Sgt. SHIGERU YAMASHITA
September 5, 1918 – February 5, 2005
Technical Sergeant Shigeru Yamashita
Awards: The Legion of Merit, Letters of Commendation for Outstanding Service from Lt General M.F. Harmon., Commanding General of the USA Forces in the South Pacific Area and General John R. Hodge Commander of Americal Division. Awarded the Bronze Star Medal For meritorious service in action on Bougainville, Solomon Island 11 Mar 1944.
On February 13, 2005 private funeral service was held for Shigeru Yamashita who was born September 5, 1918 in Irvine, California to Tsurukichi and Nao Yamashita. Who, along with their parents, were tenant farmers on the Irvine Ranch. Shig went to Japan in 1921 with his grandparents. After graduating from a Japanese high school in 1937, he returned to the United States, where he rejoined his parents who were then farming in Overton, Nevada. Shigeru went back to high school to learn English. Using his credentials earned in Japan, in 1940, the Moapa Valley High School in Overton, Nevada, granted him a high school diploma. In a desire to further his education, especially in English, he moved to Los Angeles to attend Polytechnic where there was a program to help students such as Shigeru.
In 1941 Shig was drafted and sent to the 41st Infantry Division stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, as a field artillery man. Meanwhile the war Department was planning to open a training school for translators and war prisoner interrogators to be used in a possible war with Japan. In the summer of 1941, while big war games were held in California, Captain Kai Rasumussen interviewed the prospective students. Captain Rasmussen had just returned from Tokyo, where he was on the staff of the American Military Attaché for many years. He tested the knowledge of Japanese by speaking to them in Japanese and asking them to translate a few lines in the Japanese Military Manual. Shigeru was accepted into the Fourth Army Intelligence School after passing Captain Rasumussen’s test. Training began on November 1, 1941, with 60 students, mostly Japanese Americans and a few Caucasian Americans. After 6 months of intensive training, 42 students graduated.
A Military Intelligence Service (MIS) team, consisting of Mac Nagata (team leader), Jim Ariyasu, Isao Kusuda, Yosh Noritake, Roy Kawajiri, and Shigeru left for overseas service on May 7, 1942. They had no officer in charge because of the shortage of bilingual officers. The ship’s name was Timothy Pickerling, a freighter..
In early June 1942, the linguist team arrived at Neumea, New Caledonia. Immediately after arrival, we were transported to the Headquarters of the Task Force 6814, which was later named "Americal Infantry Division." The name "Americal" was a combination of the words America and New Caledonia. The Americal Division was dispatched to this 180-mile-long tropical island by General Douglas MacArthur, who had moved to Australia from the Philippine Islands in 1942 to protect it from the threat of Japanese advances. The MIS Team’s presence at New Caledonia was a military secret. Shig recalled that the sergeant who met them at the pier told them that he had received an order to pick them up when we arrived, transport them back in a covered truck and not let anyone in town see them. It was believed that if the Japanese had known of their presence, they would have been very careful not to carry any documents of war information. A few months later, in an attempt to protect their secrecy, a number was assigned to each of them and they were instructed to use their assigned numbers on any papers they translated or worked on so their names would not be traced if any of the information fell into the wrong hands. For the first couple of months on the island of New Caledonia there was not much for them to do. They performed guard duties around the entire camping area of General Patch, the Division commander and other officers. Once a week we went down to Neumea to see the Americal movies shown by the United States Army Special Service.
On Guadalcanal Island, which is located a few hundred miles northwest of New Caledonia, the Japanese were building an airfield. It was nearly completed when the United States Marines invaded the island on August 7, 1942. Japanese opposition was weak when the Marines landed there, but fierce battles took place near the airfield. On Guadalcanal, there were only two Marine officers and one Navy officer who spoke Japanese, so all the documents captured by the Marines were flown down to the Americal Division in New Caledonia for translation. The most valuable of the captured documents was a Japanese Navy Identifications and Call Signs book. The book had the entire listing of the call signs of both the Japanese Navy ships and the Japanese Navy air bases. They worked on this translation for many days, working 24 hours a day in shifts. Even though there were no officers bearing down on them, they were determined to show our country that loyalty and honor were an integral part of the fabric they were made of and taking away our civil rights didn’t change that they were acutely aware that the translation of this Japanese Navy book would be a significant triumph for our country and, in light of the beliefs that brought about Executive Order 9066, to us as Japanese Americans as well. Upon completion of the translation, the book with its translation was sent to Navy Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The first group of Japanese prisoners of war was shipped down to New Caledonia sometime in September or October 1942, aboard a hospital ship, which also was carrying the first Americal division’s casualties from Guadalcanal. Captain Erskine (Marine language officer), Lieutenant Guard (Navy decoding officer), Isao Kusuda and Shigeru went aboard the ship and interrogated the prisoners. Most of them were civilian laborers who were engaged in construction of the airfield.
On October 13, 1942, the 164th Infantry Regiment of Americal Division left for Guadalcanal to reinforce the hard-pressed Marines on Hendersen field. The rest of the units of the Americal Division followed. They had heard that there was a big discussion among the high-ranking officers about whether or not to take Japanese American translators into combat with them. The main concern was fate of the interpreters if the United States was not victorious. If they had been captured by the Japanese, they would have labeled us "the enemy." When the Division left for Guadalcanal, we were assigned to the combined South Pacific Command (COMSOPAC) X Language section in New Caledonia. In January 1943, in spite of the officers’ concerns, Isao Kusuda and Shigeru were sent to Guadalcanal and assigned to the XIVth Corp Intelligence Section.
In early February 1943, a large number of prisoners of war were placed aboard a ship to be sent from Guadalcanal to New Caledonia. Isao Kusuda and Shigeru boarded the ship for a last minute interrogation of prisoners of war. While they were still on the ship, the convoy was alerted for approaching Japanese planes. The convoy moved immediately out of the harbor, therefore stranding them aboard the ship. Isao and Shigeru got off at the next island, New Hebrides, to fly back to Guadalcanal. When the plane returned to Guadalcanal, they were not permitted to land on Hendersen Field so the plane circled around the island at a very low altitude for nearly two hours before it was finally permitted to land. Not knowing what was going on Shig and Isao felt very uneasy. They found out later that the Japanese sent more than one hundred planes to cover the evacuation of Japanese troops by ship from Guadalcanal. When the Japanese planes came over, all of the American planes at Hendersen Field took to the air to avoid being hit by Japanese planes. Many Japanese prisoners of war who were brought in after the evacuation were either sick or wounded. They were told by their officers that they were going to the front lines for the last battle with Americans; instead they went to an assembly point for evacuation.
Isao and Shig returned to New Caledonia on April 23, 1943. After the Guadalcanal campaign, Americal Division headed southwest and landed on Fiji Island for rest and additional combat training where Captain Robert Lury and Lieutenant Charles Fogg also rejoined Americal Division. Captain Lury returned to the States after Fiji Island and was replaced by Captain Michael Mitchell. Four vacant translator’s positions were also filled at that time by Edward Aburamen, Hisato Kinoshita, Akira Kato and Kazu Yoshihata. Americal Division headed northward again and landed on Bougainville on Christmas Day, 1943. On Bougainville, a captured document revealed that the Japanese were planning to attack United States’ positions on March 10, 1944. By questioning prisoners of war, the translators also confirmed this information. American troops were alarmed but prepared when the Japanese attack came on March 8, 1944.
Continuous shelling of American positions, including Division Headquarters, started on March 8, 1944. One incendiary shell landed and exploded near the translators and some shrapnel landed on their air raid shelters, but they were all safe. On the same night, however, our Division commander’s driver was killed by an artillery shell. The shelling attack on the Division Headquarters area lasted for several days; they spent many sleepless nights in the shelter listening to the sounds of incoming shells.
On March 11, 1944, a call came from the 182nd Regiment requesting a translator at Hill 260 immediately. Captain Mitchell and Shigeru rushed to Hill 260. At the top of the hill, they met a young major who was the commander of the Americans defending the hill. He told Captain Mitchell and Shig that about two hours before they had arrived the American forces had killed a Japanese soldier with a briefcase, and his body was still lying there. The Major ordered Captain Mitchell and Shigeru to retrieve the briefcase from the Japanese soldier’s body. After they crossed the American line, the major told Shig not to go any further, and Captain Mitchell advanced alone. The seconds seemed like hours. They felt like visible targets since they were wearing green uniforms instead of camouflage. With the translation duties, they were not prepared to go to the front line of battle. Captain Mitchell finally picked up the briefcase and they re-entered the American line. One of the documents that was retrieved revealed the name of the Japanese unit facing American forces on the hill. Captain Mitchell called the Americal Headquarters Order of Battle Section of G-2 Intelligence Section and received information from them on the strength of this Japanese unit. The Order of Battle Section had compiled the information from the previously translated documents and interrogation of prisoners to keep track of the size and strength of the Japanese unit the American forces were facing. When Captain Mitchell and Shig were ready to go, the major offered a squad of men to escort us, but Captain Mitchell declined. The major informed the many American patrols operating there that Captain Mitchell and a Japanese American sergeant were going down the hill and asked his men to look out for us.
Soon after this incident on Hill 260, Shig learned that when they were crossing back into the American line at the top of the hill, an American soldier mistook Shig for a Japanese solder and raised his gun to shoot. He was unaware that a Japanese American soldier would be coming near the front line and he had been jumpy after being hit in the helmet that day by a Japanese sniper. Fortunately, a fellow soldier recognized Shig from a Japanese conversation class he had attended, and quickly stopped the soldier before he pulled the trigger.
When General Hodge, commanding General of Americal Division, was informed that Captain Mitchell was ordered to pick up a briefcase and that Shigeru was mistaken for a Japanese soldier and nearly killed, the General immediately issued an order restricting the dispatching of translators beyond a regimental headquarters. A Bronze Star Medal was awarded to Captain Michael Mitchell for his meritorious service in obtaining identification of a force opposing American troops on Hill 260 at the risk of his own life. Shigeru Yamashita was also awarded a Bronze Star Medal for assisting the Captain in obtaining the information. A few days after the incident on Hill 260, Captain Mitchell was transferred to the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) of General Headquarters in Melbourne, Australia. When Captain Mitchell was transferred to ATIS, Lieutenant Fogg was promoted to Captain and became the head of the Language Section, and Lieutenant William S. Hodgson was newly assigned to Americal Language Section.
In early 1945, the Americal Division left for the Philippines. They landed on Leyte where they engaged in mopping up operations. They entered the town of Ormoc where we saw total destruction of the town buildings as results of the war. It was a devastating sight.
On March 26, 1945, Americal Division invaded Cebu. After this landing they invaded inland and established Division Headquarters in a Red Cross building near a small mountain in a suburb of Cebu City. A native informer told us a Japanese troop was garrisoned at the other side of the mountain. The Japanese troops attacked the Americal Division Headquarters every night. One night American troops caught a Japanese prisoner who told them that the Japanese knew about the Japanese American translators assigned to Americal Division Headquarters. He was a member of a Japanese suicide squad whose mission was to kill the Japanese Americans translators. After they obtained this information, the Japanese Americans were told to sleep inside the building and the rest of the enlisted men were ordered to position themselves at night outside to defend the Headquarters. After a few days the Division Headquarters was moved into Cebu City where the situation was relatively secured. Japanese were withdrawing everywhere. Americal Division had been fighting in the South Pacific for more than three years by this time, and the Army started to rotate soldiers back to the States for discharge. Translators, however, were being classified as essential and were given 45-day leaves instead of rotation.
Shigeru came back to the States for a 45-day leave on July 29, 1945. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, and World War II officially ended September 2, 1945. Shigeru was discharged from the Army on October 15, 1945. At the beginning of our overseas service, high-ranking officers were skeptical about the loyalty of the Japanese Americans, but after seeing them work hard to produce excellent translations, the officers’ skepticism turned to praise and trust. The translators received letters of commendation from General Hodge, commander of the Americal Infantry Division, and M. F. Harmon, Lieutenant General, Commanding General of the United States Army Forces in the South Pacific area.
After being discharged, Shig settled in Los Angeles, California. In 1947 he married Helen Okazaki and they had two children:
Cheryl and Mark. For over 40 years had his own gardening route and later worked as a gardener the LA Unified School district.
Shig Yamashita and family on his 84th Birthday. Helen, his wife is
seated next to him. Standing behind
Is son, Mark and his wife Leslie and their Son, Andrew and Shig’s daughter, Cheryl.