Nisei proudly served U.S. during World War II Patriots: Despite racism at home, many members of the second generation of Japanese Americans served valiantly during World War II.

THE YOUNG Japanese was terrified. Captured by the enemy and surrounded by strange, white faces, he had no idea what to expect - only that it would probably be bad. Above all, he feared interrogation, not knowing what the Americans would do to extract information from him.

But when he was taken into the interrogation room, he found himself facing what looked like another Japanese. Why, the man even spoke Japanese! For a moment, he didn't care that this was a U.S. soldier. He was just glad there was someone who would understand him.


That was part of what made Japanese Americans like Warren Tsuneishi an important part of the U.S. campaign in the Pacific during World War II.

As Tsuneishi says now, "Seeing a Japanese face talking in Japanese made [the prisoners] feel less terrified." That, in turn, helped the United States get better information from the Japanese.


Tsuneishi was one of many Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) working for the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), and they played a major part in the war against Japan. They interrogated Japanese prisoners, translated captured Japanese documents, even saw combat alongside regular troops.

The Nisei troops in the Pacific often gave heroic efforts, but they were never treated as heroes. Fighting both the Japanese military and racial prejudice, their work was kept secret - from U.S. citizens as well as the Japanese.

But it should have been rewarded, for in some cases, these Nisei troops single-handedly turned the tide of battle.

Roy H. Matsumoto went behind enemy lines in Burma and learned of an impending surprise attack. Because he was alerted his unit, U.S. troops fended off the attack. Matsumoto played a key role, shouting orders in Japanese and causing confusion among the attackers. His unit was spared any casualties, and many Nisei believe that had Matsumoto been Caucasian, he would have won the Medal of Honor.

Yoshikazu Yamada translated the Japanese "Z Plan" from captured documents, intelligence that led to a U.S. victory in the Philippine Sea, where about 475 Japanese planes were shot down June 19, 1944.

Harold Tarno Fudenna translated a message containing the time a plane carrying Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto - mastermind and commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor - was to arrive in the Solomon Islands. With that piece of information, U.S. fighters shot down Yamamoto's plane in 1943, killing him and crushing Japanese morale.

But the contributions of the Nisei troops raises an important question: What does it take to make an immigrant an American?

Before 1952, Japanese immigrants were not eligible for U.S. citizenship. Children born in this country - the Nisei - were American citizens, but few were treated as such. It was as if being born in this country was not good enough.


That got worse after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The resentment felt toward Japanese Americans had grown stronger. On Feb. 13, 1942, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, commanding general of the western defense command, recommended to the War Department and President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the United States remove people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast on the grounds of "military necessity."

In DeWitt's view, the Japanese were "an enemy race," and in signing the orders, Roosevelt seemed to agree. The Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), under the direction of Milton S. Eisenhower, joined the Army in rounding up all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast for placement into 10 internment camps.

More than 120,000 Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps. Their homes and businesses confiscated, they were confined to rotting barracks behind barbed wire fences. Instead of neighbors, they faced rifles held by armed guards. Many were angered and wondered what they had done to deserve such treatment. But there was no answer.

What could they do when their country doubted their loyalty anyway? "Shikata ga nai" (It can't be helped) was a common sentiment in the camps.

But not everyone was so resigned. Some Nisei thought that if they distinguished themselves in combat, it would ensure the safety of their parents and family - maybe even earn their release.

Others were patriots, who supported the United States despite being interned. Col. Phil Sunao Ishio, 79, of Silver Spring remembers his parents telling him to be proud of his home in the United States. "This is your country," they said. They stressed the importance of loyalty and responsibility.


About 33,000 Nisei fought for the U.S. Army in World War II. Perhaps the best-known Nisei unit was the 100th Battal-ion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. Immortalized in the film "Go for Broke," this unit fought in the Italian campaign, earning more honors and enduring a higher casualty rate than any combat unit its size.

That the Nisei gave their lives in combat wasn't surprising, given that some Japanese parents told their American children it would be better to die in combat than bring the shame of cowardice home. These troops felt they had a lot to prove.

Retired Col. Tom Sakamoto, 79, of Saratoga, Calif., could have fought with the Japanese. Born in the United States of Japanese parents, he was in high school in Japan when Japan invaded China. Sakamoto was told that he should go to Manchuria and fight for Japan, but he refused. "I am an American," he said, to which they responded, "Bakayaro [you fool]."

Sakamoto went back to America and wound up teaching Japanese at the MIS language school. But he volunteered to go to the front.

"My decision was to prove myself and to show the American public that we are truly American," he says. "Japanese-Americans fought ever so willingly. I want the American public to know we are proud to serve our country."

The Nisei in the MIS all felt that way, and even though they weren't as visible or as decorated as the troops in the 442nd, they actually might have had a greater impact on the war effort. Intelligence translated and interpreted by MIS Nisei provided the U.S. military with a tactical advantage in the Pacific, making many victories possible.


Nisei soldiers in the MIS were also at risk, particularly when facing Allied troops who didn't expect to see Japanese Americans in uniform. Some Nisei troops were captured by Allied troops who mistook them for spies, and a few were killed. As a result, many MIS Nisei had Caucasian guards when traveling outside the command posts.

"I didn't have [a guard], because I thought I could take care of myself," says Min Hara, 74, of New York. Hara did translations and interrogated prisoners ("The hardest thing was to interrogate a dying Japanese soldier," he says) and saw combat during his time in the South Pacific. But no matter how much good work he did, Hara - like other MIS Nisei - was ineligible for promotion to the officer ranks.

That was particularly hard for Hara. He joined the Army straight out of an internment camp, his entire possessions consisting of two suitcases. Leaving the Army as an enlisted man left him with nothing - not even enough money to travel to Japan to visit his father.

Hara's father was a Japanese immigrant who spent most of his life in the United States, and whose English was better than his Japanese. But even though he seemed Americanized, the laws that kept Japanese immigrants from becoming citizens or owning real estate made it impossible for the elder Hara to get ahead. So he took the family back to Japan in 1938, telling young Min, "Your country stinks."

Nonetheless, when Min got a letter from the U.S. government urging him to return, he did - because he's an American. Eventually, he wound up in an internment camp. "Our only crime was looking like Japanese," he says. "Seventy-five percent of us couldn't even speak the language."

That didn't make Hara bitter like his father. "Despite what the American government did to us, I'm an American. That's why I fought," he says. And he fought hard. Hara remembers being on the front lines once, getting ready to charge the enemy. Turning to the soldier next to him, he said, "Let's fight like cowboys," and rushed into the fray.


The MIS language school was established at the Presidio in San Francisco on Nov. 1, 1941 - a month before the outbreak of war - to train soldiers to translate Japanese military documents and to interrogate POWs.

Mac Nobuo Nagata, 78, of Fresno, Calif., became the first graduate of the MIS class in May 1942. A draftee who had been inducted before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he had only three days after his graduation to say goodbye to his family before his six-man team set sail for New Caledonia in the Solomon Islands.

But while he was traveling, his family was placed in an internment camp in Arizona. When he found out, Nagata was outraged. "I thought, How could [the U.S. government] do that?" he says now. "We are Americans. They sent our families to the internment camps while we were serving our country."

When Navy Capt. Gene Markey saw that Nagata worked hard despite what had happened to his family, he promised Nagata that he would ask the Pentagon to release the family. Three months passed before Nagata was told that the Pentagon had refused the request. The official reason was that letting Nagata's family move back into the community might jeopardize their lives, because of anti-Japanese sentiment.

"It was hard, but I appreciated Captain Markey's effort," Nagata says. "Shikata ga nai."

Still, he admits that it wasn't easy to fight against Japan.


Nagata had spent time there as a child. When he was 9, Nagata's mother became ill with cancer and went back to Japan to die. Nagata went with her, and stayed for a while with his Japanese grandparents after her death.

But his ties to the United States were even stronger. Nagata worried about his father and the siblings back in the internment camp, fearing that the "crazy Japanese" would bomb the United States and that his family would be killed. He worked hard to keep that from happening.

One day, a teen-age Japanese soldier was brought in for interrogation. Nagata asked the boy how he had been captured, and the boy said that instead of being on guard, he had been staring at the sea, longing for his family and home in Japan.

Nagata sighed. He could see Japan weakening, Japanese soldiers dying, and he wondered why Japan continued to fight a losing battle. People only suffered. Nagata wished Japan would end the war.

"This is stupid, I thought. Both America and Japan are civilized countries, they should have talked," he says. Communication was the answer, he felt, not weaponry.

On Dec. 18, 1944, the Supreme Court finally declared the detention of loyal citizens illegal. Eight months later, Nagata was discharged and rejoined his beloved family in California. He celebrated V-J Day with them, feeling happy that peace had come at last.


Nagata might have been drafted, but a number of Nisei were eager to fight for their country and volunteered. Not every parent shared that enthusiasm, though.

"My parents were not happy, especially my mother," says Tsuneishi of Bethesda. Retired from the Library of Congress, Tsuneishi, 76, couldn't have been more American. Born on the Fourth of July, he was named after Warren G. Harding, president at the time.

Tsuneishi's mother, who was educated in Japan as a teacher, never learned to speak English. "She remained Japanese, whereas my father became Americanized," he says. Because of that, she had mixed emotions about the war. He recently discovered a haiku she wrote and realized how deeply she suffered.

"I really feel for her now." Tsuneishi took a breath.

"But I regarded myself as an American," he says. When he and his family were placed in an internment camp, Tsuneishi worked on a nearby farm, where he endured the suspicions of the farmer. "I told him not to fear, because I am an American," Tsuneishi says.

He was so American that he hated every minute of Japanese school as a boy. "I regret that now," Tsuneishi says. "If I had studied harder, my Japanese would've been better and would have served [the war effort] more effectively."


Nisei in the MIS were even more valuable once the war ended.

Sakamoto was one of three MIS men who witnessed the surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri. While a translator for the press, he became the first Japanese American to see the devastation at Hiroshima. He remembers that the newsmen were excited, boasting about being the first to tell the story of the century. But they had a different reaction after seeing the ruined city.

It was gruesome. "Like hell," Sakamoto says. Even now, remembering what he saw "chokes me up."

"I am not here to say who is right or wrong," he says, looking back. "But as a human being, to witness the way one bomb can destroy human life - this way is beyond logic."

Sakamoto was shaken by what he saw, by seeing what the war had wrought. He thinks that nuclear war should be banned.

But he believes that what he and other Nisei in the MIS did made things better for Japanese Americans today. "We Japanese-Americans fought for our country, and now we are in different society," he says. If they hadn't fought, he adds, their place in U.S. society would be different.


Japanese Americans have come a long way since they were put into internment camps in 1942, but the picture isn't perfect. "Still there is discrimination," he says. "But it's less."

Chiaki Kawajiri is a photographer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/17/97