By Stanley L. Falk


On September 2, 1945, in formal ceremonies in Tokyo Bay aboard the American battleship Missouri, Japan's official surrender to the United States and its allies brought to a close more than three and one-half years of bloody fighting in the Pacific and Asia. Japan's defeat in World War II could not have been accomplished so swiftly or effectively without the wholehearted participation of America's Japanese-American community. The service of thousands of Nisei soldiers in the Army Military Intelligence Service during the war and in the subsequent occupation of Japan was a key ingredient in defeating Japan and transforming her into a thriving democracy.

The Nisei soldiers came from all walks of life and many areas in the United States, but primarily from the West Coast and Hawaii. Some already were in uniform when the war began, yet most were plucked from involuntary exile in so-called "relocation" camps and asked to serve their country despite the discrimination and mistreatment they had so unfairly faced.

On December 7, 1941, some 1,500-Nisei were on active duty with the Hawaiian National Guard. Almost at once they were segregated, temporarily dismissed, and viewed as potential if not actual enemy agents. Nisei in other Army units on the mainland were treated with equal distrust. The Army discharged many of them and also stopped drafting Japanese Americans.

Within a few months, however, the Hawaii Nisei soldiers and other Japanese Americans still in the Army were brought together and formed into a single new unit, the 100th Infantry Battalion. By September, 1943, they were in action on Italy's bloody Salerno beachhead. Their bravery, value, and trustworthiness were quickly demonstrated and shortly thereafter the Army once again began drafting Japanese Americans. Meanwhile, a second all-Nisei unit, the 442n Regimental Combat Team, had been activated with 4,500 volunteers. Sent to Italy, it was joined by the 100th Battalion to form a single unit. Nisei soldiers took part in seven major campaigns in Italy, France, and Germany, and earned a well-deserved reputation for valor, tenacity, and combat effectiveness.

The exploits of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team brought fame and recognition to the Nisei soldiers. But the contributions of thousands of other Japanese Americans who served their country in and out of uniform in the Pacific and Asia and within the United States itself were not easily recognized. Security considerations limited publicity, and they received little attention from the press.

Like the men of the 100th Battalion, their story began even before Pearl Harbor. During the summer of 1941, as the probability of war with Japan grew stronger, the Army decided to open a Military Intelligence Service Language school to meet the obvious needfor Japanese linguists. The students would be primarily Nisei soldiers who already had some basic knowledge of Japanese on which to build.

The school opened in November 1941, at the Presidio of San Francisco with 60 students: 58 Nisei and two Caucasian soldiers, to be taught by four Nisei instructors. After the outbreak of the war, as the demand for Japanese linguists increased, the program expanded rapidly. The Presidio school moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota, and later to nearby Fort Snelling. A separate course was also established at the University of Michigan for Caucasian soldiers, who then completed their training at Savage and Snelling. By the end of the war, the entire program had graduated some 6,000 students, three quarters of them Nisei. Without these graduates; the war against Japan would have been far more difficult.

The key to the success of the language program was the large group of Nisei teachers, women as well as men, who with skill, patience, and understanding guided their students through the difficulties of the Japanese language. Japanese Americans also taught in the U.S. Navy language program at the University of Colorado, despite the fact that the Navy and Marines did not train Nisei or even allow them to serve in their ranks.

The Nisei graduates of the Amy language program served primarily in the Pacific and Asia. From New Guinea to the Philippines, from the Gilbert Islands to Okinawa, from India to Burma and China, they made their presence felt. The largest group was in the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section under General MacArthur. But many Nisei also served in major headquarters elsewhere in the Pacific and the Asiatic mainland, in special intelligence centers in Washington, and in small detachments in tactical Army, Marine, Navy, OSS, and psychological warfare units throughout these areas - including attachment to British and Australian forces.

The Nisei linguists interrogated enemy prisoners to obtain key battlefield information. They translated captured documents and other materials to uncover Japanese plans, disposition, - code and cipher keys, and other vital details.  They picked Japanese radio messages off the airwaves, translating simple voice transmissions or copying down encoded Japanese syllables for analysis and decoding, and then translating the results. Under more dangerous conditions, they sometimes crawled within earshot of Japanese positions to overhear shouted enemy orders or conversations.

Nisei linguists also prepared propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasts or took to the microphones themselves. They made loudspeaker surrender appeals to enemy troops or frequently took tremendous risks to enter Japanese positions to try to convince enemy soldiers or frightened civilians to give themselves up.

Japanese Americans performed all of these vital tasks despite the tremendous weight of worry and concern they had for their parents and other relatives still imprisoned at home. Many Nisei soldiers also had relatives in Japan, subject to possible enemy retaliation. Many, indeed, had cousins or even brothers serving in the Japanese military. The Nisei themselves faced almost certain torture or execution if captured by Japanese forces - while on the other hand there always remained the possibility that, in the heat of battle, American troops might mistake them for enemy soldiers and open fire. While Nisei in the Pacific were not normally involved in the type of combat faced by the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe, they nonetheless took their share of casualties and deaths - and they earned an equal proportion of decorations and awards.

Clearly American victory over Japan would not have been achieved so overwhelmingly without the active participation and important contributions of Japanese Americans. And when the fighting ended, Pacific veterans, along with men in the100th/442nd RCA, continued valuable service in the occupation of Japan and in creating the beginnings of a new dialogue between Americans and Japanese.

More than 33,000 Japanese Americans served their country in World War II. Some 21,000 were drafted, while the rest volunteered for military duty or to work in a civilian capacity. At a time when the government of the United States had failed to stand up for the very ideals for which Japanese Americans were fighting, these committed patriots were determined to set the course of their own history. The dedication of the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in Washington, D.C., in November 2000 demonstrates just how well they succeeded.

Printed in 2003 by the Japanese American Veterans Association, P. O. Box 79, Vienna, VA 27183.