Speaking the Enemy’s Language: Japanese-American Interpreters in World War II

Speaking the Enemy’s Language: Japanese-American Interpreters in World War II

Japanese-American interpreters serving in the U.S. Army provided valuable service to the Allies in the Pacific.

As the war progressed, the language specialists became increasingly effective in the art of persuading Japanese soldiers both to surrender and to divulge vital military information. The Japanese Army had apparently never taught its soldiers how to conduct themselves as prisoners of war since their military ideology stressed either victory or death in battle.

Nisei as a Tactical Asset

Nisei translators accompanied the Army throughout the campaign in the South Pacific. They served at Guadalcanal, the Solomons, the Carolines, New Guinea, and the Philippines, as well as in smaller and more limited engagements. MISers also accompanied the fabled Merrill’s Marauders during their raids behind Japanese lines in Burma. They performed the same service for the British Chindit guerrillas as well. A specially trained group of Nisei language experts joined OSS (Office of Strategic Services) commandos who worked with the Kachins, native Burmese fighters from the country’s northern hills. These guerrillas aided the Allies in their mission to open the Burma Road to resupply China with critical war materiél.

On the Front Lines in Okinawa

Possibly the most outstanding performance by the Nisei in the Pacific Theater took place during the struggle for Okinawa. This central island of the Ryukyus, some 350 miles south of the Japanese Home Island of Kyushu, represented the key to the southern defenses of the Japanese empire. To the advancing Allied forces its capture would provide an ideal staging area for the invasion of Japan itself. The fight for the island would prove to be the greatest battle of the Pacific War.

The Japanese 32nd Army defended Okinawa. Its commander, Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, led a force of some 75,000 Japanese soldiers plus an additional 25,000 or so Okinawans organized into a Boetai or Home Guard. These defenders were situated in an extensive system of fortified caves and underground tunnels, awaiting the arrival of the invading American Tenth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner. The total American force—ships, men, and equipment— numbered over 500,000 men, of which 180,000 assault troops (five Army and three Marine divisions) would actually go ashore.

The MISers’ contribution to the invading army’s ultimate success in capturing Okinawa was substantial. A copy of the Japanese Army’s final defense plan was captured early in the fighting. Also discovered was a contour map of the island, which was found on the body of an enemy artillery observation officer. The translation and reproduction of these critical documents by the language specialists proved to be of immense value to the American forces.

Okinawa presented a unique challenge to the language specialists. The island’s native inhabitants spoke a local dialect unfamiliar to the ears of most of the MISers unless their parents were originally from the island. The 450,000 Okinawans had also been warned by Japanese Army personnel that they would be raped, tortured, and killed by the invaders. In many cases, the civilians followed the Japanese as they began their retreat in the face of the powerful offensive launched against them by the Americans. Many chose to hide in caves and the tunnels. The job of the MISers consisted of trying to talk both the Japanese soldiers and the Okinawan civilians into surrendering.

Most Japanese soldiers chose to commit suicide rather than surrender, and they had urged the island’s civilians to do likewise. During fighting on the island of Saipan in the Marianas, many of the island’s civilians had committed suicide by hurling themselves off 800-foot cliffs into the sea. More than 50,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians died as the U.S. Army seized control of Saipan.

For the Okinawa campaign, the Army followed the suggestion of a MISer whose parents were Okinawan and set up a special unit proficient in that dialect. As the invasion progressed, the group worked to get the island’s civilians away from the fighting. They also quickly identified any Japanese Army personnel who sought to escape capture by trying to blend in with the Okinawan civilians.

Some of the Okinawan language specialists became “cave flushers.” One heroic member of this group entered a cave and convinced its inhabitants, 350 Japanese officers and men, to surrender. Another MISer entered a total of 12 different caves and persuaded the holdouts in 11 of them to surrender.

Without question, the work of these Nisei translators saved thousands of lives, among both the Okinawan civilian population and the Japanese military. By the time the Americans secured the island, some 10,000 soldiers had given up in the only meaningful mass capitulation by the Japanese military of the entire Pacific War. About 300,000 civilians, approximately two-thirds of the island’s population, also survived the holocaust. While it was true that many Japanese soldiers and some Okinawan civilians still chose to commit suicide rather than surrender to the American forces, there is no doubt that the toll would have been much higher were it not for MISer efforts.

A Postwar Role

The work of the Nisei translators was not concluded at war’s end. They traveled throughout the Pacific, participating in the surrender of Japanese troops on small islands and in major cities. They moved quickly to POW camps as well to ensure the safety of Allied troops in Japanese hands. They also acted as interpreters during the war crimes trials of Japanese soldiers that followed in the Philippines and Japan. Their postwar contributions proved equally as important as their wartime efforts.

The Army sought to hold on to as many AJAs with Japanese language skills as possible following the war because the United States needed their skills during the occupation of Japan. Many Nisei chose to make a career in the Army, receiving advancement in the officer structure as time passed, before eventually retiring.

Legacy of the MISers

The MIS linguists earned three Distinguished Service Crosses, five Legion of Merit medals, and five Silver Stars. They also received numerous Bronze Stars, Soldier’s Medals, and Purple Hearts. In total, 39 MIS personnel gave their lives in the service of their country.

During the war and for many years thereafter, the American public knew little about the service provided by the MIS linguists to the Allied forces. During the war, many MISers had relatives still in Japan, some even in the Japanese Army. The U.S. Army sought to protect the identity of the translators, so as not to bring harm to these family members. There has also been a natural reticence on the part of the Nisei themselves to discuss their accomplishments while in the service. However, General George Willoughby, MacArthur’s chief of intelligence, estimated that the work of the MISers shortened the war in the Pacific by two years.

The MISLS was moved to Monterey, California, after the war, and the language center has grown significantly since it began in 1941. It has remained the major U.S. facility for the instruction of foreign languages for military purposes. More than 100,000 students have passed through the school to date. It currently offers instruction in 50 different languages and has a library of 20,000 volumes on site. In January 2000, the Allied Translator and Interpreter Service finally received a Presidential Unit Citation from the secretary of the Army.

Dr. Carl H. Marcoux is a World War II veteran of the U.S. Merchant Marine and a Korean War veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He resides in Newport Beach, California.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Flickr