MIS veterans recall wartime hysteria and their military exploits

Several veterans who served in the Military Intelligence Service spoke about their wartime experiences on the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor at the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center at the Presidio of San Francisco. The veterans, aged 88 to 92, spoke at the learning center Dec. 7 about their life from when they found out that Japan had attacked the U.S. on Dec. 7 1941, through their time in the U.S. Army.

Five veterans spoke at the event in a panel moderated by Rosalyn Tonai, National Japanese American Historical Society executive director.

Finding Out About the War
All five veterans resided in California at the time Pearl Harbor was bombed, and recalled the shock they and their families felt when Japan first attacked.

“I was 14 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed,” said Ron Yoshida. “I knew where Pearl Harbor was. I didn’t think the Japanese would go all the way there to bomb us.”

Asa Hanamoto grew up working on a fruit farm and was plowing the fields when he found out. Hanamoto said he and his cousin sat down and wondered, “What’s gonna happen to us now?” The young farmer said he knew their loyalty would be questioned.

“We knew,” he said. “How are they gonna tell whether we were U.S. or Japan oriented?”

Frank Masuoka, who was raised in Sebastopol, was driving with his brother to see some friends when the radio told him the news. “We had the radio on. Then, boom, we hear Pearl Harbor was attacked!” he said. Masuoka said they turned the car around to go tell their parents the news. “My parents were dumbfounded.”

Wartime Hysteria
The war against Japan stoked racist reactions almost immediately. In San Francisco, Yoshida recalled seeing Chinese American school children wearing buttons that read “I am Chinese” on the bus while coming home from school.

Koji Ozawa, also from San Francisco, recalled his younger brother visiting a friend in the neighborhood. The boys made a fire to burn trash in the backyard and a neighbor saw the Japanese boy and threatened to call the FBI. “He thought the fire was sending smoke signals to the Japanese and that really burned me up,” he said. Yoshida and Ozawa were sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif. and then to Topaz, (Central Utah) in the following months. Ozawa said his father had left the family to pick sugar beets, leaving him in charge of the family. “I had to make the furniture for the whole family,” he said.

Hanamoto said he was lucky in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. When the young Hanamoto went to school the next day, his school’s principal understood the difference between the Japanese and the Japanese Americans in his community. “He called the whole high school … and explained that we Japanese Americans were U.S. citizens and not the enemy,” he said. Afterward, however, Hanamoto was among the few families to be sent directly to the Tule Lake concentration camp in California by train. “When I got off that train — when I entered that barbed wire enclosure into that concentration camp — my first thought was, ‘How the hell am I gonna get out of here?’”

When the war began, two of Masuoka’s brothers were already serving in the army. The day following Pearl Harbor, he was approached by several of his white friends who were going to Santa Rosa, Calif. to enlist. He went along, but was turned down by the recruiter.
After Mas Ishikawa found out Pearl Harbor was bombed he was fired from his job as a clerk for the state the next day. He also recalled his family selling most of their possessions for pennies as they were forcibly removed from their home. “We had to get rid of the car. Someone drove off with it for 50 bucks, but we sold it.”

Joining the MIS
The five veterans had joined the MIS at different times under different circumstances. Tonai said that to her knowledge, none of the first class of MIS Nisei, who trained at the Presidio before the war started, survive today.

Ishikawa was part of a class of linguists trained out of Camp Savage in Minnesota. He had been recruited out of camp where he had been working with the coding department for military intelligence. Ishikawa joined the U.S. infantry at Guadalcanal and recalled his brush with death while traveling there. “It was a long journey to the south Pacific as we zig-zagged across the ocean. … We saw a torpedo go by, narrowly missing us, while I was looking at the ocean,” he said.

“We waited for a second one, but it never came.”

Ishikawa recalled how he interrogated two Japanese soldiers, one of them a graduate of a university. The other soldier was not giving up any information and Ishikawa asked his prisoner if he knew the other soldier. “He said he got in as a PFC one week before the other guy did. … So he said, ‘I’ll tell him to give up any information’ … and ordered him to divulge everything he knew as his superior,” he said. The information the two men gave revealed troop movements the U.S. then used to fire mortars and devastate the Japanese forces.

Masuoka was also trained in Camp Savage and recalled seeing his brother who had joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during basic training. “I ran into my brother and that was the last time I would see him,” he said.

Masuoka took part in the April 1, 1945 land invasion of Okinawa where he spent six months trying to coax Japanese civilians and soldiers to come out of caves. “We had a soldier that carried around a PA system for us, because whenever we came across a cave we’d set it up to see if we could get someone to come out,” he said.

Following Japan’s surrender, Masuoka said the Army ordered him to convince the remaining Japanese that the war was over. Masuoka convinced a Japanese soldier to take him into a massive cave where a commanding officer was. He convinced the officer to come with him to show proof of Japan’s surrender. “When the officer came to our camp, it just so happened the radio was broadcasting the emperor’s declaration that Japan had lost. At that moment he looked to me and said, ‘I am now convinced.’”

His actions led to capturing more than 500 soldiers alive, a feat so impressive his commanding officer drove out from headquarters to see for himself.

During the occupation, Hanamoto and Yoshida served in Japan. Hanamoto served as a supervisor for other translators and was the personal translator for the commanding officer at Ota in Gunma Prefecture in Japan’s Kanto Region. Yoshida, who was part of the first graduating class out of Monterey’s MIS School, was assigned to Kyoto’s military government, which was close to his parents’ hometown in Wakayama Prefecture.

Ozawa, however, never intended to work for the MIS. “In basic training, I was told they needed translators at Fort Snelling,” he said. Ozawa had hoped to feign ignorance and tell his recruiter he could not speak Japanese, but the interviewer turned out to be his neighbor from two doors down.

“When I was little, I was sent to Japanese school in Japantown every day after my regular school,” he said. “I didn’t get a chance to speak, the recruiter … looked at me and said, ‘off you go.’”

Ozawa was sent to the Philippines to investigate war crimes in Manila. “When I got there … I found a stack of documents to translate into “simple English.” Some of them were very taxing. I found a document that told a soldier’s entire life in one sentence. It was tough work translating that into ‘simple English.’”

While their experiences varied, the MIS veterans cited their story had to be passed on. Hanamoto said, while his stories are personal, they must be conveyed for future generations. Ishikawa said what’s important to take away from his life experiences are that the Nisei are Americans and that they fought for what they believed in. “When you come down to it, I never went to Japan, I only know from what our parents told us. … We studied the constitution in school and this was my decision, that this was my country.”

To learn more about the center, visit http://njahs.org/640.

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