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Book Gives Voice to World War II Nisei Linguists

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2007 – A group of Japanese-Americans who served as interpreters and interrogators helped America “fight smart” during World War II, a top military historian said today.

A new 514-page book, “Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During WWII,” by James C. McNaughton, command historian for U.S. European Command, is the culmination of two senators’ efforts.

Both of Hawaii’s U.S. senators -- Daniel K. Akaka and fellow World War II veteran Daniel K. Inouye -- championed the Army-endorsed project to recognize the roughly 6,000 Nisei linguists who served and the Military Intelligence Service that trained them.

“I am delighted this project is finally done,” Akaka said during a Senate speech here March 19. “For decades after their service, a complete documentation of their exemplary deeds was sorely lacking. Now the heroic work of these translators … will forever be remembered and honored by future generations.”

McNaughton said his book sheds light on what he called an “undiscovered little niche” of history.

“I was pretty familiar with the official historical literature of the Second World War, and there was virtually no mention of them,” McNaughton said here during an interview. “Once I got to meet some of these veterans and started doing oral history interviews, (I realized) they’re great guys with wonderful stories.”

When the U.S. military began conscripting young men for armed service, McNaughton explained, the Army drafted several thousand Japanese-American men, “so when the war broke out, the Army had a pool of potential linguists.”

“In 1943, the Army decided to organize a segregated infantry unit called the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and then called for volunteers,” he said. “Most people who know about Japanese-American history know about that, but what they don’t know is that a quarter of those volunteers were siphoned off into the language training route.”

This select group of Japanese-Americans learned to interrogate prisoners, intercept messages, translate captured documents and infiltrate enemy lines at the Military Intelligence Service’s Language School near San Francisco.

McNaughton’s favorite anecdote, he said, is about a begrudging MIS graduate who tried to avoid linguistic training.

“Sgt. Hoichi Kubo was a student at the University of Hawaii when the war broke out, and he got drafted and wanted to go with the 442nd because he wanted to fight,” McNaughton said. “His (Japanese) language skills were good enough that the Army pulled him out.

“He told me that he deliberately put down the wrong answer on every single question during the screening exam, but the interviewers knew he was faking it and took him (to MIS) anyway,” McNaughton said. “He was really mad about that.”

Kubo served four tours in Japan as a military linguist and remained there to help rebuild the country after the war ended.

One day, Kubo’s diplomatic skills were tested when he discovered about 100 civilians being held hostage in a cave by four Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender, McNaughton said.

“Kubo took a .45 (caliber) pistol, tucked it into the back of his belt, stuffed some K rations in his pockets, climbed down alone into that cave and talked to the Japanese soldiers,” he said. “He explained to them, ‘If you want to die for the emperor, that’s your business. But these women and children have no reason to die for the emperor; let them go.’”

After an hour talking with the desperate soldiers, Kubo negotiated the prisoners’ release.

“One by one, the civilians crawled out of the cave,” McNaughton said. “For that, (Kubo) was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, not for an act of valor on the battlefield, but for an act of valor after the battle.”

Nisei linguists, McNaughton said, were the Defense Department’s “first experiment” in training and using military linguists during a major conflict and the ensuing occupation.

Though their efforts in World War II have gone largely undocumented, he said, Nisei linguists played a major role. Twenty of them earned the Silver Star.

“Every battle or campaign they talked about, they would say, ‘Oh yeah, we translated this document, we interrogated this prisoner, and we told the regimental commander or division commander there’s going to be an attack tomorrow night,’” he said.

McNaughton said the Army-funded project gives military linguists a sense of their heritage.

“It’s an honorable tradition, within all the services, going back to the Second World War,” he said.

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