FORT SNELLING - One of the secret weapons of World War II was developed at Fort Snelling. During the war, 6,000 Japanese-Americans from Hawaii and the West Coast were trained at the 19th-century Twin Cities fort in Japanese language, military terminology and intelligence.
They served with every combat unit in the Pacific. They translated captured documents, intercepted radio transmissions and interrogated Japanese prisoners of war.
“People know little about it, and it had such strategic importance to the war,” said Stephen Osman, former site manager of Historic Fort Snelling. “These linguists served with every front line unit in the Pacific and saved thousands of lives, both Japanese and American.”
Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s chief of intelligence, Charles Willoughby, said the graduates of the Military Intelligence Service Language School “shortened the war by two years.”
This weekend, two veterans of the school will speak at Fort Snelling in tandem with a touring photo exhibit: “Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service in WWII.”
In November 1941, a month before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military established a top-secret Japanese language school in an abandoned hangar at San Francisco’s military base, the Presidio. All but two members of the first class were Japanese-Americans, mostly children of immigrant parents, known as “Nisei.”
After the United States declared war, the government was fearful of Japanese-American collaboration with the enemy and forced 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast into internment camps. The school was forced to move. Several sites were considered, but military brass took up then-Gov. Harold Stassen’s invitation to Minnesota.
Sally Sudo was one of thousands removed from their homes in the spring of 1942. When she was in first grade, Sudo’s parents and nine siblings were evacuated from Seattle to a relocation camp in Minidoka, Idaho. The following year, her brother Joe Ohno graduated from high school and volunteered for the U.S. Army, then joined the language operation in Minnesota.
Many Japanese-American parents on the West Coast discouraged their sons from risking their lives for a country that treated them like enemy spies
“My parents were never vocal about it,” said Sudo, a retired teacher from Bloomington who was instrumental in getting the photo exhibit to Minnesota. “I’m not sure if they agreed with his decision or not.
“Part of his rationale for serving was to plain get out of the prison camp,” she said. “That might have motivated him more than thoughts of patriotism. But he was also of the mindset, as many were, that America wouldn’t see them as loyal American citizens unless they shed blood for their country.”
Joe Ohno started at the language school when it was in Savage. It outgrew the space and moved to Fort Snelling in August 1944, a year before the Pacific war ended. Ohno served as an interpreter and translator in the Philippines and during the post-war occupation in Japan. Like many graduates, his positive experience led him to encourage his family to move to Minnesota after the war. He passed away in 2002, said Sudo.
Securing the peace
Many more soldier linguists volunteered from Hawaii, where a sizable Japanese-American population had not been forced into camps.
“We didn’t face the tremendous discrimination that they faced on the West Coast,” said Edwin “Bud” Nakasone, an 88-year-old retired educator from White Bear Lake, who will speak Saturday, along with Albert Yamamoto of Otsego.
Nakasone was 14 and living on the island of Oahu when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He remembers rising early to meet friends at the beach that Sunday. While he was eating cereal at the kitchen table, he heard the drone of engines and looked through the screen door to see planes in formation flying through a gap in the hills on their way to bomb planes on the ground at nearby Wheeler Air Force Base.
After the war ended, the military still needed linguists to secure the peace. Nakasone was drafted in August 1945 after he graduated from high school. He arrived at Fort Snelling on Christmas Day 1945.
“We thought it was great,” said Nakasone. “There was no danger of being killed in action. And we’d heard nothing but good reports about Minnesota. All of us looked forward to serving Uncle Sam.”
Nakasone had attended Japanese language classes outside public school in Hawaii, but he was far from fluent. As he mastered the language in class, he spent free time at local dances and taking the trolley up Hennepin Avenue, where the young Hawaiian soldiers ordered plates of Mongolian beef at Chinese restaurants.
In 1946, the program moved to Monterey, Calif., where it later evolved into the main language school for the Department of Defense. Nakasone was deployed to Japan in early 1947 where he served for more than a year with the occupation forces.
The scene in Japan
“When we got there after 11 days at sea, I could see the ragged-looking Japanese dock workers,” recalled Nakasone, who was stationed north of Tokyo. “Some of my friends flicked their cigarettes on the dock, and these dock workers would scurry around and stamp them out and put them into their pockets, so they could roll cigarettes for themselves at home, or sell them on the black market.”
Food was as scarce as tobacco. Nakasone saw people trade heirloom kimonos for rice and a few vegetables. The Japanese had been led by their military leaders to believe they could fight off a United States invasion with bamboo lances. By the time Japan surrendered, the country was devastated.
“There had been heavy bombing,” Nakasone said. “In places there was nothing left but chimneys, the brass guard rails and downspouts pulled away from buildings to be used as ammunition by the military.”
For the next year, Nakasone interpreted for officers at headquarters and at the polls during an election. His worst assignment was helping military police gather up prostitutes for medical exams. The highlights of his experience were friendships with the Japanese.
“They were amazed that there were people like us, of Japanese decent, who were part of the American army,” said Nakasone. “We gave them our thoughts about America and democracy. We were the rainbow that connected one country to another country.”