CROSSROADS TO SOMEWHERE: The Saga of Tad Nagaki

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By W.T. Wimpy HirotoWIMPY

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Nebraska Farmer to OSS Operative

Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. The parachutes seemed to open on cue. Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. Seven cotton balls in synchronized unison. The morning of Aug. 17, 1945, was already sweltering hot despite buffeting winds. Jumping from 400 feet eliminated the danger of anti-aircraft fire but could bring the threat of small arms into play. Members of Duck Team had little time to worry about potential enemy resistance. Their assignment was to free 1500 prisoners of war at Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center on China’s mainland. Tadashi Nagaki was second man out of the lumbering B-24 Liberator bomber, aptly named “The Armoured Angel.”

The military saga of Tad Nagaki does not follow the well-worn path of evacuated Nisei internee to a slogging 442nd Regimental Combat Team soldier in Italy. This GI would go for broke in a far less familiar, almost forgotten World War II theatre of operation.

Drafted in November of 1941, he was just a farm boy being sent off to fight a war with other fellow Nebraskan recruits. A stocky 5’5” athlete who excelled at baseball, football and track Nagaki had set his sights on becoming an *air cadet, passing all required tests and physicals; only to be denied acceptance because of ethnicity, Nagaki’s very first experience with racial prejudice. (*The U.S. Army had it’s own air force at that time; Ben Kuroki, ironically also from Nebraska, was one of only two Nisei ever accepted into its service.)

A star-crossed military experience continued to sour when, as a signal corps trainee, everyone shipped out for overseas duty except him. While assigned to such menial tasks as pruning trees and loading supply trains (with 40 other Nisei), Nagaki spotted an ominous notice on the bulletin board: “Volunteers for a Special Nisei Combat Unit” were being sought for “highly secret intelligence work more hazardous than combat. “

There is a standing axiom for military survival. Never volunteer for nothing.

To Private Nagaki anything would be better than gardening and manual labor for the duration. He signed on without any reservations, one of 23 to make the harrowing decision. In the final reckoning only 14 would complete the training regimen, three from California, 10 from Hawaii and Nebraskan Nagaki.

Sgt. Tad Nagaki with fellow OSS team member T/4 Raymond Hanchulak receiving the coveted Soldier’s Medal after the liberation of Weihsien in 1945.

Sgt. Tad Nagaki with fellow OSS team member T/4 Raymond Hanchulak receiving the coveted Soldier’s Medal after the liberation of Weihsien in 1945.

The rigorous preparation began with radio training in Illinois, Military Intelligence Language School sessions at Fort Savage, Minnesota, and six weeks of unrelenting survival conditioning on Catalina Island. The irony of training in California while all Japanese were barred from the west coast military zone was not lost on the Nisei trainees. Although all communications with the outside world were restricted and censored, the Catalina experience gave hint to where *OSS Detachment 101 would eventually be headed.

[*The Office of Strategic Services was a military orphan. Known today as the forerunner of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it was formed in 1942 by Col. William J. Donovan with the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nick-named “Wild Bill” by detractors, Gen. Douglas MacArthur refused to allow the organization to operate in the Philippines under his command. At home J. Edgar Hoover fought to undermine it’s intelligence gathering abilities at every turn as he jealously viewed Donavan’s ragtag unit a potential rival to his civilian Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Despite this opposition in its short tenure, OSS helped arm, train and supply resistance movements in areas occupied by the Axis powers during World War II. It was disbanded by Pres. Harry Truman in 1945.]

The Japanese Imperial Army conducted an Asian version of Blitzkrieg early in 1942, rampaging through sieve-like defenses at will. With the fall of Singapore, Java, the Philippines and China proving to be inept ally, the loss of all Southeast Asia’s rich and important natural resources loomed imminent. The string of conquests also gave the Japanese a potential jumping off point to invade Australia.

Strained supply lines and unfriendly jungles were seemingly the only obstacles they couldn’t overcome. Confronting such an impasse became a greater hurdle for the invaders than Chinese, British, Indian and Australian troops.

Seizing upon this unexpected opportunity OSS guerilla teams were formed and sent into remote regions to operate behind enemy lines. Their first order of business would be to win the allegiance and support of native chiefs and their tribes; harassing a superior force would require help from the warriors.

Combat was not John Wayne and Gary Cooper single-handedly winning the war. It was constant danger and peril, especially for the Nisei. The brotherhood of *OSS Nisei was a combination of versatility and commitment. Their duties ranged from sabotage, guerilla warfare, hit and run harassment, translating captured documents, preparing propaganda leaflets, building airfields, reporting troop movements, helping rescue downed American pilots.

[*Calvin Tottori, a detachment member, authored “The OSS Nisei in CBI (China/Burma/India) Theater”, a first person memoir of the collective exploits of this unit. Dick Hamada, a member of 2nd Battalion, recalls the aftermath of an early skirmish with the Japanese. Before reporting the results of an ambush, he asked his Kachin Ranger counterpart for a body count estimate, unsure of the true total based on some clothing and captured weapons. When he openly questioned the exact number reported, the tribesman produced twenty ears from his pouch. “From that day on I never doubted their claims,” Hamada confessed.

Tad Nagaki added, “I never had the chance to interrogate Japanese prisoners (since) they resisted capture with such fanatical zeal. It seemed surrender was never an option (with them).” Being mistaken for the enemy was always a clear and present danger. 2nd Lt. Ralph Yempuku, the only Nisei field grade officer, pointed out the depth of Kachan native hate for the Japanese. “They had a history of torture and bayoneting villagers to death.” Capt. Joe Lazarsky, lst Battalion Kachin Ranger leader, carefully made a production out of Yempuku’s first introduction to the natives. The captain ordered the warriors to carefully study Yempuku’s face to guarantee he wouldn’t be mistaken and killed as an enemy Japanese in a U.S. uniform. “I told them the lieutenant was a “Big Dua” just like the rest of us (white) men,” Lazarsky emphasized. Yempuku would later lead his own guerilla unit behind enemy lines along the Burma Road. (*When Lt. Yempuku returned to civilian life in Hawaii he became a noted entertainment and sports entrepreneur. Rafu Shimpo columnist George Yoshinaga later became an associate in his U.S. and Japan ventures.)]

As the war wound down in Burma, Detachment 101 was deployed to China where disturbing rumors were being heard of the possible slaughter of all prisoners of war, civilian and military, by the Japanese. Rescue plans became the top priority for Gen. Albert Wedemeyer as he ordered the safe evacuation of all POWs in China, Manchuria and Korea.

OSS had 7-man teams available for such duty, all with code names of birds. Nagaki’s Duck Team parachuted into Weihsien Assembly Center where 1,500 Allied civilian prisoners were being held. Hamada parachuted into Peiping (Beijing) to liberate 624 prisoners, including survivors of the Doolittle air raids on Tokyo; Fumio Kato’s team jumped into Mukden to rescue Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, hero of Corregidor and Bataan, along with 1600 other POWs; Tottori flew to Taiwan while Yempuku landed on Hainan Island to save 400 starving prisoners.

“The Nisei bought an awful hunk of America with their blood,” declared Gen. Joseph Stilwell, commander of U.S. forces in CBI. “You’re damn right those Nisei boys have a place in the heart of America forever!” Nagaki was among those honored with the Soldiers Medal for Heroism.

In recounting his time in service Nagaki dismisses any sense of heroism or extraordinary duty. “Just served my time like any other GI,” is his simple explanation. As if living among 120 Shan tribesmen, sleeping in a basha (hut), eating native cuisine of chicken curry and rice (not too bad compared to K and C rations) and riding elephants bareback was routine army duty. Not to mention a constant battle fighting superior numbers of the enemy.

After being honorably discharged from the Army in 1947 he married *Asako “Butch” Nakazono whom he had met on a blind date while training in Minnesota. She had been his lone stateside contact during his CBI adventures and she dutifully kept Nagaki’s parents as informed as is possible from censored mail. They had earlier agreed to get married only after he had returned from active duty. (*By coincidence Asako’s brother, Eichi, was also in the CBI while with Military Intelligence. Meanwhile Tad’s older brother, Akira Skeets, was a private first class with the 442nd.)

According to Nagaki it was no problem transitioning back to the uncluttered life of tilling the soil. With bride in tow he returned to Nebraska to start raising a family along with his beloved crops.

[Little did Tadashi Nagaki realize his 1945 parachute jump into eastern China would be reprised a half century later in a most unexpected manner. ]

The Savior Angel

Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. The Angels of Mercy suddenly appeared from the belly of the lumbering, low-flying B-47 bomber. Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. Seven parachutes, one after another, popped open in the sweltering heat of that Aug. 17, 1945 morning, sixty-four years ago. Brisk winds buffeted the chutes as they rapidly descended on the corn field outside Weishien Civilian Assembly Center in eastern China.

Fifteen hundred civilian prisoners of war cheered in unison as the parachutes floated earthward. They laughed and cried. They cheered and prayed. Men ripped off their shirts to give them something to wave skyward. The cacophony impossibly increased with the appearance of each ensuing jumper.

In the midst of the madness stood a strangely calm young child, Mary Taylor, a 12-year-old who had been separated from her missionary parents at war’s onset. At the age of 9 she and her siblings had been marched into captivity with other children, Christian missionaries and teachers. By this time the four Taylor youngsters had not seen their parents for 5 1/2 years.

As the American bomber disgorged it’s final parachutist and banked to safety, Mary smiled knowingly after spotting the name painted on its nose, “Armoured Angel. “ It couldn’t have been otherwise. She was reminded of her mother’s long ago recitation of Psalm 91: “And He shall give His angels charge over you to keep you.”

The celebration and rejoicing was unending. The rescuers were escorted into the compound, everyone seeking some remembrance of the occasion, a button, shards from a parachute, autographs, insignia, a lock of hair.

It seemed appropriate they break into American song: “You are my Sunshine” and “Happy Days (are here again).” Seeking anything remotely Yankee, an impromptu few innings of baseball were also played.

Despite the imprint of war and its lasting impact, a child’s resilience and ability to recover converged as young Mary and siblings were united with their parents (as well as a new brother) and returned to the United States. Weihsien eventually became a distant memory. The years in China were replaced with the joys of growing up as an American in America.

Fifty two years later, Memorial Day week of 1997, Mary Taylor Previte was campaigning for a seat in the New Jersey Assembly when asked to be a substitute speaker before a group of veterans of the China-Burma

India Veterans Association. Although she had never heard of the group, the CBI reference brought about a cold chill and goose bumps. Her long ago rescuers were a part of that World War II campaign!

[Twelve years earlier Previte by chance had discovered a declassified military report on the Weihsien internment camp mission; it also contained the names of the seven members of the Duck rescue team. The list was tucked away in a drawer all those years, but was now nervously retrieved as she outlined the talk she planned to give. Vivid memories of that memorable 1945 morning returned as she addressed 150 elderly CBI vets. The climax of her speech was a recitation of the rescuer’s names. Could it be possible someone in the audience that evening might be familiar with any one of the seven?]

Prisoner artist’s sketch of Duck Team parachutists autographed by the seven liberators. Nagaki was the second jumper.

Prisoner artist’s sketch of Duck Team parachutists autographed by the seven liberators. Nagaki was the second jumper.

There was no miracle recognition. But there was total agreement amongst the audience that a search should be launched to find her long ago hero Angels. They urged her to write a story in their national magazine to publicize and seek outside assistance. She sat down and wrote her poignant account of the rescue.

Results and reaction were almost immediate. After the meeting a Maryland veteran took her roster of seven, made a computer search of every telephone number listed in the United States (thousands) that matched her name list! With hundreds upon hundreds of telephone numbers and addresses scattered over her kitchen table, she started her daunting task by initially sending out some self-addressed, stamped envelopes: “Are you the Stanley Staiger who liberated the Weihsien concentration camp in China?”

A trickle of responses came in. “God bless you in your search”, they said, but no hero was uncovered. The first break came in September of 1997. A nurse, having read about the search in the CBI magazine, informed her of a sister who lived next door to Raymond Hanchulak, the mission medic!

Hanchulak’s widow answered the telephone. He had died a year earlier. Previte began to wonder if her contacts would all end in conversations with widows. The second call, tracing radio operator Peter Orlich, seemed to confirm her fears. He had died four years earlier. Third name on her list was Tadashi Nagaki, Japanese American interpreter on the Duck roster. Holding her breath she carefully dialed Alliance, Neb.

“I’m calling for Tadashi Nagaki,” she whispered when the telephone was answered. “Speaking,” the voice replied.

Mary T. Previte had found her first live hero! Between sobs of happiness and relief she was able to explain the complete history of her determined search to a stunned Nebraska farmer, a half century and thousands of miles removed from her emotional recitation.

There are no guidelines on what to talk about under these stressful circumstances. During the course of the *get-acquainted conversation she did most of the talking, learning about his background, family (a recent widower) and farm. She asked how he felt with all of the camp children following him around like he was the Pied Piper. He was reticent and rather stoic throughout, admitting to feeling like being on an undeserved pedestal. He remembered a girl cutting off a chunk of his hair so she’d have a souvenir.

(*“I remember that first telephone call from ‘the lady’,” Nagaki states matter of factly. “I really didn’t know what to say or how to react. It was just such a weird experience, a call like that from out of the blue.”)

Finally reaching a mutual comfort level, Nagaki explained that he had stayed in touch with fellow team member Jim Moore. What a relief, thought Previte. There were 150 James Moores on the search log she now would not have to canvass. He, in turn, later located Stanley Staiger by checking a program which listed every driver’s license in the United States! (Eddie Cheng-Han Wang, the Chinese interpreter and a Chinese national, was the only one of the seven not tracked down.)

Previte then made it an additional mission to criss-cross America to personally visit each of her living heroes and kept in touch via phone and mail. She also contacted chambers of commerce, veteran groups and newspapers in the cities where the members resided, notifying them and writing stories about their under-publicized wartime exploits.

When she traveled to Nebraska for her first face to face with Nagaki, Previte was impressed by his modesty and refusal to accept anything resembling special status. But she knew of the perils of a Nisei being captured by the Imperial Army yet could never get Tad to admit to anything except simply being an American in uniform. As to the danger of being mis-indentified as an enemy soldier by Allied troops, he merely shrugs with a patient “I never gave it any thought” reply.

Nagaki is now the sole living member of Duck Team. He suffered through a bout with pneumonia and more recently had a serious fall from his truck resulting in the fracture of his pelvis. Due to physical infirmities he has sharply reduced his active hands-on farming supervision but still oversees some acreage to remain involved. He will be 90 years old next January.

Compiling the Tadashi Nagaki and Mary Previte stories was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve confronted in some time. Probably on the same scale as the two-part series I wrote several years ago regarding Pfc Joe Shiomichi of the 442nd RCT and the tragic effect his battlefield death had on his wife and later the daughter he never saw. But why bother readers complaining about the difficulties faced in composing a story?

If I happened to be a chicken rancher I don’t imagine you would be much interested in an explanation of how to capon a rooster; or if a mechanic, how you go about priming a NASCAR racer. (In case anyone wants to know, a rooster is castrated and raised as a capon for meat; I don’t know nothing about cars.)

That being said, this story behind the story deserves a review. First to point out why it took more than TWO years to finally appear on the pages of the Rafu Shimpo and secondly, the obstacles overcome compiling this series of columns.

Nori Uyematsu, a Korean War veteran, initially provided the background information regarding the Nagaki story, providing me with important details about Mary Previte’s persistent hero search. (There had been an earlier story about Duck Team that Nagaki was not completely comfortable with and thus leery of any sort of reprise.)

After making contact with Previte I put the story on hold for additional research and later direct contact with Tadashi Nagaki to get his approval. Once the project was revived the first order of business was to convince him the unique story was worth repeating. His inherent reticence and modesty made him hesitate talking to a strange reporter calling from Los Angeles.

Unconditional endorsement and encouragement by Previte was the deal-maker. She was so pleased that a Japanese American publication would give her friend the recognition she felt so strongly he deserved. Even at this late date.

Mary Previte and Tad Nagaki at their first meeting.

Mary Previte and Tad Nagaki at their first meeting.

I was most interested in his personal recollections and thoughts rather than the usual genre of combat and military stuff. Dealing with taciturnity and a disinclination to open up makes telephonic interviewing a trying task. Eventually talking about mutual widower status and having also experienced the loss of a son helped create a level of trust. And the sheer coincidence of knowing of his wife in Poston Relocation Center was a bonus factor.

Using a Crossroads to Somewhere version of “Six Degrees of Separation” was the final ice breaker. You know the game: Two complete strangers meet and it takes only six names before you find a mutual connection. As created by W.T. Hiroto for Tadashi Nagaki, the connection went like this:

I lived in Poston Unit One Block 53-1-C (which means absolutely nada when talking to a native Nebraskan who had never experienced Evacuation). A friend and teammate, Toshio “Joker” Okamura lived in 53-5-D. He had an older brother, Henry Naohiko, who had a steady girl friend named Mary. She, in turn, had an older sister, Asako, nicknamed “Butch”, who left camp for a job in Minneapolis. A friend arranges a blind date for her with a shy and lonesome soldier. Who turns out to be Tadashi Nagaki. Voila! Six Degrees of Separation.

Nagaki with his wife, Atsuko on their 38th anniversary.

Nagaki with his wife, Asako on their 38th anniversary.

Finally gaining some semblance of trust I still couldn’t get him to reveal what his exact thoughts were as he parachuted onto the corn field outside Weishun Civilian Assembly Center, not knowing whether there were Japanese troops awaiting their arrival or maybe poisoned punji sticks. He would shrug off the question saying there wasn’t time to think.

No, unlike Ms. Previte, CR2S does not plan to visit the down-to and of-the-earth Nebraska farmer, although the thought of at least one visit to America’s heartland does have appeal. Watching wheat grow or sugar beets being harvested might not be as exciting as a Manny Ramirez home run but I’m willing to wager I could probably gain Tad’s attention if I said something disparaging about the Cornhusker’s football team.

I readily admit to having an over abundance of material for this series, thanks in part to the prolific and generous Mary Previte. I gained her attention and cooperation when told I wanted to focus the series of articles on her hero and friend, Tadashi Nagaki, the one who wants nothing to do with talk of heroism or its accompanying accouterments.

It is truly a pleasure but a problem communicating with someone who doesn’t enjoy talking about himself. But the several conversations I had with Nagaki were as refreshing as a nor’easter, nary a single boast or “I” statement. (I do wish the fact that only a Poston Recreation Hall building separating me from his wife-to-be would rank higher on his list of astonishing coincidences!)

Citing family history was once a staple in all Nisei newspaper stories, be it a wedding, story of achievement or business venture; the information given to inform readership of the principal’s background and history. Nagaki’s family tree begins in 1881 in Saga, Yamaguchi prefecture, with Minosuke, 21, finding himself in Hawaii at the turn of the century. Arriving in the United States in 1906 he worked in and around San Francisco, traveling to Seattle in 1916 to marry picture bride Shige Kato.

Railroad employment took the Nagakis to the North Platte Valley region of Nebraska where the first three of the clan’s offspring were born, Tadashi the third born in 1920. Eventually there would be four sons and two daughters. Both Minosuke and Shige achieved citizenship status in 1953.

With the untimely deaths of all three sons of Tad and Asako, it appears a near century of Nebraska farming by nurturing Nagaki hands will eventually come to an end. Because of physical infirmities and encroaching age Tad has had to drastically curtail his daily farming responsibilities. With none of the family grandchildren interested, the epochal era of Nagaki agriculturists in Nebraska will become past history. Tad will celebrate his 90th birth date this coming January.

It is not exactly professional to tack on personal messages to public writings but I have to thank Mary for her gracious sharing, Nori for identifying a good story and Tadashi for his patience and understanding. Sir, stay well. Myanmar it is today but I’m sure it will forever be a memorable Burma as far as you are concerned.

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W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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