"They Are Our Human Secret Weapons": The Military Intelligence Service and the Role of Japanese-Americans in the Pacific War and in the Occupation of Japan (1)

By Nakamura, Kelli Y. | The Historian, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

"They Are Our Human Secret Weapons": The Military Intelligence Service and the Role of Japanese-Americans in the Pacific War and in the Occupation of Japan (1)


Nakamura, Kelli Y., The Historian


UNDER A SHROUD OF SECRECY and with the backing of the U.S. War Department, the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) trained and graduated nearly 6,000 linguists--of whom the majority were Japanese-Americans. They ultimately played a decisive role in the victory of American forces over Japan in the Pacific. According to Major General Charles Willoughby, G2 Intelligence chief for General Douglas MacArthur, these Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans, "shortened the Pacific war by two years." (2) They were among the first soldiers to arrive in Japan after its surrender, and they became some of the first American observers to witness the destructive effects of the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nisei later served in important positions in the Occupation of Japan, working in the Allied Translator and Interpreter Service (ATIS), the Repatriation Program, the Civil Censorship Detachment (CCD), and the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). In addition, more than seventy MIS linguists provided translation and interpretation services for the war crimes trials held in Japan, China, the Philippines, French Indochina, and the East Indies. As Japanese-Americans, these linguists turned out to be instrumental in bridging the cultural and linguistic differences that separated Japan and the United States. They extended critical services during and after World War II, contributed to the rebuilding of Japan, and helped to establish the foundations for postwar relations between Japan and the United States. They did this, all the while profiting and suffering from a dual identity that kept them marginalized in both countries.

Regrettably, the role of the men of the MIS during World War II, particularly during the Occupation of Japan, is largely unknown and often overshadowed by the exploits of the more widely recognized and celebrated 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. According to one author, there are three major reasons for the exclusion of the MIS from the dominant historical literature surrounding the contributions of Japanese-Americans during World War II. First, their duties were kept secret under the veil of "classified military affairs" and subsequent discussion of their activities was forbidden. This restriction was only lifted in 1971, twenty-six years after the end of World War II. Thus, while war correspondents on the front lines reported the feats of the 442nd in great detail, the presence of MIS soldiers remained shadowy because of the classified nature of their activities. (3) Second, the actions of MIS personnel did not involve overt military engagements. Their primary duty was information procurement, and it did not directly result in a documented or visible military outcome that outsiders could easily comprehend. Finally, having been sworn to secrecy, many MIS veterans have been reluctant to come forth and explain their activities during World War II; only recently have they begun to discuss their experiences. (4) Thus, the men of the MIS have remained the "human secret weapons" employed by the United States against Japan in the dominant historical literature.

However, another reason needs to be explored that centers on the problematic issue of their dual identity as Americans of Japanese ancestry fighting for a government that had interned many of their family members at home while they were sent to fight the Japanese abroad. The men of the MIS and their commanding American military officers were well aware that they would likely be fighting against their own relatives and the country of their parents, raising both personal and official concerns about their loyalty to the United States. Like that of the atomic bomb, another "secret" weapon employed during World War II, their potential effect on the course of the war was unknown and unsettling. When army officials first raised the possibility of utilizing Nisei linguists in the Pacific front of the war, this suggestion was vehemently protested by most military officers. …

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