By Pamela A. Okano
For The North American Post
World War II was full of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. The men of the 442nd and the 100th Battalion are good examples. But what of the Nisei who fought in the Pacific? Shrouded in mystery for more than 60 years,* the story of these men has not been adequately told. Although “Rising Son” (2019) by Sandra Vea, admirably recounts the service of her father-in-law, Masao Abe, a readable comprehensive book was needed. Bruce Henderson’s engrossing new book, “Bridge to the Sun: The Secret Role of the Japanese Americans Who Fought in the Pacific in World War II,” fills the void.
Even before Pearl Harbor, the US Army recognized the country was in dire want of fluent Japanese speakers. Once EO 9066 was implemented, the Army scoured the camps and Hawaii to find Nisei who might fit that role. For the most part, it was the Kibei — American born Nisei who had gone to school in Japan — who were truly fluent. Even then, they had to go to school to brush up on their language skills and learn Japanese military terms and about the Japanese military.
The Pacific-bound Nisei soldiers faced all the hazards that other soldiers did and more. If they were captured by the Japanese, they would be viewed as traitors to the Emperor and dealt with accordingly. Thus, many were prepared to commit suicide if captured. They were also in danger of being mistaken as Japanese military and shot by other American soldiers. Some of them were assigned Caucasian bodyguards to minimize that possibility. Even then, they faced hostility and suspicion from their fellow soldiers, at least initially. And each knew there was a possibility he might encounter friends — or even family members — as soldiers of the enemy.
Henderson recounts the stories of six Kibei who served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) in the Pacific— Hiroshi Roy Matsumoto, Grant Hirabayashi (Gordon HIrabayashi’s cousin), Kazuo Komoto, Nobuo Furuiye, Thomas Sakamoto and Takejiro Higa. Of these, four went to war while their families languished in concentration camps.
Matsumoto and Hirabayashi both volunteered for a hazardous mission with a group of soldiers that became known as “Merrill’s Marauders.” Their job was to march through some of the most hazardous jungle terrain in the mountains of Burma (today’s Myanmar) to attack Japanese troops. Cut off from supply lines, they had only pack animals and themselves to carry almost everything they needed. Matsumoto would later discover that the Kyushu dialect he had picked up while delivering groceries to Japanese American families back home would prove invaluable and led to his being awarded the Legion of Merit and a Bronze Star. Hirabayashi, who owed his life to a mule named Jethro, had success in persuading recalcitrant POWs to provide valuable intelligence. Both men later worked for the British Royal Air Force, because it was woefully short of Japanese interpreters. Later sent to China, Hirabayashi interviewed a Japanese POW who claimed the Japanese were developing something called a “genshi bakudan,” or “atom bomb.”
Kazuo Komoto was injured in action in the Solomon Islands. During his recuperation, he raised the issue of his family being incarcerated back home with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was visiting injured troops.
The First Lady sought to reassure him, but his doctor told her, “(O)ur Nisei soldiers like the sergeant are facing two enemies. One enemy is out here shooting at them. The other one is back home.”
After regaining his health, Komoto returned to action in the Pacific.
Nobuo Furuiye was stationed in the Aleutians and later took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Although opposing Japanese soldiers generally refused to surrender, one at Iwo Jima was more than happy to do so — a Japanese American who was forced into the Japanese Army while visiting his grandparents in Japan. Furuiye would later serve in Occupied Japan.
Tom Sakamoto’s Japanese was so good that he was persuaded to teach in the military’s Japanese language schools for several years. But he longed to see combat and was transferred to the South Pacific. There, his ability to quickly translate a soaking wet order that was literally falling apart in his hands enabled the Allied Forces to successfully defeat a major Japanese operation against them. As a result, Sakamoto was awarded a Bronze Star. He was also present on the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender ceremony. The next day, he flew with reporters to Hiroshima.
Born in Hawaii, Takejiro Higa was orphaned at an early age, so grew up with relatives in Okinawa. He was at the Battle of Iwo Jima and its aftermath, trying to persuade Japanese soldiers and civilians to come out of caves. Because he had also learned the Okinawa language as a child, he was able to persuade many civilians to begin their lives anew.
The book contains helpful appendices. One briefly explains what the six men did after the war. Another lists every Nisei veteran who served in the Pacific. A third lists the 55 Nisei servicemen who died in the Pacific Theater during the war.
“Bridge to the Sun” is a must-read for all those who are interested in Japanese American history. Henderson writes in an engaging and informative style that is easy to read.
If there’s anything to criticize, it’s that the book doesn’t cover Nisei MIS members during the US Occupation of Japan. Perhaps that’s a good reason for another book. Nonetheless, Henderson has done an excellent job in demonstrating the courage, loyalty, resourcefulness and skill of the Nisei who fought in the Pacific. Along with their compatriots who fought in Europe, the Nisei in the Pacific with the MIS may have been ordinary people, but there’s no doubt that they did truly extraordinary things.
Editor’s note. The official US Army account of the MIS is James C. McNaughton, 2006, “Nisei Linguists, Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II” (“McNaughton’s ‘Nisei Linguists,’ Chapter 1,” napost.com, June 2022).
Pamela A. Okano is a retired Seattle attorney. One of her current projects is identifying people in more than 1500 family photos donated to Densho.