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Bringing honor to his family name

Man received Congressional Gold Medal for helping U.S. military with critical language services in WWII


Walter Tanaka’s father wrote to him while Walter was serving in the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Language Service in Australia in 1942. Walter’s father was imprisoned in a Japanese-American incarceration camp in Arizona at the time he wrote the letter.

Walter remembers a quote his dad gave in an interview with Gayle Yamada in the year 2000. He said, “There is a Japanese proverb that says when a tiger dies it leaves its skin behind. When a man dies, he leaves behind his name. Never do anything to dishonor your name.”

Walter Tanaka sent this photo to his future wife, Kae, while she was incarcerated in the Japanese incarceration camp in Poston, Arizona. They were married in 1946. Two of Kae’s brothers fought with the 442nd segregated Japanese American combat battalion in Europe. Contributed photo

That was powerful fatherly advice, and throughout 20 years of military service, Major Walter Tanaka did nothing to dishonor the Tanaka name. For that he, and his military unit, were jointly honored with the Congressional Gold Medal at a celebration in San Jose California on Feb. 23, 2012. He died a week later, at the age of 94. The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions.

“I was at my Dad’s Gold Medal Ceremony,” said Karen (Tanaka) Lucas, Walter’s daughter and a retired Twin Cities physician. “He had severe advanced dementia by that time but the last coherent sentence he said to me as we entered the hall was, ‘A lot of soldiers here.’ They were all old Japanese American veterans in their suits and military caps. We buried my dad with his medal in his hands. It validated his life.”

Walter began his life as a soldier when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. On June 2, 1941, he left his home near San Luis Obispo, California, for basic training at the recently opened Camp Roberts in Monterrey County, California. Walter told Gayle Yamada that he remembers that day well.

“There were three Nisei drafted that day,” he told Yamada. “The Japanese community held a going away party for us and they accompanied us to the railroad station.”

Nisei is the Japanese word for the American-born children of Japanese born immigrants. Walter did basic training, as well as heavy weapons training, with a company that included several Nisei.

“We were just like any other Americans doing their duty to serve our country,” he said. “Our company was sent to Fort Ord for heavy weapons training in mortars and machine guns.”

Walter was on weekend leave, staying with some relatives, when he heard on the radio that the Japanese had invaded Pearl Harbor. His relatives took him back to Fort Ord and that night the soldiers slept outside.

“We slept in the woods because we thought the Japanese might attack the barracks,” he said. “We spent the night loading machine gun ammunition into belts by hand. Our hands got blistered and bloody.”

The company moved from Fort Ord to the Santa Rosa Fair Grounds. There they began the work of placing high caliber machine guns on the beaches. The Nisei soldiers worked alongside their fellow soldiers. Walter began standing watch at one of the installations.

“They feared the Japanese were going to attack California,” he said.

They also feared the Nisei.

“One day I was told that all Japanese Americans should report back to Santa Rosa,” Walter said. “They took our rifles away but didn’t say anything. We didn’t know what was going on. We were ordered to work with county jail prisoners to pave the fair grounds. I felt pretty bad about it. Why are we working with prisoners?”

Over the next several months the men were moved inland, away from the coast. During this period they also learned that their families had been taken from their homes and moved to guarded camps in the country’s interior. By winter, about 100 Nisei soldiers had been stationed at Fort Custer, near Battle Creek Michigan. Walter was assigned to keeping the coal burning heaters in the barracks stoked.

He was wondering if he was going to spend the war pitching coal when he heard about the Army’s new Japanese language school near Savage, Minnesota.

Walter took this photo while he was studying at Camp Savage in Scott County Minnesota. Steven Lucas, Karen’s husband and a retired physician, says that Scott County old-timers told him people thought Camp Savage was a Prisoner of War Camp. Lucas, originally from Long Prairie, says the school is often referred to as Minnesota’s Secret Language School. Contributed photo

“Just weeks before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Fourth Army Intelligence School (later renamed the Military Intelligence Service Language School or MISLS) opened on Nov. 1, 1941, with four Nisei instructors and 60 students of whom 58 were Nisei,” wrote a photographic display about the schools history developed by the Twin Cities Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (TCJACL). The display, co-authored by Karen Tanaka Lucas and members of the education committee, is now on display at the military museum at Camp Ripley near Little Falls.

“I thought anything would be better then pitching coal and cleaning clinkers,” Walter said. “I passed the exam and they said I could go to Camp Savage, Minnesota.”

The Army had moved the MISLS from San Francisco to Savage for the same reason they’d moved Walter and the other Nisei inland.

Karen’s husband, Steven Lucas, who is originally from Long Prairie, said the school was often referred to as “Minnesota’s Secret Language School.”

Walter’s foundational Japanese was good because his mother was from Kyoto and spoke what he called “good standard Japanese.” His father was a farmer but he, along with his wife, had taken Japanese correspondence course when Walter was a child.

“That prepared me to be a good interpreter,” he said.

But it was tough going.

“I was at Camp Savage six months. We had to learn 50 Japanese characters a day,” he said. “It was hard and we stayed up at night to learn in the latrine. The lights were always on there. We always studied until midnight or later. Those of us who did that will never forget that studying.”

“There were some that rebelled and gave the school a bad time. They were transferred to other units.”

Gayle Yamada, the interviewer, asked Walter why he volunteered for Military Intelligence duty.

“I said to myself that what was happening to my family was wrong and here and I’m volunteering to go to Camp Savage and learn the Japanese language,” he said. “The situation at that time was a crisis. We were in war. I felt right or wrong, I’d serve my country.”

On Dec. 12, 1942, Walter and nine other Nisei graduates of Camp Savage MISLS were assigned to be linguists for the U.S. Army Air Corp. They were sent to Indooropilly Camp near Brisbane, Australia.

“There was no Air Force at the time,” Walter said.

Walter, on the left, in New Guinea in 1944. He is identifying airplane parts with George Kimura, another translator. Japanese soldiers in New Guinea were sick and starving. Contributed photo

There were a lot of prisoners of war.

“He worked with ATIS (Allied Translator Interpreter Section),” said Karen, his daughter. “He worked in prisoner interrogation there where 14,000 Japanese prisoners of war were interrogated. They also translated two million captured documents.”

“The interrogating officer would ask the question in English and we would translate it into Japanese for the prisoner,” Walter told his interviewer. “When the prisoner would respond we would translate that into English. I worked in the interrogation of prisoners of war for two and a half years.”

Walter’s unit served under General Douglas MacArthur, who was commander of all allied forces in the Pacific. That meant that Walter often interpreted for Australian, as well as American, officers.

The interrogation officers conducted interviews with a stern and demanding bad cop demeanor. During the interrogation, the interpreters interacted with the prisoners in the same manner. During breaks, however, the interpreters relaxed and played a good cop role.

“They were shocked to see an interpreter who looked Japanese and spoke their language,” Walter said. “You’d offer them a cigarette, or a candy bar and, because many of them were farmers, ask them who was harvesting their crops while they were gone. Its very few prisoners that they couldn’t break under this kind of humane treatment.”

Since Walter’s team was with the Army Air Corps they were assigned to interrogations of captured pilots, air crew, and ground crew.

“I worked on information regarding Japanese planes and to recognize what their units were and what their capability was,” he said. “We questioned them about their unit strength and the training they had prior to coming to the front and what their commander was like. We used language to gain strategic information about the enemy for our B-29 raids and for artillery bombardment from the Army and Navy.”

Japanese soldiers were trained to never become a prisoner, regardless of the circumstances. As it became clear that Japan was losing the war prisoners, begged their interrogators not to send them back to Japan. They would commit suicide rather than return in disgrace.

“Time and again prisoners told me capture was a disgrace worse than death,” Walter said.

Walter was assigned to the Australian Air Force in 1944 and transferred to Hollandia (now Jayapura), New Guinea.

“In Manila, Japanese officers were living it up,” Walter said. “But in New Guinea their soldiers were starving and had malaria and dengue fever.”

The Allied victory at the Battle of Hollandia set the stage for Allied operations in the Philippines and ultimately the occupation of Japan.

“I received a direct field commission while I was in Manila,” Walter said. “Along with one other Nisei, I was selected as an interrogating officer for the occupation.”

Walter was assigned a team of 10 Nisei interpreters and flew with them from Okinawa to Atsugi air base in Japan. They arrived on August 30, 1945, the first day of the occupation. The Nisei team joined a large caravan, led by General MacArthur in a limousine provided by the Japanese, that entered Yokohama.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “I’m an American farm kid. Now here I am in the occupation of Japan. I couldn’t believe what was happening.”

Walter served in the occupation of Japan for six years. While there he spoke with General Tojo.

“He worked in counter intelligence in the 1950s in Japan and Korea, and he never talked about that,” his daughter Karen said.

The military unit Walter served in (Military Intelligence Service) was jointly awarded the Congressional Gold Medal along with the segregated all Japanese American infantry battalion, the 100th/442. Major Walter Tanaka received his award at a regional ceremony in San Jose California on February 23, 2012. Contributed photo

The Military Intelligence Service Language School, at Camp Savage and later at Fort Snelling, graduated 6,000 Japanese language linguists during World War II. Most of them, like Walter, were Nisei.

In April 2000, the Military Intelligence Service was belatedly awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, which is the highest honor given to a US military unit. The Presidential Unit Citation is awarded to units that display “gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission as to set it apart from and above other units participating in the same campaign.”

Walter had two copies of the citation framed.

“He gave one to me,” Karen said. “I have it hanging now in my bedroom along side my bed.”

Walter’s father would have been proud of his son. He honored the Tanaka name.


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