Age had caught up with them, but their memories remained vivid. For Hiro Nishimura, now 85, of Mercer Island, his were of the mango trees with fruit that smelled of bad perfume...

Share story

Age had caught up with them, but their memories remained vivid.

For Hiro Nishimura, now 85, of Mercer Island, his were of the mango trees with fruit that smelled of bad perfume, the oppressive humidity and the cobras in the Burmese jungles, where in 1944 he contracted malaria. After a week’s hospital stay with fevers and chills, he was back with the British Army division unit to which he had been assigned.

His job included interrogating Japanese prisoners of war, using the language he had learned as a kid growing up in Seattle. Sometimes with the prisoners, he became a counselor of sorts, a man of the same race with empathy for their culture.

“Their morale was low. They were mentally half-beat. They’re far removed from their homeland, their supply ships don’t come over because they’re all sunk by submarines,” Nishimura remembered.

Some 60 years after their work helped bring an end to World War II, Nishimura and the other members of a dwindling group of veterans gathered yesterday in downtown Seattle, perhaps for the last time, to begin the process of officially shutting down their group. Some wore stars-and-stripes ties. Some used canes to walk.

At one time the work of the Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) remained shrouded in secrecy, even decades after the end of the war. But after a 1972 executive order declassified virtually all of World War II’s military records, the exploits of the unit gained widespread notice.

The group of Japanese-Americans soldiers had served in a secret organization that did translations, interrogations and radio intercepts and was ultimately instrumental in helping turn postwar Japan into a democracy.

During the war and even afterward, the U.S. military did not want the Japanese to know it had employed Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, in the fight in the Pacific. Far better known were the exploits of Japanese-American soldiers who fought against the Nazis in Europe.

Many veterans of the secret unit were recruited from internment camps where they had been forced to move with their families in the months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1946 some 6,000 of these young Nisei had become part of the Army’s program, valued for their fluency in the language and culture of the Japanese.

Jiro Arakaki, right, interrogates a Japanese general off Yonakunajima, Okinawa, in 1945. Col. M.F. Smith is in the center.

“The kind of intelligence that the Nisei provided allowed a commander like Gen. Douglas MacArthur to win great victories at a much lower cost of lives,” said James McNaughton, command historian for the U.S. Army, Pacific, who works at Fort Shafter near Honolulu.

Nishimura remembered how grateful Japanese prisoners were because they weren’t killed by their captors.

“We’d give them a cigarette. Tears were running down their eyes. They’d say, ‘I thought we were going to be killed. They told us we would be killed. But you’re feeding us.’ “

Nishimura feared some of the prisoners might commit suicide because the Japanese military regarded surrender as the supreme shame. “I tell them, ‘You served your country. The war is over for you. Go home,’ ” he said.

Yesterday’s luncheon at a Best Western motel was probably the group’s last official meeting as the MIS Northwest Association. Their numbers are dwindling and the annual gathering was becoming difficult for many members.

Art Yorozu, 77, president of the regional group and a retired Boeing engineer, pointed to some of his fellow Nisei. “He’s had a bypass, and he’s had a bypass,” he said, explaining why a few years ago their group had stopped having dinner gatherings. “Nobody wants to drive at night.”

McNaughton said the Nisei were instrumental in turning a former enemy into an ally, in having Japanese veterans decide to take part in the rebuilding of Japan.

Among their duties in postwar Japan during the Allied occupation was helping re-establish the nation’s educational system, which included eliminating references to militarism and ultranationalism from textbooks.

“It came as a shock to them to meet an American, in an American military uniform, who was from the same racial background, who would treat them kindly,” McNaughton said. “They were thrown off balance.”

At the same time that they were essentially acting as spokesmen for America, the Nisei knew that back in the United States their relatives had been uprooted and faced loss of businesses and livelihoods when they were relocated to camps. Nishimura’s father, Hisao, had to sell the Seattle apartments he owned when the family was relocated to Hunt, Idaho.

After the war ended, his father became a gardener. “It was very hard for that generation to make a second start. They were not so much physically, but mentally, broken down,” Nishimura said.

One of the most renowned MIS vets is Roy Matsumoto, 91, of Friday Harbor, a member of the Northwest group who was not at yesterday’s luncheon. He was part of the famed unit known as Merrill’s Marauders, led by Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, in Burma.

In 1944, Matsumoto recalled a particularly memorable exploit. “We came through the jungle and reached an open area. I happened to look up and found Japanese telephone lines. I climbed up a tree and found it was a live wire. I listened and found they had a hidden ammunition dump.”

He spent the entire day in the tree, not wanting to miss any important messages. He understood the Japanese dialect that was being spoken because he had learned it as a young boy delivering farm goods to Los Angeles-area customers who spoke it.

Merrill ordered a bomb strike that destroyed the ammunition dump.

The MIS vets at the luncheon voted to begin preparations to give up their nonprofit federal status, and they eventually will give their $30,000 in cash assets to a Japanese-heritage group. McNaughton estimated that about half of the 6,000 MIS linguists have died. An MIS chapter in Northern California recently closed down.

Also among those voting to dissolve was James Doi, 81, of Seattle, retired dean of the University of Washington’s College of Education.

Like many of the vets, he still has his dog tag, bearing his serial number 37599032t44, blood type “B,” and a “P” for his Protestant faith. The Army didn’t have a designation for Buddhist, which is Doi’s religion.

Doi said there was no sadness for him in the decision to dissolve the MIS group.

“We’re realists,” he said of their declining numbers. “There are no new members coming in. It’s not a matter of years, but months.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or