MIS Historic Learning Center reiterates its importance after 10 years

A man is speaking at a podium

Historian James C. McNaughton. photo by Mark Shigenaga

Historian James C. McNaughton says place is important when learning about history.

“I wish, when kids learn history or civics in high school, they can visit the places where stuff happened. This isn’t just fiction. These things really happened in specific places and it’s important that we’re here on the Presidio,” the retired command historian of the Defense Language Institute said during a Nov. 12 lecture sponsored by the National Japanese American Historical Society at the Presidio of San Francisco’s Officer Club.

A couple of notable World War II historical moments took place at the Presidio.

Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, signed the orders to formally set in motion the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast in his office on the military base. The first class of the Military Intelligence Service also studied Japanese at the Presidio starting on Nov. 1, 1941 — ahead of the outbreak of war.

McNaughton detailed the MIS’ founding, from its recruitment of capable Nisei to serve as both instructors and military linguists once the war began, and the state of the U.S. military to contextualize their contributions. He said the contributions of the MIS Nisei in the Pacific Theater helped pave the way for the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and, with their combined valor, the Nisei veterans helped prove that Japanese Americans were just as loyal to the United States.

“If it had gone one way, the Japanese population of the West Coast would have been forever excluded from American society. Their sons and daughters would have never been allowed to serve in uniform, and all those — frankly — racists who said you can never trust the Japanese, they would have been proven right in their minds,” he said.

Instead, McNaughton said the MIS helped the U.S. build a post-war relationship with Japan and also empowered many Japanese Americans to become leaders in their own right, including Judge John Aiso who taught at the MIS school or George Ariyoshi, the former governor of Hawai‘i. Moreover, McNaughton said the MIS helped turn the tides of the war from a low-point when the U.S. had lost most of its personnel who could speak Japanese in the early days of the war.

Above all, however, McNaughton stressed that “history doesn’t just happen by itself.”

“History has to be worked at, it has to be passed on to the next generation, and the generation after that. The MIS veterans are mostly no longer with us. They have passed the torch to the next generation and we must pass it on to the next generation to keep this story alive, because it is relevant to America today,” McNaughton said. The historian himself owed his introduction to the history from the late Shigeya Kihara, an MIS veteran who walked into his office in Monterey in 1987 to tell him about the contribution of Nisei.

“I think this is a great American story, … the MIS Historic Learning Center is a great place to do that. The MIS has shown us that, then as now, American national security rests, at least in part on brave and skillful young Americans, who can understand, read and speak the many languages our allies and our potential adversaries to keep us safe in a time of peace and also to make sure that we prevail in the unlikely event that war breaks out. The MIS Nisei showed the way, and we owe them a great debt …,” he said in closing.

The lecture celebrated Veterans Day as well as the organization’s 10th anniversary of its Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center, located down the hill from the Officer’s Club on Crissy Field under the theme “Changing Life’s Angles.” Following the lecture, the organization held a luncheon to celebrate the center and thank longtime supporters, including the veterans who helped preserve the wartime Japanese American history on the former military base.

While the MIS building is a testament to the price Nisei soldiers paid to win their freedom in the United States, the language school also enabled Nisei service members to help shepherd the strong alliance between the United States and Japan after the war and was also the basis of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in the Presidio of Monterey. Today, the DLI teaches 89 languages at 29 sites worldwide, with a faculty of 1,800 and 250 joint service staff training some 34,000 Department of Defense staff every year.

“We at DLI owe our humble beginnings as an institute to those who have graduated, who studied in the hangar on Crissy Field just down the road from here,” Jorge Avila, dean of the Defense Language Institute, said at the luncheon. “Although we are very proud of our accomplishments, and many others, we at DLI will never forget our roots. We will always honor the legacy of the Military Intelligence Service in association with the Language School. … The Nisei soldiers … have paved the way by dedicating themselves to the defense of our country. Through dedication, selfless sacrifice, (the Nisei) have and continued to make a stronger, more resilient nation.”

Following the luncheon, attendees were invited to visit the MIS Historic Learning Center at Building 640 where Shane Sato’s “The Go For Broke Spirit” exhibit opened. Diane Uratsu Leong expressed her feelings on the building’s 10th anniversary. Her father, the late MIS Veteran Marvin Uratsu, was an early proponent of the building and nonprofit.

“At the beginning, we just knew it was something he was working very hard on, spending a lot of time on, but as the plans and the building came into reality, it became much more clear what the value of it was,” Leong said. “We visited here with our sons, with our other family members, and we’re looking forward to sharing this with (my) grandson,” she said. “It’s just amazing how people have come together and put in the time and effort to keep it going. So I think that’s very important, not just have the building set up once and then it’s done right. It takes a lot of work to sustain it.”

Derrick Tomine, president of the NJAHS board of directors, credited Rosalyn Tonai, the organization’s executive director, for leading the organization and implementing the programs to keep the center going.

“Ros has done an amazing job directing the organization, doing outreach, doing the educational programs, holding the teacher workshops, traveling to the different confinement sites, doing outreach to teachers, getting teachers involved, having new curriculum prepared so that teachers can teach this history in our classrooms today,” Tomine said.

Tonai, in turn, acknowledged a number of her organization’s partners, including the Bay Area Writing Project as well as past-board presidents Bryan Yagi and Joe Takano for helping shepherd the organization through the MIS Historic Learning Center’s opening and operation over the years.

According to Tomine, the MIS Historic Learning Center was, by no means, a guaranteed success. The organization has gone through much to open and maintain the property. The museum and educational center looks like the original airplane hangar where the original MIS school was located, however, the structure itself was rebuilt from the ground up after the original roof caved in during construction.

Even after its opening, Tomine said the ongoing issue of aging membership has persisted, as Nisei veterans, the organization’s core demographic, has continued to shrink over the years.

“As you know, in Japantown, getting that continuity with the younger generation to not just take an interest in, but to come in and learn that history and … pass it down, adding their own interpretation of it (is a challenge),” Tomine said. “So it’s been a long time coming. I think there are many days and nights where we all thought, ‘Are we gonna make it to 10 years’ or ‘Are we (gonna) make it to five years?’ but it’s still standing and it’s still going strong.”

Meanwhile, MIS veteran Thomas Sasaki attended the festivities at the MIS center with his granddaughter. A crowd gathered as he watched a video slideshow of Nisei veterans and his photo came up. It was an opportunity to “get some notoriety,” he said with a chuckle.

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