Epic saga of courage, heroism, patriotism

Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to the Hawai‘i Herald

Takejiro Higa.

On Easter Sunday morning April 1, 1945, Hawai‘i-born Nisei intelligence analyst Takejiro Higa stared across the cobalt sea from the deck of a U.S. troop carrier to the island of Okinawa, which six years earlier he had fled to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Army. Before him on the western side of the island lay the invasion beachhead near the town of Chatan, three miles inland was the town of Shimabuku where Higa had lived for 14 years since age two.

In a new book to be published in September, chronicling the history of the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific and Asia, Higa felt that Okinawa was more like home than Hawai‘i. Here he had come of age. On the eve of the bloody Pacific battle, he recalled an old Japanese saying: “Mitsugo no tamashi hyaku made” (the spirit of a three-year-old will last a hundred years. What you learn as a child, you will never forget.) Higa was torn by conflicting emotions of his duty as an American soldier who was faced with invading his ancestral home.

“Bridge to the Sun.” (Photo courtesy of Bruce Henderson)
“Bridge to the Sun.” (Photo courtesy of Bruce Henderson)

Author Bruce Henderson, in his new book “Bridge to the Sun,” writes: “He (Higa) was that young when his mother brought him here, and he grew up not far from where he was to land as a soldier. His worlds were about to collide. His was not a conflict of loyalties, but a conflict of emotions.”

Takejiro’s brother, Warren Higa, was taken to Okinawa when he was five. He returned to Hawai‘i three years later. Henderson writes that he believed “Hawai‘i was home, not Okinawa.” He attended the University of Hawai‘i and enlisted in the 442nd RCT in 1943. Takejiro Higa also volunteered at the same time but failed the English proficiency test. Warren Higa volunteered for the MIS when training at Camp Shelby. The two brothers were assigned to the same 10-member MIS team after their sister sought a special waiver from the War Department that prevented brothers from serving in the same unit. She thought her brothers would help each other, especially because Takejiro Higa lacked proficiency in English to serve as a linguist and interpreter. The brothers served in the Military Intelligence Service, whose wartime heroics were kept secret and were “classified” by the government and the soldiers themselves until the 1970s. Unlike the highly publicized deeds of the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Africa, Italy and France, MIS soldiers did not belong to a single Army unit and were attached to larger fighting units in small teams in the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific and other areas and during the post-war occupation of Japan.

Warren (left) and Takejiro Higa.
Warren (left) and Takejiro Higa.

They did their work in complete anonymity. With their knowledge of Japanese language, culture and customs, they monitored, intercepted and translated Japanese radio traffic. They served as intelligence specialists translating captured documents, battle orders, diaries and flushed out caves of enemy soldiers and civilians as well as acting as interpreters. (Joseph Harrington, in his 1979 book “Yankee Samurai: The Secret Role of Nisei in America’s Pacific War,” wrote that Japanese Imperial Army officers were so confident that their complicated language was “almost impenetrable code” that everything was written in plain Japanese.) The first Hawai‘i Nisei intelligence specialists, Arthur Komori and Richard Sakakida, were recruited eight months before the Pearl Harbor attack and assigned to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines.

Henderson’s book is a reminder that in America too often prejudice is based on race and ethnicity and the story of MIS soldiers is a “timeless message of courage and patriotism.”  

It also is a reminder of racial discrimination and the forced removal of 120,000 Japanese under Executive Order 9066 from their homes in Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona to 10 remote incarceration camps where they were held for more than three years. In 1990, the survivors received reparations of $20,000 each and a letter of apology signed by President George H.W. Bush. Henderson layers the experiences of the six Nisei soldiers – five who had families living behind barbed wire fences – weaving them into the campaigns of the Pacific war and into an absorbing chronicle.

Henderson’s 480-page book contains a list of the 3,000 Nisei soldiers and 24 Nisei Women’s Army Corps soldiers who served in the Pacific theater. He said volunteer researchers at the Japanese American Veterans Association spent more than a year compiling the list. It takes up 43 pages in “Bridge to the Sun: The Secret Role of the Japanese Americans Who Fought in the Pacific in World War II,” which will be published by Knopf on Sept. 27 — 22 days after the 77th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty with Japan. The book also contains a list of 55 Nisei intelligence specialists who were killed during the war.

As early as 1946, the MIS Language School album published a list of nearly 6,000 of its graduates, who served in the war against Japan and was reprinted in later publications. Henderson’s book only deals with the campaign in the Pacific, but not all the Nisei MIS linguists were sent to the Pacific or Asia. There were MIS soldiers who worked on the east coast and Hawai‘i, translating captured Japanese documents and intercepted radio messages or continued to work as teachers preparing soldiers for war. Hawai‘i-born MIS linguist Kazuo Yamane has been credited as uncovering a classified Imperial Japanese Army Ordnance Inventory in crates of 15 papers from Saipan that Navy officials had declared had no value. Working at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, Yamane determined that the papers contained detailed descriptions of all the armaments in the Japanese inventory, as well as the location of arms, ammunition depots and manufacturing plants in Japan. He also was supposed to parachute into Germany with a British commando unit and confiscate documents from the Japanese Embassy in Berlin, but the mission was aborted.

Henderson told Hawai‘i Herald “the nonfiction narrative follows six Japanese American soldiers, among the first Nisei in combat in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor – as some of their families were being held in internment camps in America – deployed throughout the Pacific, to the jungles of New Georgia, the caves of Okinawa, and the mountains of Burma with the famed Merrill’s Marauders, and who were, in effect, fighting two wars simultaneously: one overseas against their ancestral homeland: the other against racial prejudice at home.”

The six MIS soldiers in Henderson’s book were “Kibei” – Nisei or second-generation Japanese Americans who were born in the United States but educated in Japan before the war. Several left Japan to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Army. Many of the Nisei MIS soldiers still had relatives in Japan while others had families living behind barbed wire fences at one of 10 internment camps, a euphemism for concentration camps.

Henderson was able to interview only one of the six – Kazuo Komoto – before he died in 2018. For the others, Henderson said he used oral histories, correspondence, memoirs, and other materials. Of the six soldiers profiled only Higa was from Hawai‘i.

“I also looked for individuals who gave me a wide coverage of the war in the Pacific. I wanted them to be in as many places as possible, so the readers had an understanding of what was happening in the Aleutians, Burma, Iwo Jima, Okinawa,” Henderson said.

Henderson’s book reveals that Komoto, whose parents were held in Gila River concentration camp in Arizona, was the first Nisei to receive a Purple Heart when he was wounded in the right leg by a Japanese sniper on July 15, 1943, in the Solomon Islands. The 100th Battalion, whose outstanding training record convinced Army planners to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, didn’t see action until September 1943. Sgt. Conrad Tsukayama was the 100th Battalion’s first Purple Heart recipient shortly after the unit began its European campaign. Komoto also was visited by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt while recuperating in a Fiji hospital.

Higa, at age 22, was part of a 160,000-member armada that would land on Okinawa and which grew to more than half million troops in the bloodiest campaign in the Pacific where U.S. casualties numbered more than 12,000 killed or missing, 36,000 wounded and another 26,000 were non battle casualties (disease, fatigue and combat neurosis or shell shock), according to Henderson. He reported that of the estimated 75,000 Japanese troops, 7,400 were taken prisoner and the remainder were killed or missing. But the biggest toll was to the Okinawan civilian population where 100,000 where killed in the three month-long campaign.

The Ryūkū islands covers 1,193 square miles, consists of 55 islands and extends 700 miles southwestward from Japan. It is divided into three groups: Amami island chain in the north, central Okinawa islands and the Sakishima islands in the south. Okinawa, its main island of 465 square miles and only 350 miles south of Japan, was the country’s last stand to protect its homeland and America needed its airfields to launch an invasion of Japan.

Higa’s story may be familiar to many in Hawai‘i, especially to Nisei soldiers and their families here. It is a story of how he convinced both civilians and Japanese soldiers, who were holed up in caves, to surrender and how he recognized and interrogated his teacher, Shunsho Nakankari (also known as Nakamura), who was caught digging up potatoes, and two Japanese soldiers, who were his classmates and students of Nakankari (Nakamura). His story has been chronicled in other publications, including a July 2, 1993, Hawai‘i Herald story by former editor Karleen Chinen, Japanese books and a comic book and a special Japanese NHK television report. It is part of the University of Hawai‘i’s Nisei Veterans oral history project and an exhibit at the Himeyuri Peace Museum in Itoman in Okinawa.

Henderson also recounts a 1995 visit Higa made to Okinawa – on the 50th anniversary of the invasion – where he met Toyo Tawada who had read an interview he had done with Ryūkyū Shimpo, the island’s largest newspaper. “Mr. Higa, I owe you for the life I enjoy today,” the Okinawan survivor told Higa. Her daughter added: “I want to thank you too, Mr. Higa. Because of you, I am here, and my children are here.”

In his contribution to the 1998 first volume of 

“Japanese Eyes, American Heart,” Higa writes he told the two Okinawan women: “Thank you. Up to now, my only thought was I hoped I was of some help. Hearing from someone directly that I had been of help meant so much to me, but when the daughter told me that she was alive because of my help, wow that hit me even harder.”

Henderson’s book is a tribute to Japanese Americans who were “huge assets to the U.S. military because they knew the enemy better than anyone and were highly motivated to defeat them.”

Henderson said he became aware of the MIS story while doing research on his book published in 2017 on 1,985 German-born Jews who were trained to be interrogators and returned to Europe to serve with airborne forces on D-Day at Normandy; with Patton’s fast-moving tank force that swept through occupied France and fought in the Battle of the Bulge and against Hitler’s all-out offensive designed to win back the war. The German Jew soldiers were with Allied forces that liberated concentration camps.

The stories of the six U.S. naturalized citizen Jewish soldiers in “Sons and Soldiers,” who had parents and relatives sent to Nazi death camps, focused on the war in Europe. Henderson said he spent three years working on a tale of the MIS Nisei warriors that deals with the events in the Pacific.

Desperate, German Jews started sending their eldest sons to the U.S. when Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941. All German citizens in the U.S. automatically were declared “enemy aliens.” (The same “enemy alien” designation was given to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.) The Jewish American soldiers became known as the “Ritchie Boys” because their training took place at Camp Ritchie. Part of what the Ritchie Boys did was to convince German units to surrender without fighting, a similar duty performed by Nisei MIS soldiers in the war against Japan.

Until 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed Executive Order 11652, declassifying all military intelligence documents from World War II, the role of MIS was classified. Army historian James C. McNaughton has said President Harry Truman referred to the MIS as the “human secret weapon for the U.S. Armed Forces.” (McNaughton was the author of a 2006 Department of the Army study, “Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II,” which was requested under legislation authored by Sen. Daniel Akaka.) Major Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, the chief of intelligence for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, praised the MIS, pronouncing that its work shortened the Pacific war, according to Henderson. In June 2000, the MIS received a Presidential Unit Citation, the highest possible military award for a unit in the U.S. military. 

In his 1998 “Japanese Eyes, American Heart” personal reflection, Higa, who believed he discharged his obligation as a U.S. citizen in World War II using a Japanese-English dictionary, notebook, portable megaphone and his mouth without firing a shot and at the same time helping the people he grew up among, said he had found peace with his wartime experience.

“In a way, I went to war – and found peace.”

Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service as a congressional correspondent and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter, and assistant city editor.

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