By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
SAN FRANCISCO — Twenty years in the making, the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center opened its doors on Veterans Day (Nov. 11) at the Presidio of San Francisco, a former Army base.
Originally an airplane hangar, Building 640 housed the first MIS Language School starting in November 1941, a month before Pearl Harbor. The initial class of 58 Nisei and two Caucasians studied to become translators and interpreters in the war with Japan.
Due to Executive Order 9066, which barred Japanese Americans from the West Coast, the top-secret school was moved to Camp Savage and later Fort Snelling, both in Minnesota. Eventually, some 6,000 MIS graduates served in Asia and the Pacific. The Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey is a direct descendant of the MIS Language School.
The MIS Historic Learning Center, which features interactive exhibits and space for community events, is the result of a collaboration between the National Japanese American Historical Society, the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The opening ceremony included the presentation of colors by the U.S. Army Color Guard led by MSG (Master Sergeant) Stanley Kamiya of the U.S. Army Reserve, and the Pledge of Allegiance led by Boy Scout Troop 58. The Drum and Bugle Corps from Boy Scout Troop 12 performed.
The invocation was given by Chaplain Omar Doi of Golden Gate Nisei Memorial VFW Post 9879, who noted that Col. Tom Sakamoto, a member of the first MIS class and a leading proponent of the center, had passed away last month at the age of 95.
“He’s here in spirit today,” Brian Shiroyama of Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans (FFNV) said of Sakamoto.
After calling for a moment of silence in Sakamoto’s memory, NJAHS President Bryan Yagi said, “We celebrate and honor the legacy of the Japanese American soldier. It is here at this center that the story of these veterans’ courage, sacrifice and love of country will be told so that our children, grandchildren and future generations will remember what happened here and continue to honor their legacy …
“Attached to every combat unit in the Pacific War, the MIS soldier translated documents, intercepted intelligence, impersonated the enemy in battle, interrogated prisoners of war, and ultimately helped American and Allied forces win the war in the Pacific. Their specialized knowledge of the Japanese language and culture helped gain a tactical and strategic advantage over their opponents.
“In postwar occupied Japan, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, these grassroots ambassadors helped lay the groundwork for Japan’s transition to a democracy.”
Dan Bernal, chief of staff to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, delivered a message from the San Francisco congresswoman, which read, in part: “This center is an integral part of the Presidio’s transition from military to civilian use, one of the largest and most innovative projects in the nation of revitalizing and repurposing historic buildings. Today, thanks to a strong private-public partnership, the Presidio has been transformed into a national park like no other …
“I was proud to have worked with former Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Congressman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) to secure nearly $3 million in federal funding for the renovation that will preserve Building 640 as an enduring resource for the American people.
“But more than being an important part of the Presidio, this center represents an important part of our nation’s history … It will now serve as an educational center for the public and teach not only the military experience but also the deprivation suffered by Japanese American families during the war. It will educate its visitors about civil liberties violations against citizens of Japanese descent during wartime and the importance of protecting and defending our civil liberties moving forward.”
Craig Middleton, executive director of the Presidio Trust, noted, “In just a few years this place will be the center of the apex of the Presidio … As this roadway gets done, we’ll see the main post, the old command, coming in touch with Crissy Field, so you’ll be able to walk from one to the other. It will be a beautiful place and this will be right at the junction of that connection …
“This building is humble … But what happened here … changed the course of history. It represents patriotism of the most profound kind and a terrible prejudice that accompanied it.”
He pointed out that just a few hundred yards from Building 640, Gen. John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command issued orders forcing Japanese Americans from their homes and into internment camps.
“Today we come together as grandparents, parents and grandchildren, probably even great-grandchildren, to thank you veterans, to honor you with this new center and to enlighten all who will come here and make the world a better and more informed place,” Middleton said.
He thanked the “many mothers and many fathers” who labored on the project over the years, including NJAHS Executive Director Rosalyn Tonai; Marvin Uratsu, past president of the MIS Association of Northern California and brother of Gene Uratsu, a member of the first MIS class; NPS historian Stephen Haller; Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.); and the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
Howard Levitt, director of communications and partnerships for GGNRA, said, “The National Park Service does many things in this country. One of the things we do is help keep stories alive, and the stories we keep alive are the authentic stories of … what people have done and the role they played and the way the things that those people did reflect us Americans then and Americans now … The history that took place here is of the highest level of importance of the kind of stories we tell in our national parks …
“Twenty years ago there was no guarantee that it would become a reality, and it took a lot of people doing a lot of heavy lifting to get us to this point. So we thank and honor all of you who played such a key role … because it does help us keep this remarkably poignant story alive and able to be told going forward to the American public.”
Consul General of Japan Masato Watanabe, who had just arrived in San Francisco a week earlier, stated, “It is well known and respected in Japan that many Japanese Americans fought the war bravely for the nation during the Second World War. It is also well known in Japan and well respected that many Japanese Americans contributed to the steady recovery and reconstruction of Japan by forging trust and ties between the two nations across the Pacific … after the Second World War. I hope that this MIS Historic Learning Center sheds light on such contributions.”
Not Just Interpreters
The main speaker was Maj. Gen. Arthur Ishimoto (retired), who attended the language school at Camp Savage and participated in the Philippine liberation campaign. The first Japanese American to attain the rank of major general, he served as commander of the Hawaii Air National Guard and adjutant general of Hawaii.
“This building has a connection to all of us who served in the MIS,” he said. “We began our long journey from here to prove we’re Americans.”
Ishimoto recounted the “shameful and ugly history” of discrimination against Japanese Americans, including the military’s classification of the U.S.-born Nisei as 4C or enemy aliens. “In 1943, we were allowed to enlist in the Army,” he said. “Even while in the Army we were called Japs. When we returned home from the battlefield with Purple Hearts, we were met with signs that said ‘No Japs allowed.’ We were refused service at barbershops, restaurants and other places.”
He attributed the fact that more than 33,000 Japanese American men and women served in the Army during World War II to the Japanese values of gaman (endurance) and gambare (perseverance), which he learned from his judo sensei. “These two values were our guiding principles that navigated us through a sea of racial prejudice, hatred and distrust.”
There is a common misconception that the MISers were “only interpreters,” Ishimoto said, noting that he has even been asked if he has ever carried a rifle. In fact, he said, MIS soldiers “flushed enemies out of caves, went on patrols, captured prisoners, interrogated them … We worked with guerrillas, blew up bridges … We did carry rifles and grenades, and machine guns to boot.”
He added that MIS graduates working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA) parachuted into enemy territory to rescue Allied prisoners, and that some Nisei operating behind enemy lines had a bounty on their heads and “were told to save one bullet for themselves in the event they were captured.”
“Operating in secrecy, they were truly the kagemusha or the shadow warriors … Some of them deserve to be in the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame,” Ishimoto said.
The actions of the MIS, including “the timely translation of the captured Japanese ‘Z Plan,’ which was an all-out effort by the Imperial Japanese Navy to destroy the U.S. naval fleet,” helped shorten the war and save countless lives, he said.
Ishimoto also remembered MIS soldiers who were killed in action, such as Frank Hachiya, who was shot, possibly by friendly fire, while returning from a scouting mission on Leyte Island and was able to give a detailed report on enemy fortifications before he died.
“Freedom was indeed earned and stained with blood,” he said in conclusion. “Time heals all wounds. Our former enemy is now our ally and friend … Today we Japanese Americans can walk down the street and not be called Japs. We can go to any college without restrictions. We can apply for any job without discrimination. We’ve come a long way.”
A blessing was conducted by Revs. Masato Kawahatsu and Rev. Joanne Tolosa from Konko Church of San Francisco.
In addition to the speakers, taking part in the ribbon-cutting was Terry Shima from the Japanese American Veterans Association in Washington, D.C., a recipient of the Presidential Citizens Medal.
The next couple of hours were spent checking out the exhibits, which include a replica of an MIS classroom; a map of the Pacific Theater campaigns; videotaped interviews with veterans and former internees; portraits of Nisei veterans by photographer Tom Graves; a mini-documentary on the MIS; a donor wall; and a list of the MIS Nisei, which visitors scanned for names of loved ones.
A luncheon followed at the Presidio Observation Post. Reporter Anny Hong of KRON4 served as emcee. Speakers included George Yoshida, an MIS graduate, musician and educator; and Glen Fukushima, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, whose father served in the MIS.
The MIS Historic Learning Center is located at 640 Mason St. in the Presidio (not the Mason Street in downtown San Francisco). Hours are Saturday and Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 general, free for NJAHS members, veterans and children under 12. For more information, call (415) 921-5007 or visit http://njahs.org/640.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo