The U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii at Fort DeRussy in Waikïkï recently opened “America’s Secret Weapon,” a colorful new exhibit that tells the little-known story of the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service in World War II.
These Nisei — second-generation Americans — used their knowledge of the enemy’s language and culture to save countless lives and shorten the war against Japan. About half of them were from Hawai‘i.
The exhibit features such Hawai‘i-born MIS heroes as Hoichi Kubo, who earned the Distinguished Service Cross while serving with the 27th Infantry Division on Saipan, and Dick Hamada, who saved a battalion of Allied troops while serving in Burma with Detachment 101 of the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The exhibit was produced on behalf of the Military Intelligence Service Veterans Club of Hawaii by Mark Matsunaga, Gregg Hirata and Harlan Yuhara and includes 80 photographs and dozens of artifacts from veterans as well as from the Army Museum’s collection. Matsunaga and Hirata are the sons of MIS veterans.
“It’s a beautiful exhibit, and we plan to show it for at least two years,” said museum director Judith Bowman.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to tell this very American story,” said Matsunaga. “While the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team were answering doubts about their loyalties in Europe, there were some skeptics who wondered whether Japanese Americans would fight ‘their own kind.’ Little did they know that, even before Pearl Harbor, there were Nisei who were doing just that.”
From the Aleutians and Guadalcanal to Burma, China, the Philippines and Okinawa, Nisei soldiers of the MIS served in every major campaign in the war against Imperial Japan. They interrogated prisoners, translated documents, intercepted radio traffic, infiltrated enemy positions, flushed caves and served as combat infantrymen.
Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, whose “Merrill’s Marauders” — the 5307th Composite Group, Provisional — included an MIS team, said, “As for the value of the Nisei group, I couldn’t have gotten along without them. Probably few realized that these boys did everything that an infantryman normally does, plus the extra work of translating, interrogating, etc. Also, they were in a most unenviable position as to identity, as almost everyone from the Japanese to the Chinese shot first and identified later.”
With very few exceptions, the Navy and Marines refused to enlist Japanese Americans, but by the end of the war, all of the services as well as Allied commanders were clamoring for the MIS Nisei. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur said of them, “Never in military history did an army know so much about the enemy prior to actual engagement.”
After the fighting, MIS Nisei translated at the surrender of Japanese forces throughout Asia and the Pacific and the war crimes trials that followed. Thousands of them served in the occupation of Japan and were instrumental in building a modern democracy and staunch U.S. ally out of the ashes of a defeated Japan. And those who came home to the Islands joined other veterans in making the case for statehood for Hawai‘i. They included George Ariyoshi, who became the nation’s first Asian American governor, and retired Maj. Gen. Arthur Ishimoto, who achieved the highest rank of any World War II Nisei veteran.
Nonetheless, the MIS accomplishments went largely undocumented and unreported. During the war, they often served in small detachments on temporary assignment to combat units, and they were sworn to secrecy until long after the war. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the Army awarded them a Presidential Unit Citation. In 2011, they, along with their brothers in the 100th and 442nd, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in the nation’s capital.
“We hope this exhibit helps more people to recognize the many wartime contributions of all of the Nisei who served in World War II, and encourages the descendants of the veterans to learn, appreciate and preserve their stories,” said Matsunaga.
The U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii is located in historic Battery Randolph, a former coastal artillery beachside fortification on the Diamond Head end of Fort DeRussy. The museum is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, including Veterans Day, July 4th and Memorial Day. Admission is free. Parking is available in the lot across Kälia Road.