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Japanese-American Wartime Language Teachers Honored - 2002-11-09

The U.S. Navy has honored Japanese-American teachers who contributed to the U.S. wartime victory in the Pacific. A ceremony was held earlier this month at Pomona College, near Los Angeles.

The director of U.S. naval intelligence presented the group with public service awards for their work as language instructors 60 years ago.

"At the very beginning of the war, both the Navy and Army discovered that there was almost no one in the country, particularly in the armed services, who knew Japanese," said Frank Gibney, the president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, which hosted the ceremony. "So they started a desperate talent search to set up schools for learning the language for intelligence purposes."

Many Japanese Americans who spoke the language well had been put in internment camps, an act for which U.S. officials have since apologized.

In early 1942, some internees volunteered to go to Boulder, Colorado, to teach in the Navy language school. Mr. Gibney arrived as a student later that year.

More than 1,000 students finished the program. Mr. Gibney was one of them. "After the school, we went mostly out to the Pacific or Southwest Pacific and spent the war either interrogating prisoners or translating documents," he said. "And it was an effort of great value to the war effort and to American intelligence."

Mr. Gibney first worked at the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, and later traveled with U.S. forces to places like Okinawa, where he questioned prisoners.

Some graduates of the Navy language school went on to become important Japan scholars, like Mr. Gibney at Pomona College and Theodore deBary and Donald Keene at Columbia University. Other graduates taught Asian studies at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Pedro Loureiro, curator of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, says most people recall the savagery of the Pacific war.

"They talk about the mutual hate," he explained. "But if we look at the case of the Navy Japanese language school, we see that these students, who learned under these Japanese and Japanese-Americans, actually change their view. It was no longer that dehumanized, demonized enemy that they were taught to hate. They saw them as fellow human beings."

And many students came to admire Japanese history and culture.

More than 140 Japanese instructors taught at the Navy school. As is traditional in Japan, they were respectfully called sensei, the Japanese term for "teacher." Twelve of the 23 surviving sensei were in Pomona for the ceremony, along with 170 family members representing the others.

The honor come after former students and U.S. Defense officials realize that the U.S. government had never formerly thanked the former teachers.

The youngest of the survivors is 89-years-old. The oldest is 97, and is living in San Francisco.