Distant Shores

Above: AITAPE, NEW GUINEA, April 22, 1944: Japanese prisoners, left, answer questions from Military Intelligence Service language specialists Harry Fukuhara, right, who volunteered from the Gila River Internment Camp in Arizona, and Shoji Ishii, of San Francisco. U.S. Army Signal Corps photo.

The first Americans of Japanese ancestry to see combat in World War II were military intelligence specialists in the Pacific.

Map of the Pacific basin indicating where MIS served.

The MIS nisei did not serve together as a unit like their brothers in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team did in Europe. MIS soldiers served in ones and twos, in 10-man teams, or detachments with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Allied units, all over the Pacific and China-Burma-India theaters of war. Their assignments were often temporary and undocumented. They served:

MIS in Aleutian Islands
MIS were deployed to halt Japan’s advance in the Aluetian Islands. U.S. Army photo.

In the vanguard that halted Japan’s advance in the Aleutians and the Solomon Islands.

At intelligence facilities from Hawaiʻi to the newly created Pentagon, spending countless hours listening to Japanese radio communications, poring over documents for vital information, or questioning POWs.

MIS soldiers with Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill of Merrill’s Marauders.
MIS soldiers with Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill of Merrill’s Marauders. U.S. Army photo.

Fighting with Merrill’s Marauders in the jungles of Burma, where they focused their language skills to overhear and intercept enemy communications.

MIS in Burma
U.S. Army photo.

With the Mars Task Force and Office of Strategic Services Detachment 101 in Burma, with the Allied Southeast Asia Translation and Interrogation Center in New Delhi, and in China with Nationalist and Communist forces, the OSS, and the Sino Translation and Interrogation Center.

MIS soldier assigned to Australian forces interrogates Japanese prisoner.
Australian War Museum photo.

In New Guinea, with Australian and American forces that engaged in bloody battles against a determined enemy.

MIS soldier interrogates wounded  Japanese prisoner.
U.S. Army photo.

With General Douglas MacArthur in Australia, the Southwest Pacific and the Philippines. They gathered vital intelligence, translated captured documents, and made other inroads into the Allies’ knowledge of Japanese military strategy.

MIS soldiers interrogate wounded  Japanese prisoner.
U.S. Army photo.

With the Marine Corps and Navy’s island-hopping campaign through the Central Pacific.

MIS soldier reading captured Japanese military documents.
Photo courtesy Eric Saul.

Many an Allied unit thwarted an enemy attack with vital tactical intelligence gained by MIS linguists from prisoners and captured documents.

US soldiers offer cigarettes to captured Japanese soldiers.
U.S. Army photo.
MIS soldiers interrogate Japanese prisoner.
U.S. Army photo.

The enemy inadvertently helped: Japanese troops were not trained to resist interrogation; they were expected to win or die. Nor were they barred from keeping diaries and letters that, when captured, provided priceless information.

Admiral William Halsey’s exhortation to kill "yellow bastards"
SOLOMON ISLANDS, July 1943: Admiral William Halsey’s exhortation on this sign at Tulagi Harbor reflects the savagery of the war in the Pacific, and is one reason there were few Japanese prisoners to interrogate in the war’s early stages. U.S. Army photo.

These intelligence efforts were often hampered by the tendency for frontline troops to take no Japanese prisoners, especially in the war’s early years. MIS language specialists sometimes resorted to offering rewards such as three bottles of Coca Cola or some ice cream to infantrymen who brought in live prisoners for questioning.

wrist compass used by some troops
Wrist compasses like this were sometimes issued to U.S. airborne and special operations troops foraying far from friendly forces or behind enemy lines. The Global Positioning System (GPS) using space satellites would not be invented for another 30 years. Twenty-five MIS nisei went from Camp Savage to jump school – parachute training – at Fort Benning, Georgia, in early 1944. Eleven of them – including Norman Kikuta of Lahaina, Maui; Tetsuo Koga of Pahala, Hawaiʻi Island, and George Ito from Kalihi in Honolulu – served with the 11th Airborne Division in the Philippines, including the division’s combat jump at Tagaytay Ridge near Manila in January 1945. Artifact: National World War II Museum photo.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, the MIS Language School had outgrown Camp Savage and moved to Fort Snelling.

Allies in the War Against Japan:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom (Fiji, the Straits Settlements, Tonga and other colonial forces)
  • Republic of China
  • Australia (including Territory of New Guinea)
  • Commonwealth of the Philippines (United States protectorate)
  • British India
  • Netherlands (including Dutch East Indies colonial forces)
  • Soviet Union
  • New Zealand
  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • Mongolia
  • Free French Forces
  • Guerrilla organizations: Chinese  Red Army, Hukbalahap, Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, Manchurian Anti-Japanese Volunteer Armies, Korean Liberation Army and the Viet Minh

Next: Stemming the Tide