The Untold Story of the Japanese Americans Who Fought in WW2

The morning sky was dull gray with low-hanging clouds over the battleship on which the war that began with the attack on Pearl Harbor more than a thousand days before ended with Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945. On the U.S.S. teak deck, the highest ranking military officers of victorious Allied countries and representatives of the Empire of Japan were positioned in the designated areas. Missouri. The superstructure rose high above the ground, and every floor and catwalk were crowded with hundreds white-capped sailors admiring the scene.

Standing nearby on a subdeck to observe the ceremony with a group of U.S. 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.

General Douglas MacArthur, who had just risen from his sea cabin, stiffly strode to the microphones and made a brief statement. After he read a brief statement, General Douglas MacArthur invited Japan’s representatives and Allies members to sign the surrender documents.

Sakamoto felt honored to have been a part of such historical events. He was even more touched when he found out that he was among three Japanese American soldiers aboard. MissouriIt was that day. Ten years before, he was a student at boarding schools in Japan. He learned about Japan from his parents, who were immigrants to California. While he was proud to be of his family, during his visit in Japan, he was not converted but a student of its culture. He never had divided loyalty. American in birth, upbringing and descent. Japanese by blood. All of which had made Tom Sakamoto— and thousands of other Japanese American soldiers—invaluable to the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service in the war against Japan.

He was on a journey that led him to MissouriSakamoto, along with 57 Japanese American enlistees or draftees, reported to San Francisco’s new Army Language School. This morning took place a month ago before Pearl Harbor. Nearly all had been to Japan for at least one year and spoke the language fluently. A few military intelligence officers from Japan who were stationed there in the 1930s raised alarm at Washington in that summer, as tensions between the countries grew. The argument was that very few Westerners could master the complicated Japanese language. Six months after the graduation of the first class, war was already raging with Japan.

Lt. Tom Sakamoto

Photograph of a family

Many of these graduates went straight to the Pacific and became the first Nisei soldiers in World War II combat. The top ten students—including Sakamoto—were retained to teach at the Army’s expanded Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) in Minnesota. Sakamoto received an order to go to the Pacific in the same year as Sakamoto. He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division’s invasion of Admiralty Islands. There, Sakamoto translated Japanese documents which revealed key details about the enemy attack. American lives were saved.

By the war’s end, MISLS had graduated 6,000 Japanese-language interpreters, translators, and interrogators. They were deployed throughout the Pacific. The tropical jungles in New Guinea. Iwo Jima’s bloody beaches. The steamy mountains of Burma with the storied Merrill’s Marauders. Caves in Okinawa. Tantamount to a secret weapon in the war against Japan, these young men ached for a chance to demonstrate their loyalty to America—even in the face of the racism and xenophobia that had become so inflamed after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and even as their families were rounded up and sent to internment camps. They effectively fought two wars at the same time: one against their homeland and another against home-based racial prejudice.

The story of this service, however, is still largely unknown. 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—portrayed in countless books and films—the fact that U.S. combat units fighting in the Pacific had Nisei teams that understood the Japanese, read their communications, and interrogated POWs, was among the best kept secrets of the war. After the war, there was a veil of secrecy over military intelligence matters. Many of their stories remained unclassified at archives decades later. Surprisingly, the Army never compiles a roster of Japanese Americans who served in Pacific. Many Nisei vets of the Pacific, satisfied with having done their duty and proven their loyalty to the U.S., did not speak of their wartime experiences for years—or ever—even to their families.

Japanese Americans were born in Japan and had ancestral links to that nation. Many Americans distrusted them for their loyalty. It is important to remember their unwavering message of bravery and patriotism in America, which too often judges people according to race, ethnicity, or countries of origin.

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