From The Blog

America’s Secret Weapon Against Japan: Nisei Linguists

By Jonathan G. Lee   Kazuo Fred Yamaguchi is a Japanese-American veteran who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. However, he never...

By Jonathan G. Lee


Kazuo Fred Yamaguchi is a Japanese-American veteran who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. However, he never served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the all Japanese-American fighting unit which famously became the most decorated military unit in U.S. history. Yamaguchi was among the 1,000 Nisei who were drafted to work in the Military Intelligence Service, a secret unit that trained Japanese-Americans in psy ops, spycraft, linguistics, and interrogation in the war against Japan.

After the Japanese Empire surrendered, Yamaguchi and his comrades were among the first U.S. soldiers to step foot in Japan to assist in the American occupation.

Yamaguchi was born in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens and grew up in Ozone Park, which he credits for his thick New York accent and irreverent attitude towards authority.

I met the 92-year-old veteran at his home in New Jersey to talk about his childhood, military service and his take on current events.


(The interview has been lightly edited for clarity)


What kind of kid were you growing up? Did you get into scraps?


No, no. Number one, I was always a shrimp, and I said to myself, if I get in a fight with these hakujin—hakujin meaning white people—be smart. Never mind being a tough guy because I knew where I would end up. They would kick the shit out of me. So I guess that made me think differently. I said use your head.

I was pretty good in school, and I was very lucky in the area I grew up in, Ozone Park in Queens. My grandfather and his business—the greenhouse business—was very, very successful. In his day, he was a millionaire. Today, he would be a billionaire.



Did you go to college? What did you study?


I tried to apply for different universities. I was rejected—Princeton, M.I.T., Yale, blah blah blah. And then I said what the hell’s going on? Maybe my grades aren’t good enough.

But later on I realized what it was all about—I was a Jap. So I said eh, what the hell. My attitude? Fuck them. [He laughed]



But you did end up going to college, right?


Yep. University of Connecticut. And, he was a Quaker. He was an unusual man.



Who was? The dean of the school?


The president of the University of Connecticut. He got many niseis [second generation Japanese Americans] out of the camps.

[He couldn’t remember the president’s name]

He invited all of them and all the nisei from out of the [West] Coast—we call them our prisoner camps. Tuition free, room and board, everything.

And I didn’t deserve it because I’m a New Yorker not a West Coaster, but I was included in with them, so here I was. And I got my bachelor’s free and clear, for nothing.

And I think back and I say what they spent on me should’ve been spent on another nisei out of the camps.



What was going to U. Conn like?


At the University of Connecticut, there were three different churches. One was a Catholic church and the head of that church was Father O’Brien. O’Brien—Irish Catholic. A goddamn racist all the way.

One day, a friend of mine—he was Polish American—I said [to him], you know John, I’m curious how they brainwash you Catholics. Invite me to one of your services. So I went.

And you know what John told me? The priest said don’t you dare bring a goddamn Jap into my church again.

I said frankly, I don’t give a shit. I wouldn’t spit on the best part of Father O’Brien. Tell Father O’Brien, for me, I said to him, go fuck yourself. And John did.



So since you got a college education, did you get a commission as an officer into the military?


No, bullshit. At that time? You gotta be kidding.



So you were enlisted?


[He laughed] Of course. I mean, if I was “ivory soap” [this is his phrase for white people] doing the work that I did, I would’ve been at least a bird [full] colonel.

I tried volunteering. They didn’t take me. Eventually, I got drafted.

I was military intelligence. Technician Fourth Grade.



Have your kids talked to you about encountering the same type of racism growing up?


They’re aware of it. They know how to handle it. And they are more subtle about it, not like their father.

I tell them, I said hey, I paid my dues. Whether I liked it or not, I put my life on the line, now I earned the right to say and do what I do. What you kids do, it’s up to you.



Are these your medals?


Oh, Congressional Gold Medal. [He shook his head] What a joke.



Why? What do you mean?


They had a special thing for us in D.C. to award us these medals. We had to buy the medal and the box.

The only other segregated ethnic group that I recall who received this award were the black Air Force. I wonder if they had to buy it? I don’t know.

And I say to myself, they honor us and they awarded us, and yet we had to buy it? And I think back and I say, that’s typical America.

Hypocrites. And things haven’t changed at all.