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Japanese Americans Honored for Roles in WWII - 2003-05-07

Some Japanese Americans have been honored for playing an important but unheralded role in World War II. They provided news and commentary to listeners in Japan in the early days of international broadcasting.

Their story begins in the internment camps of the Western United States, where West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry were held during the war. Decades later, U.S. officials acknowledged that the internment had been a grave miscarriage of justice.

President Reagan signed an Act of Congress in 1988 providing each of the internees with a reparation payment of $20,000. "One-hundred twenty thousand persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in internment camps," he said. "The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment for each of the 60,000 survivors."

Los Angeles resident Gary Ono was researching his family history to help his younger brother qualify for the payment. In the process, the two discovered what their father had done in the war. Recruited from an internment camp because of his language skills, Sam Ono was part of a group of Japanese Americans hired to broadcast U.S. and British programs to Japan.

Another wartime broadcaster, Frank Shozo Baba, says the joint radio service had a purpose. "To discourage Japanese people from supporting their leaders. So the sooner you quit the war, the better," he says. "So that's what the whole thing was about."

Mr. Baba, who would later head the post-war Japanese service of the Voice of America, is featured with his colleagues in a video documentary produced by Gary Ono. It was recently shown at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where the broadcasters were honored.

Some, like Mr. Baba, worked for the U.S. Office of War Information, while others, including Sam Ono, worked for the British Political Warfare Mission. Both services emanated from the same studios in Denver, Colorado. From there, the signal was carried by telephone line to short-wave transmitters in California, and beamed across the Pacific.

Former broadcaster Gish Takeshi Endo says the programs were part of a propaganda effort, but the news they presented was truthful. "I would say, yes, very much accurate. It was news coming over the press [services] like Associated Press and United Press and the New York Times," he says. "So it was all news that was also given to the people of the United States."

Historian Allison Gilmore of Ohio State University says the government officials who supervised the broadcasts had made a strategic decision to be honest. "Early on, the idea was simply to broadcast news, even if it was bad news, because in order to persuade the Japanese to listen to the British or the Americans, they had to convince the Japanese that they were telling the truth," she says. "So they simply broadcast news."

At first, there was little good news to report. Allied forces fared poorly in the Pacific early in the war, but later, their fortunes improved and the broadcasts added persuasive messages, urging the Japanese not to oppose an invasion.

The broadcasters lived quietly in Denver during the war years, staying in rented houses and apartments. Gary Ono, who spent part of his early childhood there, knew nothing of his father's work. He says Sam Ono, like many Japanese Americans of his generation, never spoke of the war. "I don't know why. I guess that was true even about the whole camp experience," he says. "And then on top of that, this kind of job had a kind of a secret air to it and so I guess they felt they weren't supposed to make it public."

Former broadcaster Chiyo Nao Wada recalls that some famous authors were hired to write the radio scripts that the broadcasters presented. They included Alan Cranston, a journalist who later became a U.S. senator. "They were well-known novelists and columnists, and they would write such sophisticated English that we couldn't really translate it," says Mrs. Wada. "So we said, give us the straight news in good English, no fancy puns and things like that."

Historian Allison Gilmore says U.S. officials never had a firm grasp of the size of their audience. But they thought it was substantial, especially near the end of the war, after allied troops set up a medium-wave transmitter on the captured Japanese island of Saipan.

Kay Kitsuta, a Japanese American who spent the war years in Japan, listened to the broadcasts on a home-built shortwave radio, attracted more by the music than the news and commentary. "It was very romantic music that I heard over the radio, you know. That's why it kind of attracted me to listen, instead of military, strict, war-effort music, this music was old, kind of relaxing music," he says. "So I enjoyed listening to it."

The devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would finally lead to the Japanese surrender. The wartime broadcasts came to end, the internment camps were emptied and the Japanese-language broadcasters returned to the West Coast to rebuild their lives.

Few, however, talked about their wartime experiences. Gish Takeshi Endo says he never even told his wife about his service to his country.