” he said.

Higa landed on Okinawa with the second wave on April 1, 1945, and spent most of his time translating captured documents, interrogating prisoners, and urging Okinawa civilians to come out of hiding from caves.

It was much the same for Teruto “Terry” Tsubota, now 84, another Hawaii native.

“I was in the Army, but I was lent to the Marines,” said Tsubota, who later married an Okinawan and settled in Ginowan.

He remains a hero to the residents of tiny Tsuken Island, off Okinawa’s northeast shore. Disobeying orders, he descended into caves to coax the islanders from hiding, saving them from the fate that befell hundreds of other civilians who committed suicide with grenades provided by the Imperial Army.

“Some of the guys, the other interpreters, didn’t like to go to the caves,” Tsubota said. “They said it was too dangerous. But I volunteered every time. I always remembered what my father told me before I shipped out: War is not only about shooting and killing, you can also save lives.”

Battle of Okinawa anniversary servicesCAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Thousands of people are expected to attend a ceremony Saturday marking the 62nd anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa.

The ceremony begins at 11:50 a.m. at Peace Prayer Park in Itoman, on the ground in southern Okinawa where Imperial Japanese soldiers made their last stand against the Americans on April 1, 1945.

The Cornerstone of Peace is a collection of 1,200 black granite squares bearing the names of 240,609 people of all countries killed during the battle. The names include more than 150,000 Okinawa civilians, about a third of the island’s population at the time.

This year, 235 names have been added to the walls, which are arranged like wings stretching to the sea. They include 64 Okinawans, five Koreans and 166 mainland Japanese, including 76 kamikaze pilots.

Prior to the ceremony, at 10:30 a.m., the American community will hold a smaller memorial at the section of the walls that hold the names of the 14,007 Americans killed during the battle. Each year, about 50 Americans gather for the ceremony sponsored by the Okinawa USO Council.

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