THE ZEBRA PLATOON
By Kojiro Kawaguchi
A unique group was formed on September 5, 1945 from the Military Intelligence Service School’s Nisei soldiers. They were called the Zebra Platoon. Orders were cut for 149 men studying at the Military Intelligence School at Fort Snelling to report to the Civil Censorship School at Fort Mason, San Francisco by September 28. The group was formed by the U.S. Army to aid General MacArthur with the censorship of all forms of Japanese communications during the Occupation of Japan. The selection was based not on their ability in the Japanese language or the grades they received in Japanese classes, but solely on their AGCT scores. They were selected from those with the top AGCT scores at Fort Snelling. The lowest AGCT score among the group was 137 (AGCT score of only 109 is required to become an officer in the U.S. Army). Because they were assigned directly to Civil Censorship while still at Fort Snelling, they were different from the other MISLS graduates. All others were given ranks as corporals and shipped to ATIS where they were assigned to their various military units. The group was to receive ranks of Staff Sergeants, Technical Sergeants, and Master Sergeants, but did not receive these ranks because of objections by their instructors. Their instructors as a group became angry when they heard of the Zebra Platoon’s impending promotions and complained bitterly to Major John Aiso. They complained that as instructors, they all knew more Japanese, yet their students would be outranking them – which were not fair to them. The fact that the instructors knew more Japanese than their students was never in dispute. Thus, in order to appease the instructors, the school authorities reduced their promotion from Staff Sergeants to T/4 and Sergeants; reduced promotion from Technical Sergeants to T/3 and Staff Sergeants, and reduced promotion from Master Sergeants to Technical Sergeants. (Thus they were to hold less rank or were equal in ranks to the instructors who held rank as Staff, Tech or Master Sergeants). The U.S. Army planned to give the Zebra Platoon the ranks of Master Sergeants, Technical Sergeants, and Staff Sergeants because the group was to be given supervisory position in the censorship of Japan. The Jobs they took over in Japan were classified as Officer positions. Thus no members of the Zebra Platoon were to receive promotions until towards the end of their enlistment period. Even then only a handful were promoted one grade an year later just before their discharge. At Camp Stoneman, when we marched in formation, the other G.I.s, most of them combat veterans returning from action in the Pacific Theater (Who were waiting to be mustered out of the Army) called them the Zebra Platoon. The name stuck for they were called the Zebra Platoon by other Army units in Manila, or whenever they marched in formation. In early October 1945, the Zebra Platoon was split 2/3 went ahead in the first group, and 1/3 were left behind until Thanksgiving.
The first group took two weeks to sail across the Pacific Ocean on the former luxury liner, the USS Lurline with its destination: Tokyo. The officers and women Red Cross workers were assigned to cabins, but the Zebra Platoon members being enlisted men were assigned to bunks on the open outside deck. Since they ship was sailing the Great Circle Route; it got extremely cold, when the ship got near the Alaska coast. Halfway across the Pacific, Lurline’s Captain got on the horn and announced that the ship was changing its course after receiving an urgent order from the War Department. President Truman had ordered that all combat veterans were to be returned home as soon as possible. The ship changed direction from Tokyo, and set sail instead for Australia to return G.I.s there to the United States. Thus instead of a direct passage to Tokyo, the USS Lurline turned south as it set sail for Manila. All aboard including The Zebra Platoon was dropped off in Manila as the USS Lurline continued on to Australia.
The most memorable part of the voyage was sailing through the Philippine archipelago. The sea was extremely calm and everything was beautiful. They sailed through the Leyte Straits where what was left of the once mighty Japanese Fleet was sunk and destroyed in August 1944. Here, the Japanese Fleet tried to stop MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines. During the passage through the Leyte Straits, we did not see any towns of cities, only lush jungle vegetation. In front and side of the ship, they could see flying fishes jumping as the water were disturbed by the passage of the USS Lurline. It was hard to imagine that less than a year before; it had been a scene of complete devastation. Here most of the ships that were left of the once mighty Japanese Imperial Navy had gone down with thousands of men drowning. It was hard to imagine the carnage seeing the serene jungle scene as we sailed by. The jungle covered up all signs of war. Thus only lush green trees and vegetation could be seen as the ship sailed through the Leyte Straits. As we sailed through the Leyte Straits, we received a scare when we watched a mine floating by just a few feet from the ship. Dave Masuoka states: "Wow, that was very scary, and more scary because many of us were leaning over the rail just watching the mine float by. If that hit the ship we would have been goners even if the shop stayed afloat." After passage through the straits, the ship turned north for Manila.
As we disembarked the ship at Manila port, we saw for the first time the devastation brought about by war. On the drive from the Port of Manila to our billet, we saw destruction to buildings on both sides of the road. Every building that was still standing in downtown Manila had bullet holes and/or shell marks. The sign of destructiveness of war was everywhere. No one in Manila knew what to do with us, and no one in our group had been put in command. The Army was expecting us in Tokyo, thus no one in Manila knew of our assignment or knew what to do with us, and not one of our Tech Sergeants spoke up to tell authorities of our assignment to Civil Censorship Detachment of GHQ, Tokyo under General MacArthur. It was one big Army snafu. Any written assignments must have been left aboard the USS Lurline, as it hurriedly left for Australia.
With no one in Manila knowing what to do with our group, someone finally decided that because we were Nisei soldiers, we must belong to ATIS (Allied Translators and Interpreters Service). ATIS was in the process of transferring the remaining units to Tokyo. Meanwhile the local military authorities, seeing our high non-com ranks, decided to house us in the former Women Army Corps quarters at the Manila’s Santa Anita Race Tracks, south of Manila. The WAC unit had been transferred to Tokyo. The quarters had been constructed in the middle of the infield grass. The accommodations were better than anything we had in the Army up to this point, and it was better than the housing of other U.S. Army personnel: enlisted men and officers, including the General and his staff. They were housed in tents at the Manila Race Track infield. Even the General was housed in a tent. Our cottage even had ironing boards and irons.
After only a week or two in Manila, in late October 1945, the remaining ATIS personnel set sail for Tokyo aboard the US Navy transport: USS Kinkaid, a Liberty ship. The sailors told us that several Liberty ships similar to the USS Kinkaid had broken apart in two on the high seas due to the faulty assembly type construction. The Liberty ships were constructed in sections on land, and then the several sections were assembled and welded together on the dry dock. This revolutionary method of ship construction saved time on the dry dock, making to possible to build more ships. It was the first time that most of the construction of a vessel had been done outside the dry dock. The revolutionary method had been devised by Henry Kaiser to speed up shipbuilding. The story (not confirmed) is that several ships had split apart was to haunt us on our voyage to Japan as we were hit by the tail end of a typhoon.
The waves spawned by the typhoon were the highest experienced by all of us. Wherever the ship hit the bottom of a wave, the tallest part of the next wave appeared to be much higher than the tallest mast. When the ship was on the crest of a wave, the ship’s propellers came completely out of the water and we could hear the propellers whirring in air. Next, the entire bottom of the ship would hit the water full force with a large bang. This caused the entire vessel to shutter and vibrate. We worried about the pounding the ship was taking, and wondered whether the next wave would break apart our ship in two. Over 90% of the troops became seasick with nowhere to go. They could not go to the ship’s railing because of the danger of being washed overboard in the high seas. Even 50% of the sailors became seasick. The ship’s cooks tried to serve a meal, but they gave up the attempt when it proved impossible to serve the meal because the high seas sent the aluminum trays and cups flying. This sea voyage the one of the worst experienced by those aboard the ship. The pounding that the ship was taking cannot be adequately described. Each time the ship hit a wave’s crest; it came down hard on the next wave. Then every plate of the ship shuttered. It felt as if each section was trying to separate and go its own separate way. The pounding the ship was taking from the huge waves was frightening.
Finally weathering the storm we saw Mt Fuji from our ship, soon we arrived safely in Yokohoma. We drove through complete devastation from Yokohama to Tokyo, until we reached the ATIS (NYK) Building in Tokyo (between the Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace). Firebombs dropped by B-29s caused the devastation. Across the street from the ATIS Building was the Kanda Building, where many American women were housed. Many of them put on nightly strip tease acts in front of their lighted windows. These free strip tease acts were written about in the US Army newspaper: The Stars and Stripes. ATIS personnel didn’t know what to do with us, so we were given the freedom to roam all over Tokyo. In those early days right after the war’s end, there was not any Japanese to be seen on the Ginza, when we went sightseeing. After about two weeks, CCD finally located us and the Zebra Platoon was transferred to the Finance (Okura) Building. There the Zebra Platoon was split and every one was assigned to their Civil Censorship duties in units at Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Pusan, Korea.
The second group of the Zebra Platoon boarded the USS Monterey on the day after Thanksgiving. On board the ship were officers and many Red Cross women. They were assigned to guard duties to keep the officer from visiting the Red Cross women’s quarters, or meeting in an empty stateroom. One member writes about the orgies that took place on the USS Monterey. Orgies between the officers and female Red Cross workers paled the Las Vegas Tail Hook Scandal – since it went on for two weeks. They landed in Manila and were herded into cattle cars, then by trucks to Camp San Fernando in Pampangas Valley (Near Subic Bay). There they spent a short duty interrogating Japanese field grade officers in battle tactics prior to the surrender. The second group arrived in Tokyo several days after Christmas. They went directly to the Finance Building and were assigned to various CCD units. Most were assigned to Civil Censorship units in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Pusan, Korea. A handful was assigned to satellite units in Hiroshima, Nagoya, Sendai and Sapporo. They were assigned to supervisory duties as were the first group to: censor letters, packages, newspapers, magazines, films, stage plays, radio broadcast, telephone and telegraph. Since most of them were assigned to positions classified as officer positions, they were not on the enlisted men’s table of organization. Not being on the table of organization meant that most of us would not receive promotions during their initial tour of duty. At discharge time, many of us were offered commissions as 2nd Lieutenants if we re-enlist. Most of us declined the offer of a commission.
After our return to the United States, most of the Zebra Platoon graduated from College and Universities. The most prominent member of the Zebra Platoon was Bill Naito, who with his brother was responsible for the rebirth of downtown Portland, Oregon. Bill Naito was responsible for the erection of Portland’s monument to the Japanese experience during World War II; It told the story of the Japanese internment and Military Service. The monument consisting of many pieces of stone is located in the Wilmette Riverfront Park in Portland, Oregon. Next to it is a Japanese Garden built by the city in 1999 to honor Bill Naito. The City of Portland also renamed Front Street to Naito Street in his honor. Before his death in 1995, he was President of Norcrest China, Edward Naito Properties, "Made in Oregon" chain of stores and many other firms. Many became College Professors. Min Amemiya, Professor of Agronomy, Iowa State University; Hayato Kihara, Professor of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles; Ike Yoshino, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Arizona; Dave Masuoka, Research PHD, University of California, Los Angeles. Three others became Professors at the University of Hawaii. College and School Administrators included James Urata, Senior Administrator, California State University, San Bernardino; Kojiro Kawaguchi, District Administrator, Los Angeles Unified School District. Among the Doctors and Dentists were Sadao Honda and Setsuo Ito. Owners of businesses beside Bill Naito were: Kats Ohama, owner of Kats Ohama, Ltd., Realtors in Honolulu, Hawaii; Tomio Satow, owner of two nurseries in Southern California; Minoru Shinmoto, owner of Southern California Nursery, Inc.; Warren Nitta, Partner in Westside Garage, Stockton, California, repairing school buses for the Stockton Unified School District, and other cars and trucks; Toshio Miyagishima, owner of a farm in Othello, Washington; Jack Tabata, owner of Alta Products. Others were: George Tani, Manager of Benihana Village, Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, later owner of Torii Restaurant, Modesto, California; Harry Wakai, Facility Engineer, Kaufmann and Broad Home Systems; Calvin Sakamoto, Senior Systems Analyst, Ampex Corporation; Ben Ichikawa, Chief Chemist, ConAgra; Joe Kiyan, Manager, Xerox Corporation. Most notorious was Harry Taniguchi, who was murdered and left in his car with over $150,000 in his possession untouched. He was a gambler, who took clients on gambling junkets to Las Vegas from Honolulu, Hawaii. We heard many stories; one about a multi-millionaire developer in Honolulu, but it has been difficult to confirm the stories. (Help is needed to fill out the stories of other Zebra Platoon members – especially from Hawaii, The author was given the names of the three or five who became professors at the University of Hawaii, but he misplaced the list).