Tad Nagaki was full of memories when I tracked him down 52 years later.
I cupped the long distance phone to my ear and listened to his voice. Wave after wave of memories blurred my eyes. I was a wide-eyed 12-year-old again listening to the drone of the airplane far above the concentration camp. Racing to the window, I watched it sweep lower, slowly lower. It was a giant plane, emblazoned with an American star. Weihsien went mad. I raced for the entry gates and was swept off my feet by the pandemonium. Grown men ripped off their shirts and waved them at the sky to flag down the low-flying plane. Prisoners ran in circles and punched the skies with their fists. They wept, cursed, hugged, danced as the B-24 circled back, its belly open. Americans were spilling from the skies, drifting into the fields tall with ripening gaoliang grain beyond the barrier walls of the Weihsien Concentration Camp in China. The Americans had come!
In 1945, I was a child prisoner in that concentration camp. "Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center." That's what the Japanese guards called it. Tad Nagaki was an American hero in the office of Strategic Services (OSS), one of the seven-man Duck Mission" that liberated 1,400 Allied civilian prisoners there. For five and a half years, my brother and sister and I had not seen our missionary parents. August 17, 1945. I shall never forget that day. Tad Nagaki was the Japanese-American interpreter on the rescue team.
In a cross-country search, I tracked him down - I found them all - in 1997, 52 years later. By then, Tad was a widower, 78 years old and farming corn and beans and sugar beets in Alliance, Nebraska. I had to pull. Tad is comfortable with the solitude of his tractor and his fields. These 0SS men were trained to keep secrets. I was not! I was a woman from New Jersey - full of questions.
So, I pulled - with half a continent between us - trying to be polite but tumbling the questions like a breathless child. Today, I call that rescue a suicide mission - six Americans and one Chinese interpreter against how many armed Japanese guards in 1945. Slowly, slowly, Tad Nagaki talked about that windy day, the low-flying drop using British parachutes so the Japanese would have less space and time to shoot the rescue team. It was only his second parachute Jump, he said.
I remembered out loud the crowds of child prisoners. Oh, yes, we trailed these gorgeous liberators around, begged for their insignia, begged for buttons, and begged them to sing the songs of America. They were sun-bronzed American gods with meat on their bones. My 12-year-old heart turned somersaults over every one of them. We followed them day and night like children following the Pied Piper.
"What did it feel like?" I asked Tad Nagaki.
"Like being put on a pedestal," he said. That was the understatement of the century. We made them gods. Tad remembered a girl cutting off a chunk of his hair so she'd have a souvenir..
What Tad didn't say - that's what surprised me. Didn't he know that as an ethnic Japanese, if the Japanese caught him in 1945, he'd be the first they would torture and would kill? Didn't he know their most ghastly interrogation techniques would come first? Didn't he know - of course, he did - the ritual executions of Americans, would follow - oh, yes - by the Japanese warriors' code of Bushido, which prescribed execution by be-heading? I shudder still to think of it.
And, in Burma or in China, what if American soldiers thought you were the Japanese enemy? I asked.
"I never gave it any thought," he said. "I was American." H e made it sound so simple. "I was American!" I kept prodding.
"In war," he said, "if you're going to think about that, you're not going to make a very good soldier."
So, how did a Japanese-American soldier - mistrusted as a Nisei and limited to pruning trees and landscaping the grounds on a wartime military base in World War II - arrive in an elite team of Japanese-Americans serving in the China-Burma-India Theater? How did he become part of the first espionage unit the United States used behind Japanese lines?
Minoseke Nagaki, Tad's father, emigrated from Japan to Hawaii in the early 1900's when American employers were recruiting Japanese to work in the mines, forests and canneries. Tad's father worked first on plantations in Hawaii then moved to the mainland to work on the railroad. By 1906, 13,000 first Japanese were working on the railroad. Pay was 95 cents to one dollar a day. The Central Pacific Railroad climbed the High Sierras, wound through the Donner Pass and stretched through Nevada. Along the way, small groups of Japanese remained inland to open restaurants, laundries and slaughterhouses, to mine coal and copper, and to farm. Minoseke Nagaki settled in a valley with 40 or 50 Japanese families near Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and, like many Japanese men, he sent to Japan for a "picture bride." The law then said Japanese were not permitted to become American citizens. But, he started farming. He grew a family.
Tad and other Japanese-American children started speaking English when they went to the two and three-room schools around Scottsbluff, but someone started a Japanese language school in the summers so Nisei - native U.S. citizens born of immigrant Japanese parents - would also read and write Japanese. This gift of two languages would shape his future.
War was brewing across the ocean. Tad Nagaki was drafted into the Army in November 1941, the first of the Nagaki brothers to go. Born in Nebraska, he was America. His Japanese-born parents considered it Tad's duty to go. Tad was 21. Men of the Scottsbluff Elks Lodge sent him off and the other 18 draftees from the valley with a buffet supper. The Nagakis celebrated with a goodbye get-together. Tad would defend America. It was a simple equation: You love your country, you must be willing to fight for it.
But, for Japanese-American soldiers it was more than that. Military service would prove their patriotism. It would show America. Tad Nagaki's mother posted a proud sticker in the farmhouse window, boasting that her boy was serving his country.
Any American who was alive on December 7, 1941, can tell you where he was when he heard the news. Joseph Harsch of The Christian Science Monitor wrote from Honolulu, "Planes with red balls under their wings came in through the morning mist today and attacked America's great mid-Pacific naval base and island fortress here."
If Japan's sneak attack at Pearl Harbor shook America with anger and shock, Japanese-Americans felt instant terror. Many smashed their Japanese recordings and burned or buried letters from kinfolks, books, ceremonial dolls, Buddhist family shrines and Japanese flags.
Japanese had killed or wounded 4,612 Americans, many of them buried under the waters of Pearl Harbor. "REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR" - the slogan fanned the flames. In the war hysteria, the Rose Bowl football game was moved out of Pasdena for fear of an air raid. Burma Shave signs sprouted along highways: SLAP THE JAP. Some Asian-Americans began wearing "I am Chinese" or "I am Filipino" pins: they would differentiate us from them. When a nation is attacked, how does it judge loyalty? Before long, the Selective Service System classified Nisei "4-C" - enemy aliens not subject to military service. Some were mustered out of the Army and sent home. Some were disarmed and assigned to menial labor.
Tad Nagaki didn't notice any change of people's attitude towards him at first - not until his training buddies in the signal corps were all shipped out - and Tad was not. Like everyone else, Tad was itching for action. He had always dreamed of flying. He passed his physical and collected recommendations to become an air cadet. Then came the personal letter from his commander: They could not accept him because he was Japanese-American. Shipped to Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, he now was assigned to a barracks with about 40 Japanese-Americans. Other American boys were doing important stuff - going to war, fighting for America. Tad and his Nisei buddies were pruning trees and landscaping the post, loading food onto troop trains. But, what kind of job was that for a gung-ho American soldier when a war was going on?
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, evacuating people of Japanese descent from coastal areas.
Just before the war started, a tiny handful of Army Intelligence specialists were alerting superiors of the importance of training Japanese language interpreters to master the incredibly complex Japanese language. But, could youth of an alien race - only one generation removed from the land of their ancestors - be trusted in battle or in top secret intelligence work? While one hand of the Army was removing Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, another was searching for qualified Nisei for its language and intelligence effort. In San Francisco, the Army opened a small-scale language school in a converted hangar at Crissy Field, The Presidio. It hand-picked 58 Nisei for its first class - sitting on apple boxes and orange crates. When the top brass saw its value, the school was transferred to Camp Savage, Minnesota, where it was reorganized as the Military Intelligence Service Language School.
In 1943, as Tad Nagaki and Nisei volunteers from the relocation camps were increasingly frustrated to spend the war trimming trees and loading food onto troop trains - two years of menial labor - the War Department posted an announcement on the camp bulletin board. It was a plan to accept volunteers for a special Nisei combat unit. "Every chance we got, we had tried to get into a combat unit," he says. "They kept saying. 'No"' Now Nisei from Hawaii and across the mainland rushed to volunteer. Half of the mainland men volunteered from America's relocation camps. Absolutely, yes! Duty, honor, and country. They would fight for America.
At Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the Nisei formed the 442nd Regimental (Go for Broke) Combat Team. The average I.Q. of the entire 442nd was 119, nine points higher than that required for Officer Candidate School. The 442nd's shoulder patch sported a hand, holding high. a torch of liberty against a blue sky. Deployed mainly in Europe, they would earn that patch. The 442nd would become the most highly-decorated American unit in World War II, receiving 18,143 individual awards, not including Purple Hearts which are estimated at 3,600. "Skeets" Nagaki, Tad's older brother, served in the 442nd.
Just as Tad Nagaki was joining the 442nd in July 1943, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) asked for Nisei volunteers for "highly secret" intelligence work. "More hazardous than combat," some of them were told, "a one-way ticket." At a height of 5' 5", Tad wasn't thinking about being a hero, but his choice was better than pruning trees. He enrolled and found himself selected for an elite team of Nisei in 0SS Detachment 101. Of the 23 men who started, only 14 made it. Some people dubbed the OSS "Oh So Social" - because so many came from the Ivy League. There was nothing Ivy League about the Nisei group. Tad Nagaki was a farm boy from Nebraska. Three were from California and the rest, from Hawaii.
"Oh So Secret" was a better nickname. The assignment was hush-hush from the start. Rule Number One: You didn't ask questions. You didn't write home to Mom about what you were doing or what you had seen. The team was bound for no-one-knew-where. Whatever was going on involved more than one service. If you asked an insider, he might tell you the 'OSS' was a crazy mix of the FBI and the Office of Naval Intelligence rolled together, plus Errol Flynn in one of those war movies where he parachuted behind enemy lines and took the whole enemy army by himself." The OSS trained the Nisei team first in radio school in Naperville, Illinois, then the Military Intelligence Service Language School in Fort Savage, Minnesota, then six weeks of survival and demolition at Toyon Bay on Catalina Island. They toughened up with fitness training in the mountains, exercised with water drills from LST boats. They could survive by fishing or shooting mountain goats. Catalina Island was ideal for coastal surveillance and commando training. It was 1944, after begging for action since 1942, the Nisei were about to get their chance.
In December 1941, Japan had moved to protect its gains in Southeast Asia, cut off Allied supply routes to China, and gain additional rice and oil by invading the British colony of Burma. It took them only three months to capture Burma. a country about the size of Texas. War in this China-Burma-India Theater would be fought over control of supply routes to China. In Burma, troops fought Guts War. You melted with intense heat. You slogged through monsoon rains and jungle rot. Your gut gushed and your body melted with tropical diseases. Your feet blistered with long marches. You fought off - slapped off - leeches, poisonous snakes, and biting insects. Supplies often came only through parachute drops.
Burma churned out an unpredictable mix of jungle war, mountain war, desert war, and naval war. It was a death match of hand-to-hand combat appropriate for the Stone Age and air transportation, whole divisions and their artillery and vehicles flying through the sky, a marvel even for the 20th Century. Soldiers landed by glider on remote jungle strips. Troops inched through acres of muddy paddy-fields under solid sheets of monsoon rain that rotted their boots as they moved. Boats probed mangrove swamps.
Dropping into Northern Burma in January 1943, OSS Detachment 101 was the first espionage unit the United States used behind Japanese lines. Deployed in China, Burma and India, it had 250 officers and 750 enlisted men trained in parachuting, radio operations, infiltration, survival training, hand-to-hand combat, cryptography and guerrilla tactics. An American-led intelligence outfit with unconventional methods, it was led by Carl Elfier and William "Ray" Peers. But, what an in-hospitable place for Allied soldiers who were inexperienced in jungle warfare! Repelled as they were by the tribal practice of collecting ears of the dead, Detachment 101 needed native talent. To recruit the local Kachin tribesmen and gain their trust, they slept in villages and took part in village festivals, watched Kachin musical processions, joined their games, foot races and feasts. They lead 10,000 Kachin tribesmen - Kachin Raiders - from villages, mountains and jungle hideouts against the Japanese in Burma. With support of the Kachins, U.S. troops could feel the jungle was on their side. They used the 'jungle grapevine." They pinpointed enemy targets for Allied bombers. By late 1943, Detachment 101 had eleven radio stations reporting regularly from Japanese controlled areas.
In 1943, when the Japanese announced that captured flyers would be given "one way tickets to hell," Detachment 101 and their Kachin Raiders began rescuing downed crews. Morale of Allied airmen in the Tenth Air Force - many of them flying over "The Hump" - improved. Detachment 101 rescued some 400 Allied flyers.
Soldier's Medal: Sgt Tadash Nagaki, intepreter, and T/4 Raymod N. Hanchulak, medic, are awarded the Soldier's Medal for heroism in'Shanghia, 1945, for their part in liberating 1,400 Allied prisoners from the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center in China's Shantung province, August 1945. Photo courtesy Mary T. Previte.
If Detachment 10 l's Nisei team was glued together with the unparalleled brotherhood that men find in battle, they were also bonded as a blood brotherhood hell-bent on proving their patriotism. Every one of them knew when he volunteered that it was much more dangerous for him as a Japanese-American than for others.
Late in 1944, Tad Nagaki arrived in Myitkyina (pronounced mich-chi-naw). Burma, at a bend in the Irrawaddy River. Myitkyina was the strategic key to the entire plan in the north. It had the only hard-surface, all-weather airstrip in Burma, north of Mandalay. This was the airfield the legendary Merrill's Marauders had seized. From there, Nagaki helped establish headquarters in Bhamo. Burma was his introduction to living in straw thatched huts (bashas), riding bare back on cargo-bearing elephants, slathering insect repellant, and eating K-rations. C-rations and native rice and chicken curry.
The Nisei plunged into the work of sabotage, guerrilla warfare, hit-and-run harassment operations. translating Japanese documents preparing propaganda leaflets, interrogating prisoners and building airfields. Calvin Tottori, a member of the Nisei team, documents their exploits in a fascinating collection of unpublished memories, The O.S.S. Niseis in the China-Burma-India Theater. Dick Hamada attached to 2nd Battalion in Central Burma. He recalls: "Second Battalion was constantly on the move, setting up ambush, using punji (smoke-hardened bamboo spikes) set on both sides of the trail to impale the enemy. The punji were crude, but very effective. After one skirmish with the enemy, the Kachin Rangers brought some clothing and captured weapons. I inquired, 'How many enemy soldiers were killed?' 'Twenty,' said the soldiers. When doubt spread across my face, they quickly took 20 ears from their pouch. From that day on, I never doubted their claims."
The team was supposed to interrogate Japanese prisoners. "I never had the chance," Tad Nagaki says. They resisted capture with fanatical zeal. Surrender would bring shame to their family and country. "The Japanese always committed suicide," he recalls, "blew themselves up with grenades."
Being mistaken for the enemy was always a possibility. Nisei Lt. Ralph Yempuku was assigned to the 1st Battalion Kachin Rangers under Captain Joe Lazarsky. The Kachins hated the Japanese. Japanese had tied villagers to trees and bayoneted them to death. "The Kachins were initially very wary about me because I was a Japanese-American," Yempuku recalls. "On the first day, Captain Lazarsky paraded me in front of the whole battalion introducing me as an 'American' and ordering them to study my face so that I would not be mistaken for and shot as an enemy Japanese."
"I told them Lt. Yempuku was 'BIG DUA,' like the rest of us white men, Lazarsky says. Lt. Yempuku lead his own country of Kachin guerillas in ambushing and attacking Japanese-held villages behind enemy lines near Lashlo and along the Burma Road.
Every Nisei knew, death would be better than capture. Cal Tottori's first mission was to gather intelligence on Japanese troop movements in the area north of Maymyo. "Since there were only two of us, we were expected to protect each other. I recalled what we had been told over and over during our training - always save the last bullet for ourselves." Combat bred its superstitions. After the first recruit was wounded, Tottori's team felt very strongly that a tattoo on one's body had some mystical power of protection. "In a moment of sheer madness, we had a Burmese priest (pongyq do the tattooing on us, Tottori recalls. "Mine was a Burmese tiger on my left forearm and is a constant reminder of what I went through in that country."
Nagaki plunged into his assignment of training two platoons. Kachin tribesmen in the north and Shan in Central Burma. It was a breathtaking mix of combat danger, Red Cross coffee and colossal boredom. In the field, he parachuted behind Japanese lines to monitor Japanese troop movements and gather information. At headquarters in Bhamo, he processed reports.
As the war wound down in Burma in the summer of 1945, Detachment 101 Niseis, battle-hardened in India and Burma, were deployed to China, to report to OSS Detachment 202 headquarters in Kunming. Tad Nagaki, who had been driving tractors on the farm in Nebraska since he was twelve years old, drove an Army 6x6 truck in the truck convoy over "The Hump" to China on the Burma Road.
As America closed in on Japs in late summer 1945, reports reached American headquarters in China that Japan planned to kill its prisoners. Rescue became a top priority. American commander, General Albert Wedemeyer, directed agencies under his control to locate and evacuate POWs in China, Manchuria and Korea. He pulled together seven-man rescue teams. including medical, communications specialists and interpreters. OSS had two assignments: rescue prisoners and gather intelligence.
This photograph, taken in northeast
China in 1945, shows four of seven
paratroopers who rescued Mary Previte
from a World War II Japanese prison
camp. Rescue team members, from left,
were: James Moore, Tad Nagaki, Stanley
Staiger and Raymond Hanchulak. Previte
tracked down these men in 1997.
OSS organized eight rescue missions, all under code names of birds: Magpie (heading to Peiping), Duck (Weihsien), Flamingo (Harbin), Cardinal (Mukden), Sparrow (Shanghai), Quail (Hanoi), Pigeon (Hainan Island), and Raven (Vientiane, Laos). The 14th Air Force was ordered to provide the necessary staging areas. The teams took off from Si'an (today called xi'an).
Nisei Dick Hamada was a member of the team that parachuted into Peiping (Bejing) to liberate 624 Allied prisoners including survivors of the Doolittle raids on Tokyo. Nisei Fumio Kido parachuted with the team that rescued American General Jonathan Wainwright, hero of Bataan, and 1,600 other Allied POWs in Mukden. Cal Tottori was a member of the OSS mercy mission that flew to Taiwan to seek release of Allied POWs there. Ralph Yempuku parachuted into Hainan Island with the team that evacuated 400 starving prisoners there. On August 17, 1945, Tad Nagaki parachuted from a B-24, named "The Armored Angel," with five other American heroes to rescue me and 1,400 other prisoners from the Weihsien Concentration Camp in China's Shangtung Province.
Tad Nagaki and members of these rescue teams were honored with the Soldier's Medal for heroism. He was one of about 25,000 JapaneseAmerican men and women who served in U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.
"The Nisei bought an awful hunk of America with their blood, said American General Joseph Stilwell, who commanded U.S. forces in the China-Burma-India Theater. "You're damn right those Nisei boys have a place in the American heart forever!"
Tad Nagaki says he's not a hero. He says he did what any American would have done. After helping to establish an OSS base in Tsingtao, China, he returned to America in 1946 and married his Nisei fiancee, "Butch." He had met her on a blind date while he was attending Military Intelligence Service Language School in Minnesota. "Butch" and her Issei parents had been imprisoned in the Poston relocation camp in Arizona. After America changed its laws in 1950, Tad Nagaki's parents became American citizens. They never returned to Japan. Today, Tad Nagaki farms corn and beans in Alliance, Nebraska, not far from where he grew up. He is 82.
Mary Previte is an Assemblywoman in the New Jersey legislature. Address:
351 Kings Highway East, Haddonfleld. NJ 08033.
Reprinted with permission from the June 2002 Ex-CBI Roundup.