Asian Pacific American Heritage month is an appropriate occasion to highlight the contributions of a small band of Japanese Americans who served in the Office of Special Services (OSS), the CIA’s precursor, during World War II. These soldiers were among a small number of Japanese Americans to serve in Asia during that period. They provided essential language and cultural skills to OSS while facing enemies with whom they shared physical resemblances and sometimes, even family ties.
Japanese-Americans enlisted in the US Army during World War II even though the US government forced many of their families into internment camps in the wake of Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. In late 1943, an OSS representative visited the military’s Japanese American combat unit, the 442nd Infantry Regiment, at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. The representative asked for volunteers who could read and write Japanese and were willing to undertake extremely hazardous assignments. More than 100 men volunteered, but only 14 were ultimately selected for OSS missions. All were Nisei, the US-born children of Japanese immigrants.
The volunteers underwent rigorous training for operations behind enemy lines. For most of 1944, they studied Japanese language and geography, survival skills, hand-to-hand combat, explosives, and radio operation. They were assigned to OSS Detachments 101 and 202, special operations units that operated in the China-Burma-India Theater. Once deployed, they were to interrogate prisoners, translate documents, monitor radio communications, and conduct covert operations. They left the US in November 1944.
- Chiyoki Ikeda, one of the OSS Nisei linguists.
The military abandoned initial plans to send the Nisei
to Japan when it was deemed too dangerous to put the linguists at risk of capture on enemy soil. Five Nisei
, Chiyoki Ikeda, Takao Tanabe, Susumu Kazahaya, George Kobayashi, and Tad Nagaki were sent to China. Dick Betsui and Wilbert Kishinami went to India. Calvin Tottori, Tom Baba, Fumio Kido, Shoichi Kurahashi, Ralph Yempuku, Junichi Buto, and Dick Hamada were sent to Burma. In an oral history, Hamada said, “Knowing that we were not going to Japan was a great relief. Thus, when we were shipped to Burma, I felt, or even our group felt, we could do more to aid the Americans, fight the enemy.”
In Burma, Detachment 101 operated behind Japanese lines with native ethnic Kachin soldiers to drive out Japanese forces. This posed particular risks for the Japanese American soldiers. Hamada said, “Being in a jungle, being that we possess the face of an enemy, I was very much afraid of people that I didn’t know. I was safe with my people, Americans. . . But there are other people that you would run with during your campaign that didn’t know who you were. And that was what I was afraid of. I was afraid of being shot by them. So an American always [accompanied] me wherever I went. That’s for safety.”
The Nisei were warned that Japanese forces would be ruthless with them as prisoners of war. Hamada recounted, “I was instructed to keep one bullet for myself in the event I should get captured. . . Because the ultimate torture would be so great and I’d probably end up dead after all that investigation torture.” According to Hamada and Yempuku, the Japanese offered a $20,000 reward to anyone who captured a Nisei in Burma.
Detachment 101 and 102’s clandestine operations were extremely successful. Their accomplishments in Burma included rescuing downed American pilots, attacking Japanese-held villages, cutting off enemy supply routes, and collecting valuable intelligence. In 1945, they participated in a series of mercy missions to rescue prisoners of war in China, Manchuria and Korea.
Toward the end of the war, Yempuku had an experience that highlighted the difficulties that many Japanese Americans faced during WWII; he crossed paths with a brother in the Japanese army. Yempuku was watching the ceremony marking Japan’s surrender to the British in Hong Kong. Unbeknownst to him, his brother was the interpreter for the Japanese official in the ceremony. Yempuku did not see his brother that day but learned of his role later from a friend who had been translating for the British. Three of Yempuku’s brothers had been drafted into the Japanese army and become prisoners of war.
A number of the OSS Nisei received awards for their exceptional service. Their accomplishments have become part of the Japanese American legacy and intelligence history. For more information about Japanese Americans in WWII intelligence, see the Studies in Intelligence article, “FBIS Against the Axis, 1941-1945,” by Stephen C. Mercado.
Editor's note: Quotes in this article came from the Hawai`i Nisei Story and from the Japanese American Veterans Association [external link disclaimer].