In the spring of 1941, war against Japan seemed imminent. Military leaders realized early on the importance of having Army personnel skilled in the Japanese language as translators and interrogators. Major Carlisle C. Dusenbury of the Far Eastern Branch and Major Wallace H. Moore discussed using Nisei soldiers as linguists. Both were familiar with the Japanese language and culture: Dusenbury was a former language attaché and Moore was born in Japan. They presented their idea to their branch chief, Colonel Rufus Bratton, in what Army command historian Dr. James C. McNaughton states was later acknowledged by officials as a “master stroke.”1
The Japanese language school would be the first school for foreign language and combat intelligence training for the War Department. In June 1941, the Army assigned Lieutenant Colonel John Weckerling to the Fourth Army to help set up the school. Weckerling himself had spent eight years in Japan as a language attaché. Fourth Army, based at the Presidio in San Francisco, was the logical choice because of its proximity to potential students and instructors. With the help of Captain Joseph K. Dickey, another language attaché, and coast artillery officer Captain Kai E. Rasmussen, who had spent four years in Japan, the men worked together to find recruits for the program, interviewing some 1,300 Nisei on the West Coast.2
On November 3, 1941, about five weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Fourth Army Intelligence School held its first session at Crissy Field at the Presidio. School commenced in a converted airplane hangar, where classrooms contained boxes and orange crates for chairs and tables, and partitions separated students from their barracks and the offices.3 Rasmussen had just $2,000 for the school budget, so all the materials were scrounged from the main post, while mimeographs were used to reproduce textbooks.4
John Aiso, a Japanese American lawyer who was well-known and respected in the community, was a private assigned to a truck repair outfit when Rasmussen first interviewed him for an instructor position. Aiso had joined the Army in April 1941. Once he was chosen to be the chief instructor of the school, he was transferred to an enlisted reserve corps.5 He worked with seven other instructors in its first class.
The six-month course covered reading, conversation and interpretation, emphasizing the military aspects of the Japanese language (heigo). Translation of textbooks and documents, POW interrogation and studying the cursive style of Japanese writing (sōsho) were also included in the curriculum.6 For many of the students, the coursework was challenging, but they persevered.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese American community was thrown into chaos. The status of all Japanese Americans was threatened as their loyalty to the United States was questioned. All Nisei Army registrants were reclassified as “IV-C,” or “enemy aliens,” and the War Department declared that no Japanese American soldiers would be deployed overseas. Luckily, the Fourth Army Intelligence School students were given an exception. But their future was still uncertain.
The first class consisted of 58 Nisei and 2 Caucasian students. On May 1, 1942, about 40 Nisei and two Caucasians graduated. In the weeks prior to graduation, all of the Nisei’s families were hurriedly preparing for “relocation,” selling their personal belongings and settling their business matters, which would take place a few days after the small graduation ceremony.
The instructors knew that training had to continue and that the work of these students would be vital to the war effort. However, they knew nothing about what their duties would be.7 Despite this uncertainty, they intensified their efforts.
For the soldiers, upon graduation, all but ten of these first graduates were sent to Alaska, Australia and the South Pacific, later serving in the campaigns of Guadalcanal, the Aleutian Islands, and Papua New Guinea. The ten remained behind to serve as instructors.8
The graduates proved their worth by translating documents, interrogating captives, and obtaining vital information that led to victory. Upon hearing of their accomplishments, several units and field commanders of both American and Allied forces, once skeptical of their worth, requested their assistance.
Officials realized that with the forced removal of all people of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast, they could not maintain the school’s location at the Presidio. Shortly after the first round of students graduated, the school staff, instructors, and remaining ten graduates made their way to Camp Savage, Minnesota, the school’s new site. Minnesota had been recognized as a state with no prior issues of racial prejudice against Asians, and Minnesota’s Governor Harold E. Stassen welcomed the school to his state.9
With new students and a larger staff, classes began on June 1, 1942. Later that month, it would be renamed the Military Intelligence Service Language School, reporting directly to the Military Intelligence Service rather than to the Fourth Army. By 1944, over 1,000 students, including Nisei and Caucasian soldiers, enrolled at Camp Savage. It became apparent that a larger facility was needed, so after two years, the school moved to Fort Snelling, about ten miles away. More than 3,000 students went through training at the new school. In May 1946, Fort Snelling graduated its last class of students and moved back to the Presidio in June. The school was then renamed the US Army Language School. In 1963, it would again be renamed the Defense Language Institute, which remains in operation to this day.
By the summer of 1945, the MISLS changed its focus to training students in oral language skills to prepare for the invasion and occupation of Japan. After Japan surrendered, the school shifted its emphasis from military to general Japanese. Instead of heigo and military tactics, the focus became civil terminology, Japanese government and administration, in preparation for the occupation and rebuilding of Japan in the aftermath of the war.10
- 1James C. McNaughton, Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2006), p. 21.
- 2Ibid, p. 25-6.
- 3Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 24.
- 4Ted Tsukiyama (2004), “The Nisei Intelligence War Against Japan,” Retrieved from on December 23, 2014.
- 5Masaharu Ano, “Loyal Linguists: Nisei of World War II Learned Japanese in Minnesota,” Minnesota History 45.7(1977), accessed on January 16, 2015
- 6Kiyoshi Yano, “Participating in the Mainstream of American Life Amidst Drawback of Racial Prejudice and Discrimination,” in John Aiso and the MIS: Japanese-American Soldiers in the Military Intelligence Service, World War II, trans. by Haruo Kugizaki, Tad Ichinokuchi, ed. (Los Angeles, CA: MIS Club of Southern California, 1988), p. 16.
- 7For a thorough and informative description of the situation and sentiment of many of the Nisei recruits following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, see James C. McNaughton, Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II (Washington, DC: US Department of the Army, 2006), p. 45-50.
- 9“Fort Snelling: Breaking the Code,” NPS.gov, last modified December 23, 2014