[HISTORY] Tad Nagaki - Japanese American WWII Hero
- Tad Nagaki by Mary Previte
Mary Previte is an Assemblywoman in the New Jersey legislature.
Address: 351 Kings Highway East, Haddonfleld. NJ 08033.
Tad Nagaki was full of memories when I tracked him down 52 years
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
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.
Click on image to enlarge
"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
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."
Click on image to enlarge
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.
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.