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These Japanese-American Linguists Became America's Secret Weapon During WWII

May 1, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

In February 1942, a small group of members of a top-secret military language school defied orders. They slipped out of their headquarters in San Francisco and snuck toward their destination, a nearby racetrack.

They weren’t there to gamble: They were there to visit their parents, Japanese immigrants who were about to be interned for the duration of the war. These sons of immigrants were American citizens, but because of their parents’ ancestry, they were considered enemies of the United States.

But unlike their parents, they weren’t headed for internment camps. Instead, they were training to be shipped to the Pacific Theater, where they would become one of the United States’ most powerful secret weapons.

Over the course of World War II, Nisei linguists, many of whom were initially forbidden from serving in the military and many of whom spoke little Japanese before the war, became a critical tool in the Pacific Theater. These children of Japanese immigrant (who were known as Issei) translated crucial documents and assisted with interrogations and interpretations, often during tense battles. They served their country while over 100,000 Japanese-Americans and immigrants from Japan were forced from their homes and jobs and into internment camps around the country. But though they helped the Allies win the war, the Nisei linguists’ contributions to the war effort were kept secret until decades later.

READ MORE: These Photos Show the Harsh Reality of Life in WWII Japanese-American Internment Camps

The Mochida family, pictured here, were some of the 117,000 people that would be evacuated to internment camps scattered throughout the country by that June.

View the 14 images of this gallery on the original article

Before World War II, the United States military had invested little in establishing a Japanese-language intelligence corps. Though there was talk of recruiting Nisei to help with intelligence overseas, there weren’t many people to choose from. In the summer of 1941, the military surveyed the Army to determine if there were Japanese speakers who might be able to help in the case of war with Japan, but it found that of the 3,700 Nisei who were already in the army, only a small number were fluent enough in Japanese to serve as intelligence workers.

It was clear the war effort would need Japanese interpreters, and even clearer that so few white Americans spoke Japanese that equipping them with the skills …read more


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