Karleen C. Chinen
Editor’s note: On Aug. 29, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono traveled to the Garden Island to present then-103-year-old World War II veteran Chito Isonaga with four medals for her — yes, her — service to America in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II. In Isonaga’s soft hands, the senator placed the Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. Additionally, Kaua‘i County Mayor Derek Kawakami proclaimed Aug. 29 as Chito Isonaga Day in the county. The ceremony, which was attended by Isonaga’s relatives and friends, was held at the Regency at Puakea in Lïhue, where she resides.
The following are excerpts from an oral history that Dr. Warren Nishimoto, retired director of the University of Hawai‘i Center for Oral History, conducted with Isonaga. Isonaga, who turned 104 in October, was born in Köloa and was one of the few Nisei women from Hawai‘i who served in the WACs. The Herald extends special thanks to the Isonaga family and the UH Center for Oral History for allowing us to share Chito Isonaga’s story with our readers.
To read Isonaga’s story in its entirety, visit the Hawai‘i Memory Project website: nisei.hawaii.edu/page/chito
I graduated from [Kaua‘i] high school in August , I remember going to Japan. I really didn’t want to go [to Japan with my mother and sister], but that was more or less planned. Mom looked forward to it, so I just went along.
[I knew I would remain behind in Hiroshima.] For just a couple of years, I thought. I knew I had to go and so I accepted it. I thought it was okay that I stay there just for a couple of years, but I didn’t realize I was going to stay there for six years.
I think my parents wanted me to go there and learn the language because [my mother] was afraid that she couldn’t communicate with my other brothers and sisters. She wanted me to learn the language so I can interpret their thoughts and things to the children. But, really, that wasn’t really necessary because I never remembered doing that after I came home. . . .
I [first] lived with my aunt and uncle. . . . They didn’t have any children and they had a kimono shop in Yokogawa, the main street in Misasa. The train station was just practically the back of their home.
[When I first got to Hiroshima,] I went to a grammar school. From September until January or February, until the other schools started, I went to the school.
I was much older than [my classmates] and I didn’t know too much Japanese. But, I managed. I guess they accepted me. . . .
[After grammar school,] I went to Shintoku Jogakkö and entered the third year there. I think it was a four-year school [for girls]. . . . Of course, the language, too. I don’t know how I managed, but I went two years there.
[After Shintoku Jogakkö,] I went to Hiroshima Jogakuin. It was a Christian school [i.e., a Christian women’s university]. . . . I stayed at the dormitory . . . . [I found dormitory life] real good because there were a lot of Niseis there from the Mainland. . . .
All of us Niseis majored in English to learn Japanese. (Laughs) It’s funny, but that’s true. Because everything was in Japanese. It was sort of easy for us. But, we still had shüshin [morals, ethics] and history in kokugo [Japanese language], too.
. . . .That college life there was really pleasant. . . . No visits [home]. I used to write home quite often, I guess. . . . I saw rolls and rolls of letters that I had written to Mom, and Mom had written to me. . . .
I graduated that year . My education was finished, so I came . . . back to Hawai‘i [in 1939.]. . . .
. . . . I didn’t do anything for a while [after I got back to Kaua‘i], but I think in 1940 they had census taking and so I applied for that and worked for the census.
Charlie [Charles J.] Fern, who was the [publisher] of The Garden Island, was the head of that census taking. One day I rode with him and he started to talk to me. . . . He said, “Why don’t you come and work for me?” I sort of hesitated working for that station because I didn’t know what it was going to be. But, I accepted, and I started working at KTOH. . . . [I would write the script in Japanese for] the ads and a little bit of the news, and then announce the music. . . .
I didn’t like the job because every night I came home my mom would criticize my job — the [language] mistakes. Sometimes I’d read the names [kanji characters] of the person singing, wrong. . . . It was really not a very pleasant job for me. . . .
[Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the FBI] were interviewing the influential [Japanese] people on Kaua‘i. [The FBI investigators] asked questions to them and I interpreted [in Japanese and English] when they needed it.
[I was asked to interpret] simple questions as to what they did, I guess. I don’t quite remember, but they weren’t difficult questions. One of [the people I had to help interview] was a president of some company. And the Buddhist priests, many of them.
I don’t think [the FBI] told me why. I sort of knew [why we were doing this]. Because, you know, the situation between Japan and the United States was getting sort of rough.
[The people] were cordial. They weren’t afraid or anything. They were all — as far as I remember, they were all friendly. [The interviews took place] in their homes. Some documents they [FBI] had, many of them were consulate agents’ papers like that; I just translated it for them.
[Earlier] I did interpreting for the . . . court people. When they had cases that they needed interpreting, I did that. I was interpreting what the judge asked. I think through that connection I got involved [with the FBI]. And maybe because I worked at the radio station, too. I was working for the [Kaua‘i] police department, too . . . . It didn’t last for long . . . .
Mom and Dad — we had the store. . . . They were listening to the Japanese program from Japan. Is that shortwave radio? I was ironing the dress I was going to wear for church. I wasn’t really listening, but before they signed off, they announced twice — just before they signed off, they said, “Kairai no minasama ima mo ichido möshiagemasu.” Repeat, once again, that there might be war in the Pacific. “Taiheiyo sensö ga boppatsu suru kamo shirenai.” I don’t remember they giving the — wind direction, but they might have done that.
Mom and Dad, and we all laughed about it and we thought it was silly. I was working with the FBI and [the investigators] were staying at the Lihue Hotel. I didn’t have any telephone, but I didn’t think about calling them to tell them that I heard this. Because [we] just laughed it off, you know. But people who were connected with either the FBI or the military, somebody must have been listening. I can’t understand it. Before [the radio station in Japan] signed off, they said that there might be war in the Pacific.
We were in church [on the morning of December 7]. . . . Somebody said that the radio was announcing that the planes were flying, so go home. When I heard there was a war, did I fly home.
I was shocked and kind of scared when they said [Japan] might be landing and everything. I don’t remember [my parents’] reaction, but I’m sure they were shocked. I think they thought that eventually Japan would win. [But,] they didn’t say that. I didn’t feel that way.
[My younger brother Herbert] was attending UH [University of Hawai‘i]. [My parents] didn’t object to his volunteering for the [U.S.] Army. I expected him to. Because, later on, I wanted to serve, too. I thought I had something to offer because I knew the [Japanese] language.
[I worked with Rev. Masao Yamada in the] Morale [Division]. [The Morale Division was part of the Emergency Service Committee, which served as a liaison between military and community leaders as well as the local Japanese people during World War II. Rev. Yamada worked for the Emergency Service Committee on Kaua‘i. He later became a chaplain with 442nd Regimental Combat Team.] I helped interpret, sometimes, what they told the people. I remember working in the office and typing out things, but I don’t remember what I was typing. I worked in the office mainly. But, we had meetings at different places and I went with them. [I would interpret] when necessary.
I got letters [offering wartime work] from all over the place. They even wanted me to go and teach.
But I thought the [Federal] Office of Censorship was the closest and I figured that I would do more good there than at the [Kaua‘i] Police Department where I was typing out cards, just copying records. And so, I volunteered. I chose to come to Honolulu to work for the Office of Censorship.
[My job] was mainly reading different letters written in Japanese. I can’t remember what we were looking for. But, there were certain things that we had to look for.
[The letters were not written by] internees [Japanese residents of Hawai‘i detained and incarcerated in camps on the Mainland by the federal government, but by] families of internees to the internees. They were mainly those letters.
[If we found anything objectionable]. . . . There was a head of our section. We would take it to her. I don’t remember [blacking out or cutting out any portions].
[The office] was located on the second floor of the old Federal Building. On our desk there were about three who knew Japanese. And the boss knew a little Japanese. She was Caucasian. There was a Chinese on this side, next to us. [The English-language staff] was on the opposite side. . . .
I thought [the work we were doing] was necessary. But, actually, I don’t remember anything that was really serious during the time. I didn’t work for long.
[In late 1944, the U.S. Army] asked for volunteers [for the Women’s Army Corps]. The people that first applied and went in — there was a lot of publicity. All the papers tell that. I said, “[All that publicity is] not for me.” So I waited until the very last day and then I went in and registered.
Before that, [the Army] came to recruit menfolks. Because I was connected with the Morale [Division], I had something to do with the recruitment of the men. I must’ve said that when the chance came for me to volunteer, I want to volunteer. I’d be the first one. I think somebody interviewed me.
Even before the recruitment took place, I was getting letters from [Lieutenant Colonel] Paul Rusch, [director of personnel procurement] at MIS [Military Intelligence Service Language School], that they wanted me. . . .
[I wanted to volunteer] because I knew my relatives in Japan and I knew that Japan was going to lose. I wanted to get back to Japan [with the U.S. Army]. . . . I wanted to help my relatives and my schoolmates, and I did. That was . . . one of the main reasons, why I volunteered. I knew that because I knew the language that I had something to offer more than the people here that went to school here. But, the main reason was, when they lost, I knew they would need help.
If I were back in Kaua‘i, my mother may have objected. But, I don’t think she would have objected. I said, “You know, Japan is going to lose anyway. When they lose I can be there and help my relatives.” . . . .
Office of Censorship didn’t want me to go, more or less, because they said, “You are doing just as much here.” But, no, I wanted to go. After I came back, one of the girls told me, “I wish you volunteered from Kaua‘i. If my parents knew that you were joining,” she said, “they wouldn’t have objected my going, too.” Because I’m sure some parents didn’t favor the idea of girls going into the Army.
But me, I had purpose and I think my parents understood that I wanted to go back and help my relatives.
[After we volunteered,] I think we went to Fort DeRussy. And stayed there couple of nights. [We went to basic training in Fort] Oglethorpe, Georgia.
It was sort of cold [on the Mainland]. We went on a train [from the West Coast] and when we reached Flagstaff, [Arizona, in January], there was snow on the ground. And the girls from Hawai‘i who saw snow for the first time really had a ball. But, I had seen snow in Japan, so I wasn’t too excited. . . .
[Fort Oglethorpe] was a regular Army [installation] with barracks. Barren, you know, huge place. We used to go into the [nearby] city. I don’t know what the [name of the] city was. But, I remember, [Fort Oglethorpe] was a bare place with just the barracks. It was just bunk beds lined up in the room. . . .
[Our Nisei] group was all in one group. The [Caucasian] recruits from the Mainland, they had another group. It seems that we didn’t associate with them. We stuck to ourselves. [Chito was one of a few dozen women from Hawai‘i to volunteer for the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.] [Our officers were] Caucasian. We didn’t have any Mainland[-born] Nisei group at the time I had basic training. Only the [Hawai‘i] group and the Caucasian group. . . . We didn’t have any problems. And we stuck together, the Hawai‘i group. I’m sure the officers didn’t have any trouble with us.
[The type of ranks] was the same [as those given to the men]. But we had no ranks when we joined.
[Military life] was regimented. Getting up in the morning and dressing really fast to get to the mess line, you know. . . . And trying to make the bed straight. . . .
I remember only marching, learning how to march [at Fort Oglethorpe]. We learned pretty fast. . . . I don’t remember the classes either, but I’m sure we had classes, too. We had kitchen duty. Of course, it was peeling potatoes and scrubbing the kitchen. Once when I was on duty in the kitchen, I was scrubbing the back steps and the water froze as I washed. . . . It was the South, too. It was pretty cold.
[In March 1945,] a group of us went to clerk school in Des Moines, Iowa. I know we went to classes and I guess we learned how to do clerical duties. . . . I didn’t finish clerk school. In the middle of it, they took three or four of us who knew the [Japanese] language and moved us to a place where we stayed before we transferred elsewhere. It was at a time, I think, FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] had just passed away. [FDR passed away on April 12, 1945.] I remember watching the others from the clerk school marching in memory of him. This was about that time when I was transferred and got orders to go to Washington, D.C.
They didn’t tell us directly [where we would be assigned], but we went [to Washington, D.C.]. And they sort of tested us, the group of us. And the rumor was that they were seeing if we were suitable to go to the China-India-Burma area. I think it was the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] section that we went to. . . .
OSS [was the predecessor to the] CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]. We used to go to that building.
We weren’t there for more than a month, I guess. We used to go up to New York all the time, the weekends. We used to go to the USO [United Service Organizations]. They would give us tickets to shows or to the radio shows and we used to go. . . .
I wanted to go overseas, but they yanked us out. It was summer; we were in summer uniform there. Then, we were told to go to [Fort] Snelling, [Minnesota]. And so we had to drag out our winter clothes, change to winter clothes, and go up to [Fort] Snelling to [language] school. The rumor was that the general from MIS [Military Intelligence Service] was higher than the one from OSS. So he had most say. . . .
[From May 1945 to November 1945, I was at Fort Snelling] going to language school. They taught us military terms [heigo].
It wasn’t too difficult for me [to learn] because I had, more or less, the Japanese[-language] background. But I’m sure the others had difficulty. We used to go down every evening and had study class for one or two hours. . . . Every Saturday we had the examination. . . .
[The instructors were] Nisei men. There was one [instructor] I found out later that he was from Hawai‘i. He was my teacher. Raymond Aka. He was a Maui boy. [A native of Wailuku, Maui, Raymond Aka was a graduate of Sophia University in Tökyö. After completing language training at MISLS in 1943, he remained as an instructor until 1946.]
The cook [at Fort Snelling] was — the head master sergeant there was from Hawai‘i. We used to have Japanese rice and stuff. . . .
We were all happy [when the war ended], of course. Florence [Fumiko] Segawa and myself were the ones assigned to teaching. That’s [teaching] officers, haole officers, mainly. But, the war ended and pretty soon they wanted us to go to Japan. So, I was really happy because I didn’t like to teach. They didn’t explain to us why we were going to Japan. They were just going to send us.
Before going to Japan, we were in Hawai‘i. We went home for leave for about two weeks. And then, on the way to Japan we stopped at . . . Guam or somewhere and stayed there for about two weeks. And, finally, they had enough space for us on the plane to go to Japan. . . . I think it was a Navy plane. . . .
We landed in Chiba [Prefecture], Kisarazu Air Base. And then we rode on the truck and came to the Dai Ichi Building, where we reported. That is where [General Douglas] MacArthur [who was in charge of the Allied Occupation of Japan] was, on the fifth floor. When we reached there, we were told MacArthur didn’t want any WACs in Japan.
So, they stuck us in the men’s outfit and we went down to [U.S. Naval Air Facility] Atsugi and got discharged. We were told that those of us who want to go back to the [U.S.] Mainland can go, and those of us who want to remain in Japan [could] become civilians and work for the [U.S.] Army there. We had a choice, so some of us decided to stay.
[WACs got benefits like the GI Bill.] We had that. Oh yes. But, we were [in military service as] WACs for such a short time, not like the boys. So, some people took advantage of [the GI Bill] and some became schoolteachers.
[I decided to stay] because I wanted to help my relatives [living in Japan]. When we first reached Tökyö and stayed at the hotel, there was one girl from Köloa town [working in Japan]. We were family friends. With her boyfriend, she came to the Chiba Park Hotel where we were billeted. She says, “You know, Chito, I am going to see my uncle in Hiroshima.” The uncle lived not far away from where my [relatives lived] — well, they didn’t know each other, but lived close by.
So I said, “You know, it doesn’t have to be in a hurry, but if your uncle has time, I’d like him to go down to this address in Misasa, where my uncle and his family was living, to see if that place is still intact [after the atomic bomb] and see the situation there.”
She asked the uncle and he did go down. Was not immediate, but he went down. There was, I guess, some part of the house remaining. There was a notice on the gate or something saying that they were all well and they were somewhere [else]. So I wrote my mother and said, “Our relatives in Hiroshima didn’t get affected by the bomb.” And so, they knew that they were all safe.
[Being in the service,] we were able to ride the train free. And so, I packed what I could get at the commissary, which is practically nothing. I saved my C rations in this big duffel bag. When I had enough I took that to [my relatives]. But in the meantime, they came back and they had a home there, more like a shack, but they moved back from the country. I helped my aunt, with whom I [had] lived [while attending school]. She was living with her nephew down a couple of stations away. I built her a home, a shack-like building, and she moved back to her place in Yokogawa. And then, whenever I could, I used to go down and take her things.
We became civilians [after being discharged].
I worked for G-2 [military intelligence], I’m sure, at different sections of G-2. Towards the end I worked for the government section. The government section was headed by General [Charles] Willoughby, who was [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur’s right-hand [man]. . . . Those foreign office people used to come all the time. . . . [I was] translating, mainly, and sitting at the front desk. That was an easy job. Not much translation to do.
[Paul Rusch] was [previously on staff of MISLS at Fort] Snelling. . . . His office [in Japan] was the former home of Madame [Miki] Sawada, whose husband [Renzo Sawada] was a diplomat. . . . Kim-san [Mr. Kim], a Korean chauffeur, used to drive us from Chiba Park to that mansion every day.
We spent more time at the PX, too, when we worked for [Lieutenant] Colonel Rusch. Many times, when the PX [post exchange] opened, [Lieutenant] Colonel Rusch would send us over there when they started selling — Japan started to manufacture cotton material and used to ration us six yards of cotton material. We used to go and buy it for him. Because Madame Sawada was connected with an orphanage, we used to give it to the orphanage.
Then I found my schoolmates and I started helping them. They were having their first babies and they didn’t have any diapers or anything. I used to write home and they used to send. In fact, Mom sent regular [cloth] diapers. They didn’t use it for diapers. They made shirts and stuff with the diapers. And when the PX [post exchange] opened and they start selling cotton materials, I would just buy that and give it to them. . . .
We were doing translation of a diary of some secretary to somebody influential, a politician or somebody. . . . [That person] was somebody important in the [Japanese] government. The secretary kept that diary of what he did, who he saw. There were about twenty of us working on [that] translation, just one portion.
We had a professor from Kyoto University help us. We had a lot of Japanese help us, too, on the side. And I remember at one time, a portion of what I translated was used for the [International] Military Tribunal [for the Far East]. . . .
[Lieutenant] Colonel Rusch was really nice. We used to have lunch there, at [Lieutenant] Colonel Rusch’s office. He used to have parties there, too. [Lieutenant] Colonel Rusch used to take care of the symphony orchestra. I think every Sunday or something, they used to have performance. He used to feed the orchestra members before they went to work, you know. [The state of Japan’s economy during the occupation] used to be that bad.
[Rusch founded Seisen Ryo, retreat lodge of the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project.] He started it [in 1938]. We used to go up there every weekend, practically. . . . Once, Prince Takamatsu came along on the train with us and went up to Seisen Ryo.
I don’t know whether I’m supposed to [talk about working for the CIA in the early 1950s]. But maybe I can. I think it’s okay because my W-2 form has Central Intelligence Agency [as my employer]. So, it’s not as secret as it used to be. . . .
I went back to another section, back to G-2, I think. [Later,] I wanted to go home, the long way. Before I went on my long trip, I met a friend who used to work together with us, who had gone to work for CIA. He told me, “Why don’t you sign up with us?” So I said, “Okay.” And so he brought me this long paper and I started filling it out. It was so long, I was about ready to throw it out and give up. But I did sign it and I gave it to him.
Then I went home [to Kaua‘i]. In October, when I was about expecting the orders to go back to Japan, the colonel calls me. He says, “I’m sorry, but there was a big reduction in force and as long as you weren’t on the ship [heading for Japan], it’s easier to cut you out than the people [already in Japan].”
So, my father was sort of ailing, and we had a store there [on Kaua‘i]. So, I thought, oh good, then I will help [him] for a while.
When Christmastime came, I wrote a card to [my friend in the CIA] that says, “I’m willing to work for you.” More than six months [later], I got orders to go back there again. [The CIA] hired me and so I went back to Tökyö again. That was in what, 1954? Yeah, I worked about twenty-one years until the 1970s. I retired at [age] sixty.
[I did] mostly translation. Once I did a reverse translation, from English to Japanese. And I must’ve done a good job because the Navy sent a letter to them and that’s when I got a promotion. I think I was the only one that could do it. Of course, somebody else did the writing in Japanese. The Navy sent a nice letter back to us. So, I got a promotion out of that one reverse translation I did.
[I wasn’t] that good, but I consulted a lot of stuff and I knew the format. Japanese had a certain format to follow and I must’ve done it correctly. . . .
I think I got more out of joining the WACs than the government got out of me. . . . I was able to travel. . . .
[I became a WAC] mainly [because I thought] I had something to offer for the United States. I had more knowledge of Japanese than the people that stayed home because I had six years in Japan. [I also thought I could be of some help to my family and classmates in Japan.]