The untold story of Japanese Americans who fought in World War II

Tthe morning sky was dull gray with low-hanging clouds above the battleship on which the war that began with the attack on Pearl Harbor more than a thousand days ago ended with Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945. The top military leaders of the victorious Allied nations , along with representatives of the defeated Japanese Empire, stood at designated locations on the teak deck of the USS Missouri. In the superstructure towering high above, every level and podium was filled with hundreds of white-capped sailors staring down at the scene below.

Standing nearby on the below deck to watch the ceremony with a group of American news correspondents was their official interpreter, Thomas Sakamoto, 27, of San Jose, Calif., a tall Japanese-American who was one of the Army’s newest second lieutenants in the Pacific.

When General Douglas MacArthur emerged from a Marine cabin, he stiffly approached a set of microphones and read a brief statement. He then invited the representatives of Japan and the Allies to sign the instrument of surrender.

Sakamoto was honored to witness such history, something he appreciated even more when he learned he was one of only three Japanese American servicemen on board Missouri this morning. A decade earlier, he had attended a boarding high school in Japan, where his immigrant parents, who had settled in California, sent him to learn more about their homeland. He was proud of his origins, but during his time in Japan he was a student of the culture, not a convert. He had no divided loyalties. He was American by birth and upbringing and Japanese by descent. All of this made Tom Sakamoto—and thousands of other Japanese American soldiers—invaluable to the U.S. military’s military intelligence in the war against Japan.

The journey that led him to Missouri this morning begins a month before Pearl Harbor in 1941, when Sakamoto reports with 57 other Japanese American conscripts and recruits to a new Army language school in San Francisco. Almost all of them had spent at least a few years at school in Japan and were fluent in the language. A small cadre of military intelligence officers who were stationed in Japan in the 1930s warned Washington this summer, as tensions between the two countries worsened, that there would be enormous language difficulties in the event of war with Japan. They argued that few Westerners mastered the complex Japanese language. By the time the first graduating class graduated six months later, the war with Japan was already raging.

Lieutenant Tom Sakamoto

Family photo

Most of the graduates headed directly to the Pacific and were among the first Nisei soldiers to see combat in World War II. The top ten students—including Sakamoto—were retained to teach at the Army Military Intelligence Advanced Language School (MISLS) in Minnesota. A year later, Sakamoto was sent to the Pacific as leader of a team of 10 Nisei attached to the 1st Cavalry Division for the invasion of the Admiralty Islands, where they translated a cache of Japanese documents revealing important details of an enemy attack that had been repulsed , saving American lives.

By the end of the war, MISLS had graduated 6,000 Japanese language interpreters, translators, and interrogators. They served throughout the Pacific. In the tropical jungles of New Guinea. The bloody beaches of Iwo Jima. The Choked Mountains of Burma with Merrill’s legendary Marauders. The Caves of Okinawa. Equivalent to a secret weapon in the war against Japan, these young men craved an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty to America—even in the face of the racism and xenophobia that had been so inflamed since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and even as their families were rounded up and sent to internment camps. In effect, they were fighting two wars at the same time; one, against their ancestral home; the other, against racial prejudice at home.

Yet, the history of their service is little known, even today. While the exploits of the all-Nisei infantry units fighting the Germans in North Africa and Europe received widespread recognition during and after the war—depicted in countless books and films—the fact that American combat units fighting in the Pacific had Nisei teams who understood the Japanese, read their communications and interrogated prisoners of war is among the best-kept secrets of the war. Thereafter, a veil of secrecy remained in place on matters related to military intelligence, and even as World War II records began to be declassified decades later, much of their history remained untouched in the archives. Amazingly, no list of Japanese Americans who served in the Pacific has ever been compiled by the military. Many Nisei veterans of the Pacific, satisfied that they had fulfilled their duty and proved their loyalty to the US, did not talk about their war experiences for years – or ever – even to their families.

Japanese Americans, with native ties to a nation with which we were at war and distrusted for that reason by many of their fellow Americans, became a tremendous asset to the U.S. military because they knew the enemy better than anyone else and were highly motivated to defeat them. they win. In an America that too often prejudices people based on race, ethnicity, and country of origin, their timeless message of courage and patriotism should not be forgotten.

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