Densho Digital Archive
gayle k. yamada Collection
Title: James C. McNaughton Interview
Narrator: James C. McNaughton
Interviewer: gayle k. yamada
Location: Monterey, California
Date: July 1, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-mjames-01-0003

<Begin Segment 3>

gky: Will you talk a little bit about the role of the Nisei and the role of the Kibei and the differences, Kibei and, and maybe you can explain what a Kibei is?

JM: Sure. Yeah. Before the Second World War, the Pacific Ocean was a broad highway, and it was fairly easy to get back and forth. Steamships went back and forth a lot. The Issei, the men oftentimes could go back to Japan to get married and bring their brides back. Families living in the, on the West Coast or in Hawaii, they could send their children back to go to school, to live with relatives, and then come back again after a few years. It was, it was a broad highway. There was a lot of motion back and forth. Some people got caught on the wrong side when war broke out, unfortunately, so there's a sad example of a number of Nisei who were stuck in Japan during the war. By the official U.S. government definition, a Kibei was someone who had spent three years or more in Japan, so a summer study tour didn't make you a Kibei. What the Kibei really had, though, was an ingrained understanding of the Japanese language and Japanese culture. Some of the Kibei who were taken there as small children lost almost all of their English language capability, and some of the saddest stories are the Kibei who returned to the United States, let's say as teenagers or in their twenties, just before war broke out. They may have been born in the United States, taken back to Japan, taken to Japan at age one or two, spent their, all the way through their teenage years in Japan and then come back speaking hardly a word of English, but they're U.S. citizens. And those were really tragic because, frankly, the War Department couldn't really use them as well, because if you'd lost your English language capability you weren't much use to the army. But the Kibei really brought that special knowledge of Japan that was really important, not just to translate, but to understand what that document means. Not just to ask a list of questions of a prisoner, but to look at a prisoner, look him in the eye, look at his uniform, look how long his beard is, and say, "This is a private, he doesn't know anything," or to say, you know, "This is an officer who's pretending to be a private," or, "This is a university educated reserve officer and if we're nice to him maybe he'll tell us what we want to know." You can't learn that just sitting in a classroom. Some of the Kibei had actually gone through different levels of military training in Japan, so in some cases they knew the commands for left face, right face, charge. They knew the officers' commands, so the, there's a famous example of Kenny Yasui in Burma who went across the Iruwaddy River to a group of Japanese who were hiding on an island, and when he arrived on the far shore, ordered them in his best Japanese officer's voice to come out of hiding, to march out in front of him and lay down their weapons, and they did. And then he proceeded to tell them to lash together a raft, and he had them push him back across the river. He stayed on the raft and the Japanese soldiers, disarmed, swam and pushed him back across the river. And he got the Silver Star for that, but that's because he was a Kibei, he spoke Japanese, colloquial Japanese well enough, and he knew that if he treated those private soldiers like Japanese privates, that they would just respond, and they did.

gky: Talk about the role of the non Nisei.

JM: The War Department decided to organize a ten man team for each division, and then each team was headed by a Caucasian lieutenant. This lieutenant had two functions really, one was as the team leader, but the other one was to lend some credibility for the Nisei with the rest of the division staff. Remember, these guys were just arriving on the eve of the battle, arriving by airplane or by boat, and so some division commander and his Intelligence officer would just see these guys show up. "Who are you?" Well, it would be, that Caucasian lieutenant who would report in and say, "Sir, hi, I'm Lieutenant So-and-So. These are my guys." And the other officers may, the general may say, "Well, they look like Japs to me," and you had a Caucasian lieutenant who said, "Sir, they're all Americans, they've been through training at Camp Savage. Trust me, you can take my word for it." And then they got to work. I don't think they would've had that kind of credibility and acceptance in the beginning if they hadn't had those Caucasian officers.

gky: The same token, by the same token, you said earlier that the non Niseis made the Nisei role more valuable, the Niseis seem more valuable. They didn't compare --

JM: I'm not sure what I was getting at. Oh, yes, yeah.

gky: You were talking about Japanese Americans and learning...

JM: Yes. There's an interesting contrast between the language skills of most of the Nisei graduates of MIS Language School and the Caucasian graduates. Now remember, most of the Caucasian graduates had a one year introductory course at the University of Michigan before they went to Savage or Snelling, so if you really count their total training time they had eighteen months full time to learn the Japanese language. And yet when they went out into combat with the Nisei, who had only had their six months at Camp Savage, then the, it became clear how valuable the Nisei really were because in most cases the Nisei with just six months at Savage had much better language capability than the Caucasians. If the U.S. Army had flat out not used any Nisei we would've had to rely on a miniscule number of Caucasian language, Caucasian linguists of much less proficiency in the Japanese language, and we would've had to resort to what were the navy and Marine tactics, which was just bombs and flamethrowers until you kill 'em all, and that is a very, it sounds crude, but that's an inefficient way to win a battle, is just bombs and flamethrowers. The efficient way to win a battle is you find out as much as you can before you start shooting, and then once you start shooting you keep track of the other side and you find out, what unit are they from, what are their orders, what is their plan? Were they planning on attacking tomorrow or the day after tomorrow? What kind of equipment do they have? Do they have any tanks? Do they have any airborne forces? Remember, in the Philippines, the Japanese army actually used paratroops against the U.S. army, so you needed that kind of information and a lot of it to be able to fight smart.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2000 Bridge Media and Densho. All Rights Reserved.