Personal accounts of war are often locked away, the wounds too raw for telling. For Japanese Americans, the tales are hidden for another reason. Their culture values humility above all else, and so tales of heroism are left untold and unacknowledged — a great loss, considering the high price Japanese American soldiers paid in World War II. General Douglas MacArthur said Japanese American contributions alone shortened the war by two years.
Linda Tamura has made it her life’s work to make sure the stories of these WWII veterans from Hood River are collected and told. The education professor is an unlikely war historian. She teaches classes and supervises student teachers by day, but her compelling accounts of the 442nd Japanese American military regiment and the “Yankee Samurai” who translated World War II war documents have attracted national attention and garnered invitations to give keynote speeches at the National Oral History Association Conference and the Pacific Northwest History Conference. Tamura, whose mother was confined in a concentration camp during the war, was able to recognize the sacrifices of her father and uncle before they passed away this year.
“For me,” Tamura says, “history is about asking questions, making connections, and filling in the gaps. My dad was a man of very few words, but he allowed me to tell his story.” Tamura invited her father and other Japanese American veterans — elderly, fragile men — to presentations where she and others told their stories, the ones she has spent years collecting. “Afterward, people thanked the veterans for their sacrifices,” she says. “The men didn’t say much, but the looks on their faces went beyond what they could have expressed in words. Those looks made it all worthwhile.”
Tamura’s father and uncle didn’t aspire to be war heroes. Her uncle, Mam Noji, was a homegrown Oregon farm boy, the son of hard-working immigrants. When the American military solicited recruits after Pearl Harbor was bombed, hundreds of Japanese Americans sought to prove their loyalty to America by signing up, but Noji had already been drafted. Ultimately, 33,000 would serve. While their parents and siblings were incarcerated behind barbed wire in America’s internment camps, Japanese American soldiers were given the lowliest tasks in the military, cleaning latrines and picking up cigarette butts. Their guns were confiscated. Later they were barred from service, considered suspicious.
But Uncle Sam changed his mind. The country needed soldiers to fight the enemy in Europe and was especially desperate for linguists in the South Pacific who could understand Japanese. The Japanese language is notoriously difficult, composed of two separate alphabets and thousands of additional Chinese characters. The Japanese commanders were so convinced their language was incomprehensible to outsiders they neglected to code their wartime communications, labeling minefields and carelessly passing around military documents.
Noji served in the Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS), which became one of America’s foremost secret weapons against Japan. The MIS training school was initially located in San Francisco, but was moved to Minnesota after Japanese Americans were banned from the West Coast. Within days of graduating, Japanese-speaking intelligence teams were shipped to the South Pacific combat theater, where they deciphered thousands of critical documents — changing the course of the war and saving thousands of American lives.
Theirs was no desk job. The MIS negotiated surrenders, and their lives were in danger as they parachuted in to eavesdrop on the enemy or arrived first at an abandoned camp, hoping to collect documents left in haste. Their work was also emotionally traumatic; they interrogated prisoners of war, hoping that a familiar Asian face and a cigarette would help prisoners open up. Their worst nightmare was that they would end up interviewing someone with their last name, that they would meet a cousin or uncle or nephew.
Tamura’s father, Harry Tamura, shipped out from Hood River to serve with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the regiment of Japanese Americans that saw 9,486 casualties, more than any other regiment in the U.S. Army. With its motto, “Go for Broke,” the team became the most decorated unit of comparable size and length of service in American military history. Generals argued over who got to use them for missions.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team is perhaps best known for the Battle of the Lost Battalion. Several military units had attempted to free a regiment of Texas soldiers that had been surrounded by Nazi forces in France. “Hitler swore he would get the Texas regiment at all costs,” Tamura says, “and each Allied attempt to free the men met with failure.” The 442nd was called in as a last resort. They rushed from a hard-fought battle, marched for days on little sleep, ascended a forested ridge near the top of a mountain, and freed the soldiers after five days of nonstop combat. They were made official residents of Texas in recognition of their incredible display of bravery.
The 442nd also captured a Nazi fortress on a mountaintop in Italy. The fortress was reinforced with concrete and featured gun holes through which Nazi soldiers took aim at anyone who approached. The Japanese regiment ascended sheer cliffs under cover of darkness and were told that if they slipped and fell, they were not to cry out, as it would give them all away. They took off their dog tags for the ascent, so there would be no telltale clink, and caught the German soldiers off guard, capturing the fortress.
“The 442nd regiment came home to great fanfare in New York City and Washington, D.C.,” Tamura says, “but the MIS just came home. There was no publicity. Even many military people weren’t aware of their sacrifices.”
Information from the MIS was classified until 1976, making the exploits and contributions of the translators invisible, even to military officers. Now MIS veterans — along with other World War II vets — are dying, at a rate of 1,100 each day. “Clearly,” Tamura says, “it’s time to recognize the contributions these brave soldiers made.”
Tamura took on the task eight years ago. She grew up seeing the uniforms of her father and uncle and wanted to learn the stories they had held within for decades, and so she learned military parlance and familiarized herself with battles fought long ago on fields she’ll never see.
She began by asking questions. “They didn’t want to talk at first — these memories were private and painful — but I’ve persisted,” Tamura says. She collected family stories and then stories from her community, planning to give a published article to her Uncle Noji. He didn’t last that long. After her uncle had a massive stroke in January, she read the article to him. “My family could tell by the sweat on his forehead that he was trying hard to hear the words, and then he lifted his arm and held my hand.” Two days later he was gone.
Tamura acknowledges that her research is sometimes overwhelming, coming as it does on top of a full-time job as an educator. “I never actually liked history. It was always about someone else, but there is something about these accounts, something about these men, that moves me to continue.”
And so she’ll keep burning the midnight oil — poring over documents, asking questions, repaying a debt we all owe. She’ll keep telling the untold stories.