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This story comes to you from the Star Tribune, a partner with Sahan Journal. We will be sharing stories between Sahan Journal and Star Tribune.
They were considered America’s secret weapon in the war against Japan.
But decades later, their secrets — and the stories of their sacrifice — need to be shouted from our rooftops.
Eighty years ago this month, the first of 6,000 soldiers came to the Twin Cities during World War II to be trained at a covert military intelligence language school. Most were Nisei, born in the United States to Japanese immigrant parents. They would later be shipped to the Pacific theater to intercept radio signal communications, translate captured battle plans, interrogate prisoners of war, and even crawl toward enemy lines to spy on Japanese commanders.
Major Gen. Charles Willoughby, chief of military intelligence for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, estimated the Nisei shortened the Pacific war by two years and saved a million American lives.
Yet their contributions are unknown to most Minnesotans.
From his daughter’s home in Savage, just a few miles from the site of the former Camp Savage language school, 94-year-old Seiki Oshiro has been trying to preserve this piece of history. He helped create a database of more than 8,000 names of those who, like him, served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS).
The irony is that many of these men and women, or their families, were incarcerated because the U.S. government deemed them a national security threat due to their Japanese ancestry.
“I think about that all the time: Why would you fight for a country that put you in a prison camp?” said Kimmy Tanaka, program supervisor at Historic Fort Snelling. who has been educating visitors about this often-missed chapter.
She said many of these soldiers, told that they “looked like the enemy,” were motivated to prove they should be treated like any other U.S. citizen.
“They shouldn’t have had to prove that,” she said. “But it’s a form of resistance or resilience, in the face of so much racism and prejudice, to say, ‘I’m going to give this my all because I believe in a constitutional democracy,’ and to have faith in the system even when the system has failed you.”
Sifting for clues
Oshiro started digging into Japanese American history after he concluded his career as a computer programmer at Control Data Corp. in 1990.
“Retirement,” he deadpanned, “is very, very boring.”
He was rummaging through materials at the Minnesota Historical Society library when he came across a 1946 album, sort of like a yearbook, for graduates of the MIS language school.
But the graduate list identified the soldiers only by their first initial and surname. Think of “H. Nakamura” as the equivalent of “J. Smith” in the Japanese American community, and you can begin to grasp the columns of anonymity that populated those pages.
“I felt that this was a real slap in the face for the Niseis,” said Oshiro. “That’s what caused us to work, to make to make them more visible to the community.”
In 2000, Oshiro began compiling a more complete list along with Grant Ichikawa and Paul Tani, both MIS veterans who have since passed away.
Oshiro wasn’t naturally equipped to be the keeper of this vast information trove. Despite his old-school computing background, he didn’t even know Excel. But he kept at the project for decades, plugging in missing pieces. He and his late wife, Vici, even spent three weeks at the National Archives in St. Louis, photocopying 6,000 pages of microfilm.
He also cold-called family members of the veterans. Oshiro asked for discharge papers or other documents that would offer confirmation of the veterans’ deployment.
“Some people were insulted. They shut me down right away,” he recalled. “They did not want me to probe that deeply.”
The language school — which operated at Camp Savage from 1942 to 1944 before moving to Fort Snelling — was, after all, a classified military endeavor. The students were instructed not to talk about what they learned, or were simply reluctant to pass down stories of their wartime experiences. Many details were not publicly known until government records, albeit patchy and incomplete, were released under the Freedom of Information Act in the early 1970s.
‘I’m still learning’
When Karen Tanaka Lucas moved to the Twin Cities in 1970 to attend the University of Minnesota, she had no idea her father once trained in the state at a secret language school. While his siblings and parents in California were rounded up and incarcerated, Walter Tanaka was being trained at Camp Savage. In 1942, he became part of its first graduating class.
“He didn’t tell me anything,” Tanaka Lucas said. “It just seeped out, little by little, over the years. Even now, I’m still learning.”
She learned that these soldiers, even in the face of racial hostility, were seen as assets by the government because of their familiarity with the Japanese language and culture. They memorized 50 characters a day, some of them poring over flashcards at night in the latrines, the only place lights were still on. Many of them spoke Japanese poorly before getting their crash course in Minnesota.
After graduating from Camp Savage, Walter Tanaka served in Australia and the Philippines, specializing in interviewing prisoners. They were injured, sick and dying — and stunned to be greeted by a Japanese face speaking their language and treating them humanely, Tanaka Lucas said.
Her dad would offer them medical care, chocolates and cigarettes, and ask about their families back in Japan.
“A captured Japanese soldier had no psychological defense,” Tanaka Lucas said. “Once you got them there, they’d tell you anything. There was hardly any ever information they couldn’t get.”
But why Minnesota?
The first language school opened in San Francisco in November 1941. A month later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Order 9066 forced people of Japanese descent to abandon their homes and livelihoods all along the West Coast. That also required the language school to relocate.
Military commanders sought a new site that would have the least amount of resistance to an influx of Japanese Americans. Popular opinion around the country favored keeping them behind barbed wire, according to surveys conducted at the time. Col. Kai Rasmussen explored various sites, but only one governor, Minnesota’s Harold Stassen, said yes.
“The area selected not only had to have room physically, but room in the people’s hearts,” Rasmussen told the Minneapolis Morning Tribune in October 1945, several weeks after the surrender of Japan.
Some Japanese American recruits ended up planting roots in Minnesota after the war. The late Toshio William Abe, who also trained at Camp Savage, recalled in an oral history interview that Minnesotans were generally friendly, as opposed to people on the West Coast who stared him down as if he were “some kind of subhuman animal walking down the street.”
“You folks regarded us as loyal Americans, nothing more, nothing less,” Abe told a Minnesota audience in 1993. “And with that in mind, I think a lot of us went out there and did our job, hoping to not let you down.”
The script of a speech Abe gave is in the public library in Savage, where artifacts related to Camp Savage’s history have been meticulously documented.
Over the years, journalists, filmmakers, local officials and community members have tried to bring this overlooked story to life. Oshiro and his list became the subject of an independently produced documentary, “The Registry,” and TPT launched a separate documentary about the language school called “Armed With Language.” Members of the Twin Cities Japanese American Citizens League have created a curriculum about the school so students can learn about this made-in-Minnesota story.
In 2011, the Congressional Gold Medal was bestowed on members of the Military Intelligence Service and two Nisei military units. Oshiro received a bronze replica of the medal, which he passed on to the library in Savage. He wanted to give his medal to the community, he told me, because “that’s where it all started.”
So few of these heroes are still alive to tell their story. But it’s not too late for the rest of us to start learning.
If you go:
A panel discussion, “Minnesota Connections: The WWII Military Intelligence Service Language School and the Building of a Japanese American Community,” will be held at 1:30 p.m. June 18 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.