By J.K. Yamamoto
Nisei veterans of World War II, some in their 90s, were saluted Nov. 14 during the opening of “Prejudice and Patriotism: The Story of Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service, 1941-1952” at the Presidio of San Francisco.
An opening ceremony at the Presidio Officers’ Club kicked off a photo exhibit and series of programs sponsored by the National Japanese American Historical Society and the Presidio Trust.
The Presidio played an important role in Japanese American history as the home of the MIS Language School, where Nisei soldiers were trained to become translators and interpreters even before Pearl Harbor. With the outbreak of war with Japan and the internment of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, the school was moved to Minnesota.
Plans are under way to transform Building 640, where the MISLS started in 1941, into a museum and learning center.
Speakers included Marvin Uratsu, MIS Class of 1945; Rosalyn Tonai, NJAHS executive director; and Dr. Donald Fischer, provost of the Defense Language Institute (DLI) Foreign Language Center, a direct descendant of the MISLS.
Portraits of Nisei
The extensive exhibit includes several photos of the MIS soldiers’ stateside training, their service as linguists in the Pacific War, and their role in the U.S. occupation of Japan, plus artifacts ranging from crafts made by interned Japanese Americans to weapons confiscated from captured Japanese soldiers.
Professional photographer Tom Graves explained his portion of the exhibit, titled “After the Wars”: “The black-and-white photographs in the NJAHS portion of the exhibit ... transition into the black-and-white contemporary portraits that I did of the Nisei veterans ... I’ve been interviewing and photographing the Nisei veterans for a number of years.”
The subjects include Medal of Honor recipients Sen. Daniel Inouye (World War II) and Hershey Miyamura (Korean War).
Graves explained his motivation for photographing veterans, noting that those who have served often blend in with the crowd. “They’re men and women in business suits, they’re our next-door neighbors, they’re our teachers, our doctors, the mailman. That’s why it’s important that we reach out to them to learn their stories so we can appreciate what they’ve done for us. Also so they can reach out to us and teach us about the war and the cost of war.
“That’s my contribution ... I hope you have time to look at the exhibit, read some of the captions and learn to appreciate the veterans as much as I do.”
A Living Legacy
MIS veterans shared their thoughts at the opening ceremony and later during a Q&A session.
Col. Tom Sakamoto (retired), a member of the language school’s first graduating class, commented, “I barely made it today. Being at the age of 91, it’s pretty hard to even stand up.”
At the same time, he was pleased to report, “The story of the first class is still alive ... This is the birthplace of DLI. So long as DLI exists as a living legacy, we at Building 640 will always be in the history books.”
Sakamoto noted that Nisei who, like him, were already serving in the Army when Pearl Harbor was attacked “were not given clearance. We were suspect, and we faced prejudice ... We were not given commissions. We had to prove ourselves in battle and show that we could be trusted.”
The Nisei linguists translated captured documents and interrogated Japanese POWs. The stakes were high; the information obtained could change the outcome of a battle and save American lives. While many prisoners talked, Sakamoto recalled, some refused:
“We captured one prisoner who was shell-shocked ... He was unconscious. As he came out of the coma and opened his eyes and saw me, he stood up and shouted. ‘You are a traitor to your country!’ and ‘I want to die, please kill me!’ So in that kind of situation you will not get any information.”
In August 1945, Sakamoto witnessed Japan’s formal surrender to the U.S. aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. A few weeks later, he was escorting a group of reporters who wanted to see the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. “On the way, the press corps was all excited and they kept saying, ‘We’re going to capture the story of the century,’ “ he said, but all that changed when they visited a Red Cross hospital.
“When I recall that scene, it shakes me up ... No soldiers, all women, children and old people,” Sakamoto said. “The A-bomb is a very horrendous weapon in that you see children with their face skin all melted ... They were crying, and the flies and the smell was terrible.
So although the press corps was very interested in gathering the story, once they saw that sad scene they all rushed out, and I must say that on the way back on an airplane to Tokyo, the press corps was very subdued and nobody spoke.”
“Keep Mouth Shut”
Roy Matsumoto, 96, volunteered from the Jerome, Ark. internment camp and took on a hazardous mission in the jungles of northern Burma with Merrill’s Marauders. When the war ended, he was with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the predecessor of the CIA.
“I was not supposed to say anything for 50 years, so people don’t know what I did ... They told me, ‘Your job is to keep mouth shut,’ Matsumoto said. But now that 65 years have passed, he joked, “guys chasing me are all either too weak or dead.”
He noted that some things he did in wartime might be considered crimes in peacetime. Eliciting laughter from the audience, he recalled, “I tapped a wire in Burma. You cannot eavesdrop on somebody else’s conversation. I gave false orders. I also impersonated a Japanese officer ... I’m a bad guy. However, this was also in service to my country.”
Matsumoto is the subject of a documentary, “Honor and Sacrifice: Nisei Patriots in the MIS,” produced by his daughter, Karen Matsumoto, a trustee of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community in Washington state. She was on hand to show the 17-minute film.
“It really wasn’t that long ago my dad started sharing these stories with me,” she said. “The role of the Sanseis and Yonseis, the younger generation, is to be sure that these stories are never forgotten.”
She is trying to expand the film to 30 minutes by interviewing other MIS vets, and to have it shown on PBS. There is already a curriculum for use of the film in schools.
Fred Kitajima, 90, was one of four brothers who were split up during the war, two in the U.S. and two in Japan. He and one brother were in military intelligence while another brother was in the Japanese Imperial Army.
“My second brother ... was dropping propaganda leaflets over Japan ... My youngest brother was (a civilian) in Japan, catching those flyers,” Kitajima said.
After graduating from MISLS, he was sent the Philippines, where he interrogated POWs, and later to Korea, where “the communists tried to stop us from organizing a democratic government.” He was discharged before the Korean War started.
Big Band Music
Musician and historian George Yoshida, author of “Reminiscing in Swingtime,” recounted his days at MISLS in 1944 and 1945: “We were committed to learning the Japanese language, spent hours and hours studying, memorizing, went to school from 8 (a.m.) to 6 p.m., get lunch breaks, dinner breaks, and then after that more hours of instruction. It was kind of hectic and very much demanding.
“But some of us would sort of revive our spirits by playing some music. So we started a dance band to play music for the students. We called ourselves the Eager Beavers. I played the tenor sax, and I really enjoyed it.”
He introduced the J-Town Jazz Ensemble, featuring trumpet player Yone Fukui, who belonged to the Eager Beavers. “He was 17 years old and he’s still playing. Imagine that,” Yoshida said.
Miyo Uratsu set the mood for the concert by reading an excerpt from the journals of Yoshida’s late wife, Helen, around the time the two got married. The first song was the Glenn Miller hit “A String of Pearls.”
Tonai announced that every World War II veteran in attendance would receive a copy of the second edition of “First Class: Nisei Linguists in World War II” by David Swift Jr. She also urged everyone to write to Sen. Inouye in support of funding for the Building 640 project, which she hopes will come to fruition in a couple of years.
Marvin Uratsu added, “That learning center will be something not only for the benefit of the MIS soldiers but also the citizens of the community and in a wider sense for America, to make America a little bit more perfect union.”
For information on the “Prejudice and Patriotism” series of programs, call (415) 921-5007 or visit www.njahs.org