Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: Edwin “Bud” Nakasone served in the U.S. Army as an interpreter during the Occupation of Japan in 1947-1948. Born and raised in Wahiawä, Hawai‘i, he witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wheeler Army Airfield and Schofield Barracks on Dec. 7, 1941. He currently resides in St. Paul, MN, as a retired colonel of the U.S. Army and an historian who has authored books and produced videos on World War II.
Graduating from the University of Minnesota, Nakasone became a long-time member of the history faculty of Century College, White Bear Lake, MN. Currently at age 93, he has documented memories still clear in his mind. Here, Nakasone shares his personal experience.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, marked a day that transformed the United States of America, the world and all of our lives. People who lived during that time remember exactly what they were doing and where they were when they heard the terrible news. Everything changed – our daily lives, our existence and our future.
Where was I? As a young 14-year-old lad in Wahiawä, I was eating my breakfast of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and canned Carnation milk, gazing eastward toward Kolekole Pass on O‘ahu’s Wai‘anae range. I witnessed about 20 Japanese planes flying through the pass and strafing the U.S. Army’s Schofield Barracks — no bombs were dropped there.
Then, the planes climbed and swooped down upon Wheeler Army Airfield, the Army’s main fighter-plane/pursuit-plane base designed to defend Hawai‘i. The commanding general, based on fear- and discrimination-laced intelligence, had ordered all the planes to be secured in a tight row-on-row ground formation to allay any sabotage by Hawai‘i’s many Americans of Japanese Ancestry.
The planes were parked closely in a line on the airfield, so that they could be guarded by a minimum number of guards in vehicles. The commanding general did not trust the Nikkei residents of Hawai‘i. He viewed us as possible saboteurs and espionage agents. Well, on that fateful morning, at about 0755 hours, the attacking planes dropped their bombs on all the U.S. planes of Wheeler Field.
I saw the bombs go off on our planes, hangars and buildings, the airfield completely destroyed. We lived but three miles away in the Wahiawä heights area, so I saw clearly what was happening. To the southwest in Pearl Harbor, I saw the black puffs of anti-aircraft fire as our gallant ships awakened and began defending themselves. Soon, I heard another roar: a Japanese “Zero” fighter plane came over our home, no more than 250 feet above me! I clearly saw the pilot with his cockpit open, goggles on and scarf flowing in the wind. The plane’s red hinomaru (rising-sun symbol of Japanese nationalism), or “meatball,” insignia, under both wings and on the plane’s fuselage, were visible. I then realized that these were Japanese planes — that war was upon us.
I dashed into the house, turned on the radio, awakened the rest of the family, and I heard the announcer speaking loudly into the microphone, “All servicemen, return to your bases, all servicemen return to your bases! The Japanese are attacking us! Return to your bases, this is NO JOKE! This is the real McCoy!“ This is how I remember that terrible day.
Several years later, in late 1945, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and my life changed, dramatically, when it sent me to Fort Snelling, MN, to attend the Military Intelligence Service Language School to study and become a linguist in the Japanese language.
I graduated in December, 1946, and was sent to become an interpreter in the Occupation of Japan (1945-52). After that, my positive experiences and friends in Minnesota made me accept frigid Minnesota and forever leave balmy and warm Hawai‘i.
When it lost World War II on Aug. 15, 1945, Japan’s terms of surrender included “Occupation.” On Aug. 25, U.S. troops swooped into Atsugi Airbase; with the arrival of the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Occupation began.
Nisei soldiers were in the vanguard of the occupying U.S. forces which must have felt like an invasion – a mind-boggling surprise to the beaten, cowed population. The amazed and surprised Japanese conjectured – Who are these men who look like us and yet, they are in the invading forces’ uniforms? Are they Japanese? Are they traitors to our country? What do they do? Why are they in the U.S. Army? They were to find out as the Occupation continued and these nisei interpreters’ contributions to history became clearer.
Reporters like Charles Hillinger of the Los Angeles Times remarked, “Nisei linguists easily converse with the local Japanese nationals about any subject while the majority of Occupation personnel is limited to a few phrases of salutation, gratitude and parting remarks.” Nisei were in all elements of the Occupation forces: General Headquarters, Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, Military Government, Language Detachments assigned to the combat divisions, the Counter Intelligence Corps, the Civil Censorship Detachment and many other units like the Engineers, Transportation Corps, Signal Corps and the Quartermaster units.
Because of these linguists, the Occupation of Japan was smooth and successful, unlike the present situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Japan had long been militaristic, imbued with the ethos of Yamato Damashii (the country’s nationalistic, military-fighting spirit of Japanese strength); this value system had shaped a classed, structured society during the Tokugawa period. The bushi (warrior) stood near the top under the power of their daimyo lords, with farmers, artisans and merchants beneath that samurai class, in terms of their respective social status. With World War II’s termination, the ending of this centuries-old tradition of martial power in Japanese society, in the form of the demilitarization of Japan, began.
We acknowledge that the nisei were our armed forces’ secret weapon who used language to defeat the enemy, the Japanese armed forces. The nisei soldiers aided Japan to begin full recovery through the “Three Ds” of its demilitarization process: Destruction, Demobilization and Democracy.
In Destruction, nisei soldiers aided in the location and destruction of the many hidden ammunition-supply dumps, armed depots and naval bases. In Demobilization, nisei linguists carefully scrutinized records and interrogated returning Japanese troops from Manchuria and Siberia to identify those who had undergone communism and brainwashing sessions and who were possible labor and cold-war activists.
In the Democratization of Japan phase, nisei linguists were key in making sure that land-reform laws were adhered to; that textbooks and teaching were democratic; that women’s rights were guaranteed; that the Constitution would include human rights and non-recourse to war; that there would be freedom of the press and that the zaibatsu (privately
owned, vertically integrated corporations that influenced the Japanese military to expand overseas and that financially supported Japan’s war efforts) would not rise once again. In essence, it was the ever-important expert kibei (nisei who were born in America but who received extended Japanese-language education in Japan) who were the key linguists.
It is my strong belief that the Occupation of Japan was successful because of the day-to-day example of the nisei soldier “rubbing shoulder to shoulder” with Japanese citizens. It is Col. Harry Fukuhara, an MIS graduate and combat veteran in the book “Unsung Heroes” who said, “Not all MIS-ers were fluent linguists, and their role in the Occupation was more than that of an interpreter or translator. What they learned from their parents and family reflected in their character. They treated the Japanese not as the enemy, but as fellow human beings.”
In recent years, many Japanese government officials at the national level repeatedly mentioned that the Japanese people owed a debt of gratitude to the nisei soldiers for their assistance during these difficult days. Nisei veterans who served in Maizuru City formed little-league baseball teams for Kyöto-region children and helped to beautify the area by planting what is known today as the “Aloha Sakura Trees.”
Japanese realized and learned that America treated the minority nisei soldiers as Americans, not as members of lower-class America. They came to believe that America’s political and social system was worthy of emulating.
As part of the Occupation forces, entrusted with responsible positions and being able to communicate in Japanese, the nisei soldier showed that America was a nation to be followed. The Occupation would not have been successful without this nisei presence and contributions.
The nisei knew the history, culture, customs and language of Japan and its people. As the old aphorism goes, they were certainly “a bridge to the sun.” And this also follows the old Japanese saying, “Kinö no teki wa kyö no tomo – Yesterday’s enemy is today’s friend.”