John Tagami’s Tribute to Nisei Veterans

Thanks for that introduction, Jeannette. I’d like to thank JACL and Dale Ikeda for inviting me tonight to pay tribute to the Nisei veterans of WWII. Because of time constraints, I am taking the liberty of confining my remarks to veterans of the Military Intelligence Service.

When I was growing up, we sansei had very few role JA models in mainstream culture. I loved Kato from the Green Hornet and Mr. Sulu from Star Trek. Kato rocked; Sulu was cool as a cucumber. But even as a kid, I knew that they were just supporting players, never the main guy. Fortunately, we had real-life role models who took second billing to no one – the soldiers of the 100/442.

The 442 were the icons of our childhood: all of us knew bits and pieces of their legend: the assault on Monte Cassino, the battle at Anzio, the Rescue of the Lost Battalion, and the countless awards, including (now) 21 Medals of Honor, they earned. We took vicarious pride in the success of “Go for Broke” veterans like Senator Inouye.

But we knew very little about another group of deserving Nisei soldiers, the Military Intelligence Service, mainly because their activities were kept secret and also because they were fewer in number — only 3000 served in the war.

A quick review of why the MIS experience was special.

First, unlike the 442 as I’ve said, the MIS performed their work in secret. If their existence had been known, the information they gathered would have been useless or even used against our own side. In contrast, the heroics of the 442 were widely publicized, and rightly so, of course.

Second, MISers were the first of the Nisei to enter the war. The first MIS graduates were deployed six months after Pearl Harbor, in the Aleutians and later the Southwest Pacific. They performed so well that they influenced the War Department’s decision to approve formation of the 442 the next year. So, if there had not been an MIS, there might never have been a 442.

Third, unlike the 442, the MIS fought directly against the Japanese. Even as the patriotism of AJAs at home was questioned, the MIS were already serving in action against Japanese soldiers — sometimes even against brothers, as was the case for at least one MISer, Harry Fukuhara. In doing so, they ran the risk of being killed by our own troops – they often had to have white escorts, even to use the latrines.

Fourth, the MIS was a support service, not an operational unit. They were attached to combat units in the field, in ones and twos and small teams, wherever needed. Because of this, they served over a wider geographic area, from Alaska to Australia, from the Marshall Islands to China, and were present at every major battle and campaign in the Pacific.

Finally, although MISers saw combat, they didn’t always experience the sustained, intense fighting, or enormous casualties, that the 442 did. Not many did. But their work – interrogating prisoners, translating captured documents, going on patrols to eavesdrop on the enemy – helped commanders win battles and reduce casualties, and thus had a broad impact on the war effort. There’s no doubt that they saved thousands of lives and shortened the war.

Richard Sakakida, for example, was an undercover spy in the Philippines; he was eventually captured and treated very badly, but lived to organize a spy network and engineer a prison break for hundreds of Filipino commandos.

Harold Fudenna intercepted a radio transmission that led to the ambush of Admiral Yamamoto’s plane. An interesting sidenote: before the attack, a general told him that if he, Fudenna, made a mistake in the translation, and that it turned out to be a trap for American fighter pilots, he would be personally blamed.

In Saipan, Bob Kubo was one of a number of MISers who crawled into caves armed with only a flashlight and a sidearm to convince desperate Japanese soldiers to surrender. By the way, Bob won the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.

In Burma, Kenji Yasui swam a river and impersonated a Japanese colonel to trick Japanese soldiers out of hiding. Similarly, Roy Matsumoto of Merrill’s Marauders, during one engagement, called out in Japanese to get the Japanese soldiers to attack prematurely, leading to an easy victory.

After the war, the MIS also had a unique role to play. MIS interpreters were present on the USS Missouri when Japan surrendered. And they were there throughout the Occupation, assisting at the War Crimes Tribunal, working on land reform laws, and drafting the new constitution, and performing many other activities.

They helped cement US-Japan relations and make possible the Japanese economic miracle. So even now, when you turn the key in your Toyota Camry hybrid or your kids boot up the Sony Playstation, think: MIS.

Today, the story of the MIS is much better understood thanks to the work of leaders like Norm Mineta and Dan Akaka and organizations like the National Japanese American Historical Society and its Bldg 640 project (preservation of the original MIS language school at the Presidio of San Francisco), the Go for Broke Education Foundation with its Hanashi oral history program, and of course the JACL with the Pinedale veterans memorial at Remembrance Plaza being dedicated tomorrow.

My father, Kan Tagami, was an MIS veteran from nearby Selma. Shortly after he was drafted, he was assigned to guard a motor pool across from Dimaggio’s Restaurant in San Francisco. One evening, a patron staggered out of the restaurant, having had a little too much to drink. He sees my dad in his uniform holding a rifle, throws up his hands and runs off into the night, shouting, “Holy cow, the Japanese have landed!” (He didn’t actually use the words “Holy Cow” or “Japanese”.) In retrospect, I have often thought that that gentleman was probably more right than he knew – the Japanese did land, and holy cow, what a great thing.

Because if the Issei had not landed on these shores, and had not raised Nisei sons who would serve with such distinction in the armed forces, it would be a very different world for you and me.

Thank you, and thank you for all you to do to help preserve and pass down the story of the Nisei veterans.