Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Secret War

7th Infantry Division Sgts. Hiroshi "Bud" Mukaye, left, and Ralph Minoru Saito, center, question a Japanese sailor at Okinawa on June 17, 1945. (From the Honolulu Star-Bulletin of March 4, 2007)

By Pat Browning

Today marks the 65th anniversary of D-Day, a turning point in World War II when Allied forces invaded France and began the bloody march to Berlin. While the world’s attention was focused on Europe’s “second front” a secret war was taking place in the Pacific.

The “Yankee Samurais” – Japanese-Americans – were going island to island as code breakers, interpreters and spies. They were “embedded” with American troops, to use a current term.

As a reporter for The Hanford (California) Sentinel, I interviewed a local farmer who had been one of the Yankee Samurais. A couple of things he told me have stuck in my mind. One, they were always accompanied by two bodyguards. Two, when they were discharged at the end of the war they were instructed never to talk about their experiences. They never did, for many years. Finally, at a reunion in Hawaii, their stories began to leak out.

Two books have been written about the Yankee Samurais. Here’s an excerpt from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin of March 4, 2007 at

By Gregg K. Kakesako
Army historian John C. McNaughton has worked for nearly two decades on the first official history of the 6,000 Japanese-American Army linguists credited by many with altering the outcome of World War II.

The book, in great detail, retraces the war in the Pacific and the contributions of nisei linguists in places like China-Burma, the Philippines, Okinawa, the Aleutians, Guadalcanal, Guam and postwar Japan.
The Japanese-American linguists translated captured enemy documents, interrogated Japanese prisoners of war, intercepted communications, persuaded Japanese soldiers to surrender, deployed behind enemy lines to collect information and sabotage enemy operations and conducted psychological warfare.
McNaughton, in a telephone interview from his office in Germany, credited Joe Harrington, a retired Navy journalist who in 1979 contacted several hundred nisei linguists and described their wartime efforts in the book "Yankee Samurai," with being the first to publicize the achievements of the MIS.
End quote.

A humorous sidebar to this story: When those World War II Japanese-Americans were sent to language schools they were shocked to find out how different the “real” Japanese language was from their own.

Here’s an excerpt from the University of Colorado at Boulder, UCB Libraries Archives Collections: U.S. Navy Japanese/Oriental Language School Archival Project (JSLP)

“The Interpreter”
(Archives, University of Colorado At Boulder Libraries)

A Humbling Experience
You should know that for the last day of conversation class, our Sensei (teacher) had promised a sample of what we would experience in a war zone. We six sat as he entered our second floor classroom in the campus library that lovely, cool, June day. We exchanged Ohayo gozaimasu (formal good morning). Sensei removed a Japanese newspaper from his briefcase, placed his pocket watch on the table, and began a fifty-five minute reading, without pause.

We took this to be a challenge of what we had learned in fifty weeks of concentrated effort -- our concentration was intense. Within ten minutes I concluded that I was understanding only about one quarter of the reading, and sweat began seeping from every pore.

When Sensei finished, he folded the paper into his briefcase, pocketed his watch, wished us Gokigenyo (good luck), and departed. We sat there in a state of communal shock. We rose, moving out of the room and down the stairs, in a sort of zombie-like trance. I suppose we were all conjuring up the horror of being confronted with that kind of Japanese in a combat situation.

I was walking silently alongside Hy Kublin when we reached the open air. He stopped, turned to me, and declared, “Rog, if I were on a flagship and was summoned by the admiral to listen to a Japanese radio broadcast like that, I know just what I’d do.” Since I was experiencing similar frightening scenarios, I implored, “Tell me Hy, what would you do?”

Hy replied, “I’d sit down in front of the radio speaker, and listen intently for about half a minute. If what I heard was coming out like Sensei’s reading, I’d stand up, look the admiral square in the eye and say, “Sir, the dirty bastards have switched to Korean.”
End Quote.

Every one of the millions of people caught up in World War II has a story. We will never hear all of them.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Another great story, Pat. I’m glad you took the time to recognize the significance of D-Day as well as the war in the Pacific. The irony of these Japanese Americans playing such an important role in our victory in the Pacific is that we interned so many Japanese Americans out of fear of misplaced loyalty and/or spying, and yet ultimately, it was our own Japanese Americans who were spying on the Japanese.

Anonymous said...


There are so cockamamie stories from that war it's hard to believe some of them.

But I guess we have to remember that Germany and Japan were the only 2 countries who actually prepared for it. Everyone else was caught flatfooted and had to make it up as they went along.


MarkusKublin said...

Hi Pat.
Hy Kublin was my great-uncle. I was still very young when he passed away in 1982 and never had the chance to know him very well. I had been told that he was a war veteran, but know little else about his time in WWII. I do know that his Japanese studies led him into a long career, where he was regarded as an expert on Far East cultures as a professor, author, and political adviser.
I had never heard this story before, and I am glad to have discovered it thanks to your blog. I find it very endearing and humanizing of a family member I wish I could have known better.
Thank you.
Mark Kublin