Sunday, May 12, 2002

This is a scene from "Uncommon Courage: Patriotism and Civil Liberties," produced by the daughter of a World War II military intelligence officer.

PBS sheds light
on WWII interpreters

A documentary traces the top-secret
history of Japanese Americans
in military intelligence

When to watch

By Gregg K. Kakesako

From the battle-scarred atolls of the Pacific to the Imperial Palace in Japan and the top-secret chambers of the War Department's intelligence operations, Japanese Americans waged a little-known war against the enemy in World War II.

More than 6,000 of them, roughly half from Hawaii, gathered vital information from captured Japanese documents, intercepted radio messages and served as interpreters for the nation's highest commanders. Much of their work remained classified until 1971, and since none of them served in a military unit like the 100th Battalion or the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, their front-line exploits went unreported.

This week, a 60-minute documentary, "Uncommon Courage: Patriotism and Civil Liberties," will tell the story of the Military Intelligence Service for the first time to a national television audience. The program will air here at 8 p.m. Thursday on Hawaii Public Television. It is being distributed nationally for airing by more than 50 public-television stations in May during "Asian American Month."

The film traces the history of the MIS from the spring of 1941, when the Army formed the first Japanese-language school in anticipation of a war with Japan. It details the problems Japanese Americans faced after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when 100,000 of them were ordered from their homes on the West Coast and Hawaii and sent to 10 internment camps throughout the United States.

Throughout the Pacific campaign, MIS soldiers were assigned to every military service and served in every combat theater. They translated enemy documents, interrogated prisoners of war, intercepted and deciphered enemy communications, composed and broadcast enemy appeals and other psychological warfare tactics, and flushed caves of enemy soldiers and civilians. During the occupation of Japan, MIS soldiers helped in the war crimes trials and in other ways to help restore order. It has been said that the actions of the MIS shortened the Pacific War by two years.

Donald Okubo, 83, said that many local residents probably never knew of the top-secret intelligence work that took place in what was once a furniture store on Kapiolani Boulevard near Sheridan Street where MIS translators worked on captured Japanese documents for Adm. Chester Nimitz, head of the Pacific war effort.

"One of the major source of intelligence," said Okubo, one of the local MIS veterans featured in the film, "were the journals kept by Japanese soldiers. They loved to write, and in those diaries they wrote down everything -- the names of their commanding officers, who was sick and what they were eating. ... That's how the Americans obtained information of an unit's military structure, how long soldiers had been stationed at a certain place, the status of the troops, their supplies, how they were being replenished and their health conditions."

Okubo recalled going ashore with the 1st Marine Division at Palau in 1944. "In the early morning you could see the silhouettes of the trees on the island. After the Air Force got through bombing, there was nothing. Most of the trees had been knocked out. Communications from the front line said that the first wave of Marines had been wiped out. When I hit the beach with the third wave, there were bodies of Marines floating in the water; other bodies were buried in the sand."

Okubo earned both the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for his work on Iwo Jima, Kwajalein and the Marshal Islands in rescuing civilians as a cave flusher and convincing Japanese soldiers to surrender.

Kazuo Yamane, 85, graduated from McKinley High School in 1934 and was sent to Japan where he graduated from Waseda University. Upon returning to the islands in 1940, Yamane was drafted and following Pearl Harbor found himself a member of the 100th Battalion. He volunteered for the MIS and after language training was selected to be a member of special four-man intelligence unit sent to the Pentagon, probably becoming the first nisei soldiers permitted there after the Pearl Harbor attack.

One of the team's first assignments was to translate boxes of documents taken from the Japanese after the Marianas Turkey Shoot. "Those were days when there weren't any computers," Yamane said, "so we ended up with several filing cabinets filled with cards with names of more than 40,000 Japanese army regular and reserve officers."

In 1945 the team was told to review 15 crates of documents believed to only contain "routine" information. "At least, that is what Navy intelligence officers at Pearl Harbor had described them," said Yamane, who still manages the Kalihi and Pearl City shopping centers and a chain of three bowling alleys. "There was one book, about 3 inches thick. It was wet and covered with mildew. I was shocked in what I found, and I told my supervisor that I had a really hot one."

What Yamane found was a highly classified inventory of Japanese army ordnance, listing the locations of munitions plants in Japan and their stores of arms and ammunition, which became targets for B-29 bombing missions.

Kan Tagami, 84, was born in Selma, Calif., but sent to Japan when he was 10 to attend school in the town of Kaita near Hiroshima. "I remember having been called out one day when I was in elementary school," Tagami said, "to greet Prince Hirohito. I was told to bow and stay that way, but I couldn't resist the temptation, so I sneaked a peak."

Two decades later, as a 25-year-old MIS first lieutenant serving as Gen. Douglas MacArthur's personal interpreter, Tagami found himself sitting across from this same man who was now the supreme ruler of the country.

His mission was to pass on MacArthur's instructions that the emperor had the same right to privacy as any Japanese citizen, and if he wanted to refuse request from the American media for interviews or pictures, MacArthur would back him up.

The producer of the program, Gayle Yamada, whose father, Gordon Yamada, is a member of the MIS, recalls him telling her stories of Japan. "As a student of history, I loved hearing the stories and seeing the images in my mind. As a filmmaker I was intrigued with the opportunity to do a documentary on a subject that had never been given a full television treatment, especially one that we had heard very little about. It was important to me, too, to do the story while my father and his comrades, the people who lived it, could tell it to us in their own words.

"This is a program of Japanese-American soldiers trained in the Japanese language and sent to the Pacific during World War II and the occupation of Japan while their families on the West Coast were incarcerated in concentration camps, stripped of their civil rights," said Yamada, who has been a mainland filmmaker for 23 years.

It is narrated by formal Hawaii television broadcaster anchor Ken Kashiwahara, who now lives in San Francisco after working as a correspondent and Asian bureau chief for ABC News. In March the film was awarded the Radio-Television News Directors Association Region Two (California, Guam, Hawaii and Nevada) Edward R. Murrow Award.



PBS film

Name: "Uncommon Courage: Patriotism and Civil Liberties"
What: 60-minute documentary about the Military Intelligence Service in World War II
Time: 8 p.m.
Day: Thursday
Channel: KHET

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