Nisei veterans recognized at opening of MIS Historic Learning Center

Arthur Ishimoto. photo by William Lee

Arthur Ishimoto. photo by William Lee

With the cutting of a red, white and blue ribbon, the National Japanese American Historical Society reached a major milestone 20 years in the making. The Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center officially opened its doors to the public Nov. 11 on Veteran’s Day. Building 640, located next to Crissy Field in San Francisco’s Presidio, was home to a secret school for the first class of Nisei linguists recruited in November of 1941, before the U.S. and Japan formally declared war on each other.

About 300 people attended the opening ceremonies including NJAHS board members and staff, more than 25 World War II veterans, Boy Scouts Troops 12 and 58, members of Japantown’s religious organizations and other community members.

Loyalty and Sacrifice
Bryan Yagi, NJAHS president, emceed the opening ceremony.

“It is here, at this center, their sacrifice — their story — will be told.” Yagi said the first class of 58 elite Nisei and two white soldiers assembled in Building 640 to begin training as Japanese linguists for the U.S. military. Once war broke out and Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the West Coast, the school moved to Minnesota, first to Camp Savage and then to Fort Snelling.

Some 6,000 Nisei were secretly trained to serve primarily in the Pacific Theater and forbidden to speak about their accomplishments for decades, unlike their well-known brothers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion.

Yagi said he was elated to see the center open, but sad that many of the veterans had already passed on, one of them, Col. Thomas Sakamoto, a MIS Historic Learning Center visionary.

Retired Maj. Gen. Arthur Ishimoto provided the keynote address at the opening ceremony. A former MIS member, Ishimoto later served in the U.S. Air Force and is the first Nisei to achieve the rank of major general.

Ishimoto said Building 640 was the starting point for a battle to prove their loyalty. “Most internees accepted their confinement, surrendered,” he said, but many Nisei thought otherwise and enlisted.

Ishimoto said the Nisei remained within the MIS despite being classified as “enemy aliens” because the U.S. military knew their skills were a military necessity. He said the MIS were the first among the Nisei to see combat, as early as August of 1942 in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

“The public wrongfully perceived us … as only interpreters. We were told in a demeaning way, ‘Oh you’re just an interpreter’ and someone asked me, ‘Have you ever carried a rifle?’” he said.

NISEI VETERANS DAY — Veterans gathered at the opening ceremony of the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center, located at Crissy Field in San Francisco, on Veterans Day.  photos by William Lee

NISEI VETERANS DAY — Veterans gathered at the opening ceremony of the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center, located at Crissy Field in San Francisco, on Veterans Day. photo by William Lee

The MIS were involved in the front lines, flushing out the enemy from caves, intercepting documents, capturing prisoners and interrogating them. During the ceremony, Ishimoto told stories of veterans who faced kamikaze attacks, fought hand-to-hand in the jungles of Burma and parachuted in behind enemy lines. He also told the story of fallen soldiers, such as Terry Mizutari, the first MIS member to be killed in action and Sgt. Frank Hachiya, who was mistakenly shot by American troops when returning from a scouting mission.

“The aforementioned is a small sample of what we did in combat as so-called interpreters. We heard the sounds of war — bullets, mortars and artillery shells. Yes, we even carried rifles and grenades and machine guns to boot,” he said.

Marvin Uratsu said that the building tells an “American success story,” which focuses on the often unacknowledged work of the Nisei linguists. Yagi called Uratsu, along with Sakamoto and Harry Fukuhara, some of Building 640’s primary proponents.

Other MIS veterans who attended include: Lewis Suzuki, an artist and activist who worked for the Japanese embassy prior to World War II and became a teacher to train linguists during the war and Mas Ishikawa, who recalled interrogating prisoners which led to identifying enemy positions.

Finding Context
The center’s opening provides an opportunity to remember the veterans’ actions, as well as context on the Presidio’s role in Nikkei history.

“The ribbon cutting represents a promise that their story will be remembered,” said Craig Middleton, the executive director of the Presidio Trust. He noted that the Presidio also tells the story of wartime incarceration, which Gen. John L. DeWitt sanctioned a few hundred feet from the learning center.

Howard Levitt, director of communications and partnerships for the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, said the stories to be told at the center are of the “highest level of importance within our nation’s history.” He said the center will provide a springboard for other sites pertaining to Japanese Americans and World War II.

Rosalyn Tonai, NJAHS executive director, said she was relieved to reach this point, but called the center a work in progress. “It’s a gem, a diamond in the rough,” she said. She said she hopes to use the center to teach both the good and bad sides of the Nikkei experience. She said the center’s existence is owed to the veterans for recognizing its importance.

“It’s because some of the MIS guys on the board (of NJAHS) were astute enough to pursue it. Not everyone in the MIS was for it,” she said. Tonai said she hoped the MIS building will not only attract visitors to the Presidio, but also serve as a portal to support San Francisco’s Japantown. “We want to connect visitors to what’s come since — to show that we’re still here in San Francisco,” she said.

Exhibiting New and Old
Tonai said the center will tell the veterans’ story to future generations by using the latest technology.

“We challenged our young interns to put it all together,” she said. “I’m very proud of what they’ve done. … We have staff who are 27 years and younger so that we can get ready to pass the torch.” The exhibits, completely redesigned by the younger interns and staff of NJAHS, incorporates the use of iPads to house interactive exhibits alongside the donated memorabilia of Japanese American veterans and wartime incarceration.

Among the exhibits, the Yamane family had donated Kazuo Yamane’s Legion of Merit he received in 1997 along with photos and other artifacts from his wartime service. The center’s meeting room was named in honor of Yamane. Joyce Yamane, his daughter, attended the ceremony.

While he passed away in 2010, Joyce Yamane said her father considered serving his country as his proudest contribution and that he would have been honored to have been a part of the center. Kazuo Yamane was one of three MIS members operating in Europe, where he worked to intercept Japanese documents from the Japanese embassy in Germany behind enemy lines and one of the first four Japanese Americans to ever enter the Pentagon after Pearl Harbor, according to his daughter and son-in-law, Stephen Waite.

Looking Forward
Terry Shima, executive director of Japanese American Veterans Association, spoke at the luncheon following the opening ceremony. Shima asserted that the Nisei veterans helped Japanese Americans integrate into U.S. society following the war and become leaders in the military, government and business world. He said that after the war, 43 Japanese Americans have become generals and admirals in the U.S. military.

“You (the veterans) are our heroes,” Shima said. “The Japanese American story speaks of the greatness of America.”

Glen Fukushima, senior fellow to the Center for American Progress, delivered the keynote address for the luncheon. Fukushima said he held several personal connections to the day’s events.

His father was a former member of the MIS working in Tokyo. Later, he was posted to the Presidio when Fukushima was young. Fukushima said he owed his career to strong bilateral relationships forged by Nisei such as his father. He called for future generations to do the same.

“Today’s opening provides an opportunity … to stimulate Americans, especially Americans of Japanese ancestry to engage more fully in U.S.-Japan relations and to draw on the rich history and experience to help inform and shape this vital relationship in the 21st century,” he said.

Still others, like Asa Hanamoto, an MIS veteran who had been involved with the building since the 1970s as a consultant landscape architect to the National Park Service, said he was happy to see the building open to the public. “Building 640 was one of the things I felt should be designated as a historical building,” he said. “It’s finally occurred, it’s a 20-year dream coming true, and dreams don’t come true every day you know.”

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