Nisei Linguists from Washington in World War II

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 2/18/2015
  • Essay 11024
See Additional Media

United States military efforts in the Pacific theater during World War II were significantly aided by Japanese-speaking members of the U.S. Military Intelligence Service, nearly all of them second generation Japanese Americans (Nisei). Even before Pearl Harbor, a small army-intelligence school was opened in San Francisco to prepare Japanese speakers for intelligence roles. After the U.S. entered the war, the army established the Military Intelligence Service with a language school at Camp Savage in Minnesota. Throughout the war, Nisei linguists served in the Pacific, China, and Burma. They translated captured documents, listened in on radio messages, interrogated prisoners, talked Japanese civilians and soldiers out of hiding, and served critical roles in the occupation of Japan. Their work was largely secret and received little attention despite a significant role in shortening the war. Several hundred Nisei from Washington served in the Military Intelligence Service. This essay describes the contributions of six of the state's Nisei linguists.

Secret Weapon in the Pacific War

On November 1, 1941, the army anticipated a need for Japanese-language interceptors for the Pacific. A small language school was established at the Presidio of San Francisco with 60 students in the first class. On May 28, 1942, a formal program was established at Camp Savage. During 1942 and 1943 senior commanders in the Pacific recognized the tremendous value of the Nisei linguists and asked for more. This increased demand required a larger school. In 1944 the Military Intelligence Service language school moved to Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, to accommodate more students. Several hundred Japanese Americans from Washington completed training at the language school and served in the Military Intelligence Service.

The total number trained in the Military Intelligence Service, most of them Nisei, was 6,000. More than half, some 3,700, served in combat areas in 128 units. While the Japanese American 442nd Regiment is famous for its exceptional heroism in the war, the Military Intelligence Service has received much less attention. During the war it was secret, in part to protect the families in Japan of Military Intelligence Service members who might have suffered reprisals.

During the war Nisei linguists translated captured documents, interrogated prisoners, flushed Japanese soldiers and civilians out of caves, conducted battlefield intelligence, listened in on Japanese radio messages, and taught at the language school; afterward many served in the occupation of Japan. The linguists were able to learn of planned attacks and provide warnings that saved many American lives. They also saved thousands of Japanese civilians hiding in caves. Although civilians often feared that Americans would torture, rape, and kill them, many would believe the Nisei who spoke their language and promised decent treatment.

A number of Nisei soldiers from Washington received medals for valor, and several were killed in the war. Technical Sergeant Third Class Eddie Y. Fukui (1922-1945) of Tacoma was killed in action at Okinawa and awarded the Bronze Star for valor. Without the Military Intelligence Service the war in the Pacific would have lasted longer and been more dangerous. Below are six representative examples of the range of contributions of Washington Nisei linguists.

Masao Abe: Hit by Sniper on Peleliu Island

Masao Abe (1916-2013) was born in San Bernardino, California, the son of Japanese immigrants. In 1923, his parents sent him to be educated in Japan, where he lived until completing high school. Abe then returned to California to work in his father's store. Like Abe, many children of Japanese immigrants were educated in Japan, and they became known in the community as Kibei -- U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry who were educated in Japan and returned to live in America. Kibei were usually fluent in both Japanese and English.

Masao Abe enlisted in the army in October 1941 and was working as a hospital orderly at Camp Robinson in Arkansas when selected for the Military Intelligence Service language school at Camp Savage in Minnesota. He went to the Pacific as a member of a 10-man intelligence team. The team's first combat was on Guadalcanal, where they tried to talk Japanese soldiers out of caves they were hiding in. Next the team accompanied the September 1944 invasion of Angaur Island, near Peleliu Island in the Palau Islands. They were attached to the 81st Infantry Division that then moved to Peleliu Island to relieve the badly bloodied marines. It would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war in the Pacific.

On Peleliu as Abe was trying to talk some Japanese out of a cave he was hit by a sniper. The Nisei linguists worried about enemy snipers as well as American forces that fired at anyone looking Japanese. One example of friendly forces shooting at Japanese American troops involved Technical Sergeant Fifth Class Frank Hachija (1919-1945), who volunteered for forward duty to interrogate a prisoner. As he was returning with a map of enemy positions he was shot by fellow Americans. Despite his wounds, he finished delivering his maps and then died. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

After being shot by the sniper, Technical Sergeant Abe went to the hospital for three months to recover from his serious wounds. He was released from the hospital and sent to the Philippines and the battle there. Again he went out on patrols searching for Japanese hiding in caves. Not fully recovered, he was too weak to keep up with the patrols and was ordered to headquarters where he interrogated prisoners. At the end of the war he was assigned occupation duties in Tokyo.

Following the war Masao Abe returned to Los Angles and attended aviation mechanics school under the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (G.I. Bill) and became an aircraft mechanic. The family -- Abe and his wife had two children -- encountered racial discrimination that made it difficult to find a place to live. In 1953 they moved to Seattle and Masao Abe went to work for Boeing. In November 2011 he and other surviving World War II Nisei service members received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Harry Fukuhara: Battlefield Commission

Harry K. Fukuhara (b. 1920) was born in Seattle. When his father died in 1933 his mother took the children to Hiroshima, Japan. Following high school, in 1938 Harry returned to the United States and attended Glendale Junior College in California, receiving an associate's degree. He volunteered for the military three times and was rejected each time. The first time he volunteered for the army he was not eligible -- the Nisei were then listed as 4-C, not eligible due to "nationality." The marines and navy also turned him down. In the spring of 1942 he was sent with other Japanese Americans to an internment camp and he tried again to enlist. This time, in November 1942, he was accepted into the army. He served in the Southwest Pacific as an interpreter, translator, and interrogator. He was able to convince his commanders that Japanese prisoners were not prepared to resist skillful interrogation. Since Japanese military commanders did not anticipate prisoners being taken alive, service members were not trained in how to respond during interrogations.

In August 1945 Master Sergeant Fukuhara received a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. The next month he joined the United States occupation forces in the disarmament and deactivation of Japan's military. This was an opportunity for him to learn the fate of his mother who had remained in Hiroshima and had survived. In 1947 he trained for counterintelligence. Harry Fukuhara continued his army career and retired in 1971 as a colonel. He then became a civilian federal employee and retired a second time in 1991. He was inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1988 and received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011.

Henry "Hank" Gosho: Serving with Merrill's Marauders

Henry H. Gosho (1921-1992) was born in Seattle. His father Hiroshi Gosho (1894-1964) was a pharmacist and owner of Gosho Drug Company in Seattle. Henry Gosho attended grade school in South Seattle and in 1934 was sent to Japan for education. He spent seven years in Japan learning the language and culture. He returned to Seattle in 1941 and graduated from Beacon Hill School. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor he was at church choir practice. Four months later he and his family were sent to Camp Harmony, the internment assembly center at Puyallup. After a short time there they went to the permanent Minidoka internment camp at Hunt, Idaho.

In November 1942 Henry Gosho volunteered for the army. Following basic training he attended the Military Intelligence Service language school. He was one of 14 from the school picked for combat duty in Burma with an army unit that would gain fame as Merrill's Marauders. They fought under the toughest conditions with a very high casualty rate. In eighteen months Merrill's Marauders had five major and 30 minor engagements. Hank Gosho suffered malaria seven times in his 16 months with Merrill's Marauders. He led an advanced reconnaissance platoon that gathered intelligence on enemy forces. He also came under fire and fought as an infantryman.

Sergeant Gosho earned the nickname "Horizontal Hank" for the many times he had to hit the dirt while under fire. For his combat experience he received the coveted Combat Infantry Badge. After Merrill's Marauders disbanded Gosho worked with a Foreign Service officer in psychological warfare. Using loudspeakers, they tried to persuade a besieged garrison to surrender. Hank Gosho received a medical discharge in June 1945, joined the United States Foreign Service, and made it a career.

Ayato "Spady" Koyama: Career Army Officer

Spady Koyama (1917-2006) was born near Spokane where his father was a Great Northern Railway section foreman. His real name was Ayato, but he was given the nickname "Spady" for his father's work with a pick and shovel. Spady Koyama's father died when he was 5 years old and he was sent to Japan for schooling. He returned to Spokane when he was 11 and graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1937.

In January 1942 Koyama enlisted in the army, and had to legally change his name to Spady to keep it. While stationed at Camp Robinson he was selected for the Military Intelligence Service language school at Camp Savage. As a Kibei educated in Japan he was considered a good candidate. Following graduation he was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur's (1880-1964) forces in Australia. He interrogated Japanese prisoners. Technical Sergeant Third Class Koyama's next assignment was interrogation duties in New Guinea. During the invasion of the Philippines, Koyama was wounded aboard Landing Ship Tank 552. The ship was hit by a kamikaze plane. Koyama was laid on the beach with the dead and saved by a burial crew who realized he was alive.

Seriously wounded, he was returned to the United States for medical treatment. He went to Baxter General Hospital in Spokane to recover. In 1947 he was discharged and went home to Spokane. While resuming a civilian life he received a letter from the Department of Defense asking that he return to active duty for his language skills. He reenlisted and received a direct commission. Koyama served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 1970 he retired as a colonel to Spokane and lived the remainder of his life there.

Roy Matsumoto: Lifetime of Service

Roy Matsumoto (1913-2014) was born in Laguna, California, and at the age of 8 was sent to Hiroshima for education. He returned to California in 1930 and graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1933. He stayed in the United States when his family returned to Japan. In the spring of 1942 he was sent to the internment camp at Jerome, Arkansas. From this camp he volunteered for the army and because of his Kibei background was selected for language training.

At Camp Savage, Sergeant Matsumoto was selected for Merrill's Marauders, where he could use his language skills to great effect. Once when he had tapped a communications line he heard plans for an attack. He translated the message and alerted his unit, which inflicted heavy losses when the attack came. The attackers withdrew to reorganize so Sergeant Matsumoto then shouted "charge" in Japanese, and when they did they were destroyed. Fifty-four dead were counted at the battlefield. Sergeant Matsumoto was awarded the Legion of Merit for his actions, one of only four such awards given to Merrill's Marauders. When the unit disbanded, he served in China and at the end of the war as a war-crimes-trials translator in Shanghai.

Matsumoto remained in the army and reached the rank of master sergeant. He retired in 1963 and spent his later years living on San Juan Island in Northwest Washington. The Bainbridge Island filmmakers Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers produced a video on his life titled Honor and Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story. Matsumoto was inducted into the United States Army Rangers Hall of Fame and Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, and was among the group of Nisei veterans to receive the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011.

George Tsutakawa: World Famous Fountain Designer

George Tsutakawa (1910-1997) was born on February 22, 1910, in Seattle and named in honor of George Washington, whose birthday was also the 22nd. Like many of the army linguists, Tsutakawa, educated in Japan from 1917 to 1927, was a Kibei. After returning to Seattle, Tsutakawa studied art at Broadway High School and continued his studies at the University of Washington. He was drafted into the army in January 1942. While on duty at Camp Robinson, he was selected to attend language training at Camp Savage. He completed training and became an instructor there. In his off-duty hours he visited art museums in the Midwest and took leave to spend time in New York and Boston museums.

After the war Tsutakawa returned to Seattle and, using the G.I. Bill, obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Washington. He became a UW teacher and a world leader in fountain design. Among his works was Fountain of Wisdom, designed for the Seattle Central Library building that opened in 1960 and reinstalled at the new library opened in 2004 at the same location.

Sources: James C. McNaughton, Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During World War II (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2006); Joseph Harrington, Yankee Samurai: The Secret Role of Nisei in America's Pacific Victory (Detroit: Pettigrew Enterprises, 1979); Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers, Honor and Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story (video) (Bainbridge Island: Stourwater Pictures, 2013); Merrill's Marauders, February-May 1944 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1989); Won-loy Chan, Burma: The Untold Story (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1986); Bill Hosokawa, Nisei: The Quiet Americans (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002); Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1994); Martha Kingsbury, George Tsutakawa (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); Ronald E. Magden, Furusato: Tacoma-Pierce County Japanese (Tacoma: Nikkeijinkai Tacoma Japanese Community Service, 1998); "Sergt. Gosho Ending Army Service with Enviable Record," The Seattle Times, May 2, 1945, p. 11; "Seattle Nisei Veteran Visits," Ibid, May 28, 1945, p. 4; "Shanghai War Crimes Trials," Ibid., December 10, 1945, p. 4; "He Faced the Enemy; the Enemy Was Us," Ibid., September 27, 1979, p. 1; "Japanese Gives His Life for U.S.," Tacoma Ledger News, May 27, 1945, p. A-9.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You