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The Bay Area connection to the "Human Secret Weapons” of World War II
If you read your history books, you might think that America’s involvement in the war against Japan began with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Preparations for war, however, were already underway before that day. A month earlier, America’s leaders had created the Military Intelligence Service, or MIS, and headquartered it in San Francisco’s Presidio. The MIS Language School trained Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans, as military intelligence linguists. The inaugural class, 58 Nisei and two Caucasians, began their secret language studies in November of 1941.
Their translations pulled back the curtain on critical matters such as battle plans, supply levels, and troop movements. The MIS specialized in intelligence, but they also served directly in the line of fire. According to Brigadier General Arthur Ishimoto, MIS graduates served in every major conflict in the Pacific.
“We flushed enemies out of caves, we went into patrols, captured prisoners, interrogated them, parachuted behind enemy lines, operated behind enemy lines for the duration, worked with guerrillas, ambushed troops and disrupted supplies” says Ishimoto.
Despite their service, the nation viewed the soldiers and their families with mistrust.
Recalling the time, Ishimoto says, “We Nisei were suspected of being disloyal and were classified as enemy aliens. With one stroke of a pen 70,000 Nisei’s lost their citizenship. 112,000 residents from the West Coast were sent to internment camps.”
Yet the Nisei continued to enlist and fight on. In 1944, five MIS linguists raced to translate Japan’s Z plan: their defensive strategy for the South Pacific. Armed with this intelligence the Navy went on to destroy much of Japan’s naval power in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
More than translators
On the field, MIS soldiers confronted unique dangers. They were assigned bodyguards because their fellow GI’s sometimes mistook them for the enemy. They also faced torture and execution if captured by the Japanese who saw them as traitors.
MIS linguist Frank Masuoka was deep in enemy territory on Okinawa when he was taken by a band of Japanese officers. They surrounded him at gunpoint. Masuoka spoke and somehow made a critical connection.
“We convinced this one soldier to come with us to our forward command post where we had radio communication,” he says.
As they arrived at the command post, on August 15, 1945, a stunning broadcast came over the transmitter. Emperor Hirohito addressed his nation and accepted the Allies’ terms of surrender.
“So the soldier was convinced Japan had surrendered,” Masuoka says.
Masuoka brought the soldier back to his unit to inform their commander.
“So he said he would have all his remaining soldiers that were hiding come out,” he says. “We did bring out all these 600 that were hiding out, holding out.”
Honored for their services
Several weeks after capturing those 600 prisoners of war, Masuoka was awarded a silver star for his valor. Six decades later, the nation bestowed its highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, on the MIS, 442nd regiment, and the 100th batallion.
At the awards ceremony, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “Congratulations to each and everyone of you and to your families. In accepting this gold medal you bring luster to this award and honor to this Congress.”
Two years later, on Veteran’s Day 2013, Masuoka and more than a dozen of his fellow soldiers came to the opening of a museum in San Francisco’s Presidio honoring their service.
“Seeing all his buddies is very emotional,” says Ginger Masuoka, the soldier’s wife of 65 years. “He’s very proud of seeing all this.”
As she speaks, a photo of Masuoka as a very young man flashes on an exhibit screen. Masuoka laughs happily when he sees the image.
“That picture was when I volunteered from one of the relocation center in Colorado back in December 1942,” he says. “Yah, I was only 19 years old then.”
Standing just outside the museum, a group of boy scouts gathers. They’re not much younger than Masuoka was when he enlisted.
Koki Soejima, senior patrol leader for Troop 58, says of his visit, “”I thought that was very interesting. There was a lot of stuff I never knew before. I’m pretty sure this place has more information than it has in my textbooks.”
Because their work was classified, the role of the MIS in World War II remained unknown for decades, until 1972 when President Nixon ordered the declassification of past national security documents. Today, nearly 70 years after Victory over Japan was declared, the surviving veterans and the public can see the story told in full.
The MIS Historic Learning Center is located at 640 Mason Street along Crissy Field in the Presidio.