Nisei Linguists and New Perspectives on the Pacific War:
Intelligence, Race, and Continuity

by Dr. James C. McNaughton
(a paper presented at the 1994 Conference of Army Historians)

What's left to say after half a century of writing about the Pacific War? Enormous amounts of ink have been spilled, especially on the war's dramatic beginning at Pearl Harbor and its dramatic ending. In between still lies a fertile field for research that academic and popular historians continue to till. Battle narratives and popular histories continue to pour forth from the presses. Meanwhile a small group of distinguished historians has shown us over the past ten or fifteen years that there is still much to be said about the Pacific War, in its details, new interpretations, and broader context: its cultural and social context, the context of evolving US-Japan relations, and the long sweep of the history of the North Pacific, as one recent author has put it, "from Magellan to MacArthur." Over the past decade the field has been reinvigorated in particular by two great works of synthesis: Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind (1978) and Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun (1985).1

As every practicing historian will tell you, history advances based upon the questions you ask and the materials you work from. I would argue that there are still new questions to be answered and new materials to be worked. In particular, I would argue that historians still have much to learn from a study of an unusual group of American soldiers, the several thousand Nisei, or second generation Japanese-Americans, who served as translator-interpreters in the Military Intelligence Service during and immediately after the war.

But first, a brief summary: In the summer of 1941, as America's relations with Imperial Japan approached a diplomatic impasse, the War Department Intelligence Division launched a secret effort to recruit and train West Coast Nisei to be Japanese-language interpreters and translators. By the outbreak of war, sixty students were in training at the Presidio of San Francisco. Within six months, the school had shipped its first 35 graduates to the field, just in time for Guadalcanal and the Buna-Gona campaign. It was the success of these first few Nisei linguists, by the way, that convinced the War Department to establish a Japanese-American combat unit, the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in Italy, France, and Germany. In 1942 the War Department moved the school, then named the Military Intelligence Service Language School, to Minnesota, and by the invasion of Saipan two years later, the school had graduated over 1,200 linguists. By the time US forces landed on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945 the school had graduated over 2,000 who fought in every battle and campaign. Three earned the Distinguished Service Cross, and a number the Silver Star, some of them posthumously.

A purely descriptive account of their contributions to the war and their experiences, would have a certain value and appeal. So far their story has only been told in the margins, and the pieces are fragmented. This has fed a certain resentment among many of them that historians in general have neglected their contributions to the war effort, and thus, in a way, disenfranchised them. They have a certain point. Since much of what they did involved signals intelligence, until the early 1970s much of what they did was kept secret. Since then, however, historians have still been handicapped by fragmented records and the dominant weight of the by-now established historiography. Also, their story is inextricably linked to a painful and tragic episode in the history of American race relations, the deep-rooted prejudice against Asian-Americans that culminated after Pearl Harbor in the internment camps.

Something more draws me to the story. As it turns out, the study of the Nisei linguists leads directly into the heart of several issues that are transforming the study of the Pacific War — intelligence, race, and the continuity of US involvement in the Pacific —and promises to shed some useful light on each of these. What follows is only a preliminary sketch of the contributions a study of the Nisei linguists can make to each of these areas. What is left to say about the Pacific War? As it turns out, a lot.


The Army never published an official history of its military intelligence operations in World War II— nor did the other services. Of course, much was written at the time that never saw the light of day and is still being declassified and is slowly trickling out, such as the two anthologies of historical documents on signals intelligence: Ronald H. Spector, ed., Listening to the Enemy (1988), and Jim Gilbert and Jack Finnegan, U.S. Army Signals Intelligence in World War II (1993). But historians have yet to have reached anything like a complete picture.2

Despite this shortfall, the most exciting new insights into the Pacific War in recent years have been as a direct result of historians exploiting revelations in the field of Allied intelligence. Historians have now begun to reconstruct the complex picture of theater intelligence activities and organizations and delve into the role of they played in the campaigns. Initial memoirs such as W.J. Holmes' Double-Edged Secrets (1979) and Ronald Lewin's The American Magic (1982) are being overtaken by careful historical studies such as Ed Drea's MacArthur's Ultra (1992).3

Reconstructing the story of the Nisei linguists promises to add to these insights and lend both breadth and depth to our understanding of the theater intelligence architecture that supported all commanders in the area. Since much intelligence information had to pass through the hands of interpreters or translators at some point, the Nisei linguists participated in virtually all aspects.

A map of the Nisei linguist deployments in, let us say, 1944 would be very revealing of the intelligence infrastructure: Indooroopilly Racetrack in Australia (Allied Translator and Interpreter Section— ATIS— and the Central Bureau), a former furniture store in Honolulu (Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Areas — JICPOA), Camp Ritchie, Maryland (Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section— PACMIRS), Warrenton, Virginia (Vint Hill Farms Station), New Delhi, India (South East Asia Translation and Interrogation Center— SEATIC), and an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the Minnesota woods (Military Intelligence Service Language School— MISLS). They also accompanied soldiers and Marines in landing operations at regiment, division, and corps level and flew missions with the Army Air Forces in B-17s, B-24s, and B-29s.

What do we learn by tracing the Nisei involvement in intelligence? Since they were pinch hitters, they served in a variety of intelligence functions and served under a variety of organizations and in every major campaign. We learn the overall scale and complexity of intelligence effort and organizations. We learn that intelligence required massive investment of talent, numbers, tenacity, and courage. It involved not just the big intelligence coups such as shooting down Admiral Yamamoto, but also the grinding day to day work, interrogating prisoners, translating intercepts, evaluating and translating captured documents. And it involved not just the Pacific War, but the war in Europe, such as intercepting the cables of the Japanese ambassador in Berlin.4

Three incidents from the campaign for the Marianas can serve to illustrate this at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Before the battle, in late March 1944, Yamamoto's successor's plane crashed in the Philippines. By chance Admiral Fukudome was carrying the battle plans for the Japanese fleet. This document was spirited to ATIS by the Philippine resistance and translated with the help of two Hawaii-born Nisei, T/3 Yoshikazu Yamada and SSgt. George K. Yamashiro. MacArthur then sent the translation to JICPOA in Hawaii. This operational-level coup greatly aided Admiral Spruance a few weeks later as he met the Japanese at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, a major defeat for Japanese naval aviation.5

At the tactical level, linguist teams deployed with the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions and the 27th Army Division. Two of the Nisei, Ben Honda and George Matsui, won Silver Stars for their work during the battle. Another Nisei, Hawaii-born Bob Kubo, scored a major tactical coup while supporting the 27th Division. While interrogating a captured Japanese soldier one day, he learned of the timing for the last major suicide attack. He quickly relayed this to the division's leadership, who were thereby able to brace themselves for the blow.6

Saipan had strategic consequences for Allied intelligence as well. The Americans harvested some fifty tons of Japanese documents, which were crated up and shipped to JICPOA in Hawaii. Some crates were marked "no military value" and shipped to PACMIRS at Camp Ritchie. One of these documents, located and translated there, was the Imperial Army Ordnance Inventory. It was discovered by Master Sergeant Kazui E. Yamane, born in Hawaii and a graduate of Waseda University in Japan. This list was used in targeting for the B-29 raids that were launched from Saipan later that fall, and greatly facilitated disarmament in the early months of the occupation.7

Much of the work on Allied intelligence in the Pacific focuses on the cryptographic battles, and rightly so. But as Ed Drea has pointed out, ULTRA does not explain everything, nor does it tell the whole story. Like the ULTRA effort, the enormous intellectual challenge for these translators of piecing together Japanese organizations, capabilities, and intentions was a great achievement in its own right. The perspective of the Nisei linguists could be the key that helps unlock the story of Allied intelligence in the Pacific War. 


A careful study of the Nisei linguists promises to shed some useful light on another sensitive, but absolutely critical aspect of the Pacific War: the matter of race and racism. Participants and historians have always known that racial hatred ran deep during the Pacific War, which in this regard resembles the Russo-German War more than the campaigns in the Mediterranean and Northwestern Europe. Hatred on the battlefield was matched at home by the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans for the duration of the war— the only ethnic group singled out for such treatment.

Harvard historian Akira Iriye has detailed the war's racial and cultural dimensions and John W. Dower has compiled a disturbing catalog of prejudice in War Without Mercy (1986). Yet neither of these historians, and to my knowledge, no one else who has examined this issue, has made use of the unique perspective of the Americans of Japanese ancestry who fought in the Pacific War.8

At the first level of analysis, all these young men were affected by the wave of prejudice and officially sanctioned discrimination that swept over the country in 1941 and 1942. They suffered the humiliation of seeing their families herded into internment camps and heard their commanding officer, Fourth Army Commanding General John L. DeWitt, explain away the evacuation to West Coast newspapers by declaring"a Jap is a Jap." In reaction, many mainland Nisei volunteered to serve their country straight out of the internment camps. In the Hawaiian Islands, Japanese-Americans, while not interned, were treated with great suspicion. Like other ethnic groups, these young Americans saw military service as a way to prove their patriotism. Many eagerly sought combat duty with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Of course, they continued to face prejudice once in uniform. For example, while JICPOA found their services invaluable, they were not allowed to set foot inside the naval base at Pearl Harbor, so they had to do their work at the JICPOA annex, a converted furniture store in downtown Honolulu. In the field, many of them experienced anxious moments when they were almost mistaken for enemy soldiers and nearly shot by their own side, so many deployed into forward combat areas with their own Caucasian bodyguards. They must have found the war-time racial stereotyping of the Japanese enemy undignified and personally offensive. To this day they remain grateful to the officers they met who remained free of such prejudices, and gave them a chance to prove themselves.

As evidence that they could keep their senses— and maintain a sense of humor— in this racially charged atmosphere, one need only look at the cartoon logo they adopted at the school, a fierce-looking, buck-toothed Minnesota gopher, wearing an all-American star-spangled Indian headdress— a deliberate inversion of the then-current propaganda image of the rabid, buck-toothed Japanese foe.9

At a deeper level of analysis, for those who joined the Military Intelligence Service to become linguists, the way they served was more specific to their heritage, and thus psychologically more complex. Whether translating captured diaries or radio messages, or interrogating prisoners of war, they had to confront issues of identity and heritage in ways that most other American soldiers could not even imagine. Although for most of them, learning the Japanese language was a major challenge involving six months of hard work, the knowledge and appreciation of Japanese culture and society they had absorbed from their parents and upbringing gave them a unique perspective on the enemy they faced. They had a capacity, all too rare at that time, for seeing their opponents as human beings, rather than animals.

The majority served in non-combat assignments in JICPOA and ATIS. But several hundred were sent forward to serve in combat operations in New Guinea, Burma, the island-hopping campaigns, and the Philippines. They served with the Army, Navy, Marines, and Army Air Forces. Over a dozen were killed in action. Like their fellow soldiers, they suffered the fear and stress of combat. The Nisei experienced all this and more. In the typhoon of steel, they were in the eye, grappling with the enemy, not with bayonet and bullet, but with their eyes and ears and hearts.

Some had the odd experience of having to explain themselves to Japanese prisoners of war, and after the war in occupied Japan. Some can tell stories of the disbelief they met from Japanese soldiers, who had been told by their government that the US government had killed off all Japanese immigrants at the beginning of the war. A few even had chance encounters on the battlefield with schoolmates, such as Tech. 3d Grade Takejiro Higa, who grew up on Okinawa and in 1943 volunteered from Hawaii. While interrogating prisoners on Okinawa in 1945, he realized that two of them were former classmates from 7th and 8th grade. As he later recalled, at first they did not recognize him, now wearing a US Army uniform. "You idiots!" he yelled. "Don't you recognize your own old classmate?" "They looked up at me in total disbelief and then started crying . . . in happiness and relief. That hit me very hard and I, too, could not help but shed some tears." 10

The most difficult and dangerous role was reserved for those few who became "cave flushers," using their ability to speak directly to enemy soldiers. The best known was Hawaii-born Bob Kubo who while fighting on Saipan in 1944 crawled into a large cave containing several Japanese soldiers and over a hundred non-combatants to negotiate their release. He was armed only with his wits and a loaded .45 pistol stuck in the back of his belt. In the course of the lengthy negotiations the trapped Japanese soldiers questioned how Kubo could fight on the American side. He psychologically disarmed them with a well-known saying from Japanese history: "If I am filial, I cannot serve the Emperor. If I serve the Emperor, I cannot be filial." They grasped his meaning at once and realizing the futility of their position, the soldiers released the women and children and surrendered. For this Kubo was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.11

My sense is that the time is ripe for a more sophisticated study of the issue of race and culture in the Pacific War. In recent years historians have expanded the range of inquiry with provocative new books on such things as sex and gender in Hawaii under wartime conditions, encounters between Westerners and Pacific islanders, and the cultural impact of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.12

Perhaps the Nisei linguists can help historians find their way through this maze and tell a more nuanced story than one of just prejudice and racial hatred. The racial dimensions of the conflict should be the beginning point for analysis, not the end.


A study of the Nisei linguists promises to shed light on a third and less well-developed area, that of the essential continuity of US military policy and experience in the Far East from World War II through the Korean War, and perhaps even beyond. Students of MacArthur have always made a case for this continuity. Indeed one recent historian has labeled him the "Far Eastern General."13

But this is more than an accident of one man's career. In the summer of 1945 the Military Intelligence Service Language School had over a thousand Nisei soldiers in Japanese-language classes at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. When Japan surrendered, they were rushed into theater to fill key roles in the occupation. Indeed, of the six thousand students at the school during the war, over half graduated after August 1945. For them, as well as for the combat veterans, the occupation was simply the follow-on to the bloody campaigns that had just finished. ATIS, which had jumped to Manila in 1945, then Tokyo in 1946, redirected its work towards counterintelligence for the occupation. Although their numbers were rapidly reduced by demobilization, the Far East Command was able to civilianize large numbers of positions and entice several hundred of the Niseis to accept positions as War Department civilians. Many of them stayed on, almost to the present day. The multi-volume official history of MacArthur's intelligence operations in the Southwest Pacific Areas, written in 1947-48, is filled with glowing references to the Nisei linguists and their contributions that extended well beyond V-J Day.14

What surprised me in my preliminary research was to discover how quickly the extensive intelligence infrastructure that the theater commanders had built up was re-directed toward the new threat, the Soviet Union. For example, in the spring of 1947 the Soviets began to return several hundred thousand Japanese soldiers through the northern port of Maizuru. The US Army established the Maizuru Repatriation Center that included about one hundred Nisei linguists with the mission of debriefing these repatriates about military significant information about the Soviets in the Far East. Soon afterward ATIS began to publish intelligence reports on the Soviet Union—even bearing the same covers that they had used at the end of the war against Japan.15

In 1949, this same group turned its attention on the new Peoples Republic of China, and beginning in June 1950 ATIS became a principal intelligence center for the Korean War under the name of the 500th Military Intelligence Support Group, Far East. Many Nisei linguists were called back to active duty as reservists and served as linguists in Tokyo and on the battlefield. In fact, the FECOM G-2 was Colonel Kai E. Rasmussen, one of the pre-war Japanese language attaches and MISLS commandant during the war. In Washington Brigadier General John Weckerling was named Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence in July 1950. Weckerling was another of the pre-war Japanese language attaches and the real founding father of MISLS as Fourth Army G-2 in 1941.

On the battlefield, Nisei linguists were used to interrogate captured Korean soldiers, particularly officers, using their Japanese. In cases where the prisoner spoke no Japanese, the interrogations had to be carried out through two translators: from English to Japanese, then Japanese to Korean. And the answers back through the reverse process.16

The end of occupation in Japan and the armistice in Korea did not end the story of the Nisei linguists. Dozens stayed on as civilians to work in intelligence and other assignments in the Far East. Harry Fukuhara, for example, who was recruited out of the Gila River, Arizona, internment camp in 1942, retired in 1991 from a senior intelligence position with the US government in Japan and was recently inducted into the US Army Military Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Others stayed on active duty, such as Thomas T. Sakamoto, who stood on the deck of the USS Missouri in 1945 and went on to serve in Vietnam in 1967-68 as chief of counterintelligence for MACV, retiring in 1970 as a full colonel.

So at an organizational, and in some cases personal, level, the American struggle against Imperial Japan, and then against Communist Russia, the Chinese Communists, and perhaps even the Vietnamese Communists, had a certain continuity. The next assignment for historians of the Pacific War will be to trace this pattern.

A study of the Nisei linguists would bring into focus clear, strong elements of continuity, especially at that historic juncture where World War II became the Cold War in Asia. The criticality of this historic continuity will become increasingly clear as Americans come to see the importance of the US-Japan strategic relationship. At a critical moment in this relationship these Americans served as a bridge between Japan and the United States.


So what's left to say about the Pacific War? As it turns out, quite a bit. My hope is that by following a new line of approach historians can shed some light on at least three areas of recent historical interest: the role of intelligence, the role of race, and the underlying continuity of American security policy in the Pacific during and after the war. It may turn out that the Nisei linguists have one more contribution yet to make, and that is to help historians and their readers reach a more accurate, and more complete, understanding of the tragic events that so convulsed the Pacific fifty years ago.


  1. Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain, and the War Against Japan, 1941-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: The Free Press, 1985); and Walter A. MacDougall, Let the Sea Make a Noise...: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur (New York: Basic, 1993).
  2. Ronald H. Spector, ed., Listening to the Enemy: Key Documents on the Role of Communications Intelligence in the War with Japan (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1988), and James L. Gilbert and John P. Finnegan, U.S. Army Signals Intelligence in World War II: A Documentary History (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1993).
  3. W.J. Holmes, Double-Edged Secrets (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 1979); Ronald Lewin, The American Magic: Codes, Ciphers and the Defeat of Japan (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982); and Edward J. Drea, Mac-Arthur's Ultra: Codebreaking and the War against Japan, 1942-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992).
  4. Carl Boyd, Hitler's Japanese Confidant: General Oshima Hiroshi and MAGIC Intelligence, 1941-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992).
  5. Secret Valor: M.I.S. Personnel, World War II, Pacific Theater, Pre-Pearl Harbor to Sept. 8, 1951 (Honolulu, HI: MIS Veterans Club of Hawaii, 1993), 55-57; Joseph D. Harrington, Yankee Samurai: The Secret Role of Nisei in America's Pacific Victory (Detroit, MI: Pettigrew Enter-prises, 1979), 190-91, 195-97; Lewin, 254.
  6. Interview with Hoichi Kubo and Ben Hazard, 30 Oct 87, and Harrington, 207. The story of the banzai attack is told in Philip A. Crowl, Campaign in the Marianas, The United States Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1960), 256-62.
  7. The Pacific War and Peace: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Military Intelligence Service, 1941 to 1952 (San Francisco, CA: MIS Association of Northern Cali-fornia and National Japanese-American Historical Society, 1991), 68; Secret Valor, 104-05; Harrington, 234-35, 358.
  8. Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981) and John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986). For a more recent treatment, see James J. Weingartner, "Trophies of War: U.S. Troops and the Mutilation of Japanese War Dead, 1941-1945," Pacific Historical Review (Feb 92), 53-67.
  9. The gopher logo was designed in 1943 by Tech. Sgt. Chris Ishii, who before the war had worked as an illustrator at Disney Studios. MISLS Album (Minneapolis, MN: 1946), 37. It is embossed on the album cover and appears to this day on the masthead of the MIS Intelligencer, the quarterly newsletter of the MIS Association of Northern California.
  10. Secret Valor, 102.
  11. Harrington, 209-10; Pacific War and Peace, 52; and interview with Hoichi Kubo and Ben Hazard, 30 Oct 87.
  12. Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii (New York: Free Press, 1992); Lamont Lindstrom and Geoffrey M. White, Island Encounters: Black and White Memories of the Pacific War (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990); and Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall, Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories, and the American Hero (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
  13. Michael Schaller, Douglas MacArthur: The Far Eastern General (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  14. General Headquarters, Far East Command, Military Intelligence Section, General Staff, A Brief History of the G-2 Section, GHQ, SWPA and Affiliated Units, 10 vols. (Tokyo: Hqs FECOM, 1947-48).
  15. See for example, ATIS Interrogation Reports, Far East Command (U), Vol. II (13 Jun 50), a tabular analysis of information in ATIS files on the Soviet armed forces and facilities in the Far East based on interrogation reports from January 1947 to June 1950 (original CONFIDENTIAL*information used UNCLASSIFIED).
  16. See Wesley Fishel, Army Requirements for Language and Area Knowledge in Korea (Operations Research Office, The Johns Hopkins University, HQ AFFE (Advance), ORO-S-91 (FEC), 15 Oct 53)(original CONFIDENTIAL*regraded UNCLAS-SIFIED); and the expanded version, Wesley R. Fishel and Alfred H. Hausrath, Language Problems of the US Army during Hostilities in Korea (Operations Research Office, The Johns Hopkins University, ORO-T-356, January 1958)(Original SECRET*regraded UNCLASSIFIED).

Dr. James C. McNaughton has served as command historian for the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center since 1987. He is a 1974 graduate of Middlebury College and received his doctorate in history from The John Hopkins University in 1985. He is a recipient of a Fulbright Graduate Fellowship (1981-82) and a Secretary of the Army Research and Study Fellowship (1994-95). He also serves as a Civil Affairs officer in the US Army Reserve.