Tag Archives: Kibei

There Be Gold in My Family


There be gold in my family.  Really.  Well, the Congressional Gold Medal, that is.  And it is made out of gold and honors the “Nisei Soldiers of World War II”.  Its on display at the Smithsonian.

In fact, my family was awarded two of them.  Two Congressional Gold Medals.  Pretty neat, don’t you think?  Three if you include a distant relative.  Four if Dad had enlisted in the Army five weeks earlier.  OK.  Enough of that.

Face of “Nisei Soldiers of World War II” Congressional Gold Medal
Backside of “Nisei Soldiers of World War II” Congressional Gold Medal

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It was just a miracle mom and her younger sister Eiko survived the war having lived in the heart of Tokyo where very little was left standing.  My grandmother was required to train with a sharpened bamboo spear to repel the invaders that were expected to come.  It’s true.

But when war ended in 1945, neither my mother nor my Aunt Eiko could have possibly thought that they – through no grand scheme – would each end up marrying an “invader” and that they would end up living in America.  The country that bombed their home into ashes.  But it was a brutal war.  Just fact.

Even more stunning is that they would be unknowingly dovetailed with the famed US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) for the rest of their lives.  (I had briefly reported on the top secret MIS in an earlier short story.)
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Taken on December 8, 1946 in Tokyo. (L to R) Mom, Taro, Aunt Eiko. Standing are my grandparents.  Notice the US 8th Army shoulder patch on Taro.  Isn’t he handsome?  He was 21 years old.

The first family member bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal is my mother and Aunt Eiko’s cousin, Taro Tanji; he is pictured above in a family portrait taken in Tokyo.  He was born in Merced County, CA.  Taro, like my father, was imprisoned in the camp called Granada in Colorado for being of Japanese heritage although he didn’t speak one word of Japanese.

In 1944, along with thousands of other young American boys of Japanese heritage, he was drafted out of the camp into the US Army.  He was a “Nisei”.  He then was assigned to the top secret US Army Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) in Fort Snelling, Minnesota to learn the Japanese language.

After graduating, he was assigned to Tokyo as part of US 8th Army and became part of the Allied Occupation.  Once there, he immediately sought the fate of my mother’s family.

Through the resources of the MIS, he miraculously located my grandmother – the same one who was forced to train with a bamboo spear.  They had survived but were in dire straits like millions of other survivors.

Exactly as my father did for my cousin Masako in Hiroshima, Taro used whatever pay he had to buy them clothing and essentials from the PX, took them C-rations and of course, American cigarettes for my grandfather.  There are many stories of other things Taro did (he was a STRONG man) which I will save for later.

Aunt Eiko and Taro, taken in the late 1960’s at his home in Gardena, CA.

A kind man, Taro became a much loved teacher in the Gardena school system.  He recently passed away in Gardena, CA in 2009.

His CGM was posthumously awarded to his wife, Aunt Martha.  Amazingly, neither mom nor Aunt Eiko realized Taro was part of the MIS until I told them.  I determined that through research of US Army records.
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My Aunt Eiko was sickly as a young girl.  Indeed, it was a miracle especially for her to have survived.  She hates medicine, even to this day.  As a funny story, when the US Army began de-licing the surviving Japanese citizens, she ran away as she was terrified she would get sick from the powder.  Well, it was DDT so she wasn’t that far off.

In 1966, she met Paul Sakuma, a Hawaiian born Nisei.  While Uncle Paul told Aunt Eiko he was also put into camp on the Mainland (the article says that, too), I can find no record of his internment.  However, Uncle Paul was at some time in Springfield, Massachusetts after the war started.  He was “featured” in this newspaper article.  Surely, the title of the article was a sign of the times.

Newspaper article on Uncle Paul during war time, Springfield, MA.

Uncle Paul was also drafted in 1944 and was also sent to the MISLS at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.  This is the only photo Aunt Eiko has of Uncle Paul in uniform.  I stumbled across it last year.  Frankly, Aunt Eiko also knew very little of his Army days but I noticed the building in the background (below) as being the old cavalry barracks at Fort Snelling which sparked my researching again.  He was also indeed a member of the famed MIS unbeknownst to Aunt Eiko.

Uncle Paul at Ft. Snelling’s top secret Military Intelligence Service Language School, circa Winter 1945. The old barracks is seen in the background.

Uncle Paul was also immediately dispatched to Tokyo as part of the Occupation Force.  He was assigned to the 720th Military Police Battalion and accompanied patrols where his translation abilities were needed.  A couple of good patrol stories – ones that men would likely appreciate.  Perhaps some ladies, too.  No harm, no foul, as the great Chick Hearn said.

Days before my first marriage, I got a call from Aunt Eiko late at night.  She was hysterical.  Uncle Paul had died of a massive heart attack in 1980 in Tokyo in the new home he had just finished building for them.  He had continued living in Tokyo as a civilian employee of the USAF.

Like Taro, Uncle Paul was posthumously awarded the CGM.  I secured the CGM and surprised her with it.  Aunt Eiko “cried for happy” as he held the medal for the first time early this year (below).  She loves him greatly to this day.  She said, “Even today, Paul brings me great happiness.”  If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, well, you’re pretty tough.

Holding Uncle Paul’s Congressional Gold Medal for the first time, Aunt Eiko cried for happy. Incidentally, she became an American citizen about ten years ago.

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As dad volunteered in February 1947, he did not qualify for the CGM.  But unbelievably, mom, too, did not know much of what dad did in the Army let alone him being a member of the MIS.  Mom said dad never talked much about it except to say he did not enjoy interrogating Japanese soldiers being returned from Russia and Manchuria.

Nevertheless, mom and Aunt Eiko WERE enmeshed with the famed Military Intelligence Service although they didn’t realize it.  Fate.  They were surrounded by the invaders – secretly.  Famous ones at that.  A prejudiced opinion, of course.
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I am very proud of these Americans.  The Congressional Gold Medal is a tremendous honor and finally brings to public light the importance of the intelligence they secretly obtained for our United States of America amidst prejudice and discrimination.

I like to think that these Americans of Japanese heritage weathered the clouds of that time so we could have glorious sunshine today.

“There’s No Toilet Paper in the Jungle of Burma”


Dad and I waiting to go in to watch MIS

Dad broke his silence.

“War is no good,” he said as we left the small community movie theater near his assisted living home today; we had just watched the limited release documentary “MIS: Human Secret Weapon”.  It was about his highly classified World War II US Army unit.  He had silently watched and with a ghostly stillness.  But I saw him wipe his eyes twice after gently lifting his glasses.  Others openly wept…but I had never, ever seen him shed a tear before today.

I was ignorant.  Combat isn’t necessary for the ugliness of war to be buried in a person’s mind.  The documentary made it clear that it is also easily dug out.  All one needs to do is scratch.

Official US Army document certifying his Military Intelligence Service days.

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The documentary reveals the conflicted state of mind of the then young Japanese-Americans who made up the US Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS).  About 3,000 of them – including two of my uncles – secretly and faithfully served the red, white and blue, hastening the Japanese surrender on board the USS Missouri.

Another 3,000 served during the Occupation of Japan.  My dad was one and worked out of General Eichelberger’s US 8th Army’s GHQ in Yokohama.  That’s when he was able to journey to Hiroshima and see his mother for the first time in ten years…and when a hungry Masako first relished the flavor of Spam.

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Grant Ichikawa, MIS, CGM and me. 2010

One Nisei veteran interviewed was Grant Ichikawa.  He was gracious enough to not only greet me and my family in 2010 near his home in Rosslyn, VA, he also secretly treated us to lunch.  Pun intended.  He had lost his wife Millie just months before.  She was an even rarer female member of the MIS as well.

He and Terry Shima (also interviewed in the documentary) gave me the jump start in finding out about Dad’s involvement in the MIS.  During that all too brief get together, Grant did touch on what he did on the battlefront in a GI uniform.  He also said it “got dicey”.

In this documentary, you learn of one such experience.  He was told there were Japanese soldiers who had agreed to surrender.  Grant said he was the point man.  They proceeded to the rendezvous point where he met the Japanese commander; they were in the middle of an open field.

It turns out there were 200 to 250 of them; all their weapons were in good working order he says in the documentary.  Grant suddenly realized – out in the middle of this field – that these Japanese soldiers were “toukoutai”, or “suicide corps”.  Grant just as quickly and with great consternation realized there were only ten of them… GI’s, that is, armed only with rifles.  I’m sure Grant picked his words wisely.  He is still alive.

“Dicey” was a definite understatement.

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In a lighter moment, Ken Akune described how they were searching a Japanese soldier that had surrendered in the jungle of Burma.  They came across one of the American propaganda leaflets promising safe passage for those Japanese soldiers that surrendered.  It was neatly folded in a pocket.

Surrender Propaganda Written by MIS Nisei.

Akune asked the Japanese soldier if he believed what the leaflet promised since the MIS Nisei wrote it.  The Japanese soldier said no but that it made for good toilet paper.  “There was no toilet paper in the jungle of Burma,” said the prisoner.

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Thomas Tsubota broke down at the end of his interview.  Many did.

Tsubota was one of the top secret MIS members of Merrill’s Marauders.

They had just stumbled across ten Japanese soldiers in a small jungle clearing, he says.  “Boom,” he said, in a split second they killed them all.  He described how his commander, Colonel Beach, called him over to inspect a photo album taken off one of the now dead Japanese soldiers

They looked through the album.  Tsubota told Col. Beach there was nothing of military importance in it but as they came upon the last page of the album, there was a picture of a mother and a daughter.

Tsubota said Colonel Beach’s eyes got red, filled with tears and he said, “Thank you, Tom.”

While crying, Tsubota ended the interview by saying this is why he isn’t enthusiastic about talking about the war.  Too painful.  He doesn’t want to think about that sad moment.  Tsubota is 96 years old.  I thought Dad was old.

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The documentary intensely yet humanely describes the internal turmoil within these young American GIs of Japanese descent.  Quite a few had brothers who were left in Japan when war broke out and were killed as Japanese soldiers.  Deep down, many carried guilt that their own secret actions led to the deaths of their own brothers.  My Dad’s youngest brother – my Uncle Suetaro – was one of those casualties.

But these 3,000 young American boys of Japanese heritage did their job as did millions of other young American boys…but in secret.  They translated diaries covered with blood or offered cigarettes to Japanese prisoners to extract military intelligence while battles were raging.

They endured years of discrimination and intimidation to boot – both from GI’s fighting alongside them as well as back home.  A barber in Chicago wouldn’t cut Dad’s hair because of his race – and he was wearing his perfectly creased US Army uniform with sergeant’s stripes, sleeve highlighted by the proud shoulder patch of the US 8th Army.

The secrecy was officially lifted in 1972 by Executive Order 11652.
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Uncle Suetaro on right.

Just the two of us, I thought, were going to see this movie and that this may help Dad slow down his growing dementia.

I was wrong.

His quiet tears and with his exiting comment, I am sure Uncle Suetaro was there, too, in Dad’s heart – as if it was 1937 in Hiroshima when he last saw his brother alive.

Over the past two years, I’ve asked, “Dad, tell me about what you worked on in the MIS.  What was the one thing you remember the most?  A picture?  A diary?”  Each time, the answer was vague or “I don’t know.”  I chalked it up to senility.

He doesn’t want to talk about it…just like Tsubota painfully recalling Col. Beach and the photo of a mother and a daughter taken from a Japanese soldier they had just killed.

Ugly recollections from war wanting to be masked need not come from battlefields, bullets or bombs.

The Letter from 1945


The Letter from 1945

February 19, 1945 – Men with names like Kuwahara and Koyanagi were with the US Marines on the sands of Iwo Jima.

No, not the Japanese soldiers within the concrete fortifications led by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi of the Japanese Imperial Army. These were Americans of Japanese descent, or Japanese-Americans. Nisei. And to make matters worse, they were in the uniforms of the US Army. GI Joes. The Japanese were trying to kill them, too.

Sorry, Marines. It wasn’t all your show – lightheatedly, of course.  (One of the greatest US Marines, John Basilone, CMH, Navy Cross gave his life on those black talcum powder-like sands.)

Having said that, ever watch the iconic B&W World War II classic, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”? John Wayne might just be turning over in his grave.  But to his credit, the movie is one of my faves.  It’s theme song, “The Marine’s Hymm”, gives me goosebumps even to this day.

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The envelope immediately caught my attention. Aside from a crease, the envelope looked pristine. It was addressed to my Dad while he was in Minidoka, an Idaho prison camp where he and over 10,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned by FDR. It was postmarked September 2, 1945 – just about seven months after the bloody fight for Iwo Jima. The return address was the “War Department”.

If you’ll get past the lawyer speak, the letter says Dad is now free to go about America as he chooses.

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Because of secrecy, photos of Japanese-Americans in the US Army’s MIS are rare. This one shows Nisei on the sands of Iwo Jima.

About one thousand young Nisei men volunteered for the US Army while their families remained imprisoned in Minidoka. That’s about ten percent of the total camp’s population. Most who volunteered were from my Dad’s home state, Washington. While Dad was not one of those volunteers, 71 of these young men from Minidoka were killed fighting for the red, white and blue. Two were bestowed the Medal of Honor – posthumously. Silent patriots to this day.

“Kibei” were amongst those 1,000 men. Kibei’s were a sub-set of Nisei’s as a whole. A Kibei is a Japanese-American who actually spent time being raised in Japan. One result was they were absolutely fluent in Japanese – read, write, speak. Even slang and dirty words. No land-locked Nisei could come close. Dad was a Kibei.

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During the war, over 6,000 Nisei became part of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). The MIS were top secret. They were largely all volunteers.

But the Kibei – they formed the crucial core of the group. The most fluent. The decisive secret weapon. As luck would have it, many of these Kibei were from Hiroshima. Their fathers came to Hawaii or Washington in droves from Hiroshima for a better life – just like my Grandfather Hisakichi. (Dad is pictured here standing next to his Hiroshima home in 1947.)

MIS Kibei were the ones who intercepted and swiftly translated the Japanese Imperial Navy radio transmissions that led to the shoot down of Admiral Yamamoto’s transport. Kibei also swiftly and accurately translated captured critical secret military plans written in Japanese (“Z-Plan“) for the defense of the Marianas Islands and the Philippines; this led to the lopsided American naval victory called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” in 1944 – as well as to the death of my Seattle-born Uncle Suetaro. My dad’s youngest brother.

Interestingly, due to continuing suspicions, the US Navy and the Marine Corps refused to enlist the Nisei. Their loss.

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Actual “Z-Plan” report translated by Nisei of the top secret MIS.

The cloak and dagger actions of the MIS were only declassified in the 1972 by Executive Order 11652. That’s a long time. And true to their oaths, these Nisei kept their heroics to themselves for all those decades. They sought no honor or recognition.

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But back to the letter of 1945 – mailed to my Dad just seven months after the vicious fight for Iwo Jima. While my father finally volunteered for duty in February 1947 and became part of the famed MIS, his silent and patriotic Nisei brothers that preceded him hastened the end of war and saved millions of casualties – for both sides.

In recognition for their patriotism, sacrifices and loyalty, Congress bestowed upon the MIS and other Nisei who fought for the US in 2010 the Congressional Gold Medal. Two of my uncles were recipients although they had passed away.

By the way, the first recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal was George Washington. I believe the Nisei are in pretty good company.

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No credit is being taken from the young Marines who fought and died for Iwo Jima. The Marines did take Iwo Jima with their blood…but they were not alone. About 50 Nisei MIS’ers landed in the first assault waves alongside the Marines.

Just ask Mineo Yamagata, a MIS veteran of Saipan and Tinian. He accompanied the 28th Marines to the summit of Mt. Suribachi and witnessed the flag raising.

Oh… He was from Hawaii.