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Mastering the enemy’s tongue

by Stephen Mansfield

Creating a language-learning program may not sound like the kind of material to set the readers’ pulse racing, but author Roger Dingman has a unique and compelling story to tell.

DECIPHERING THE RISING SUN, by Roger Dingman. Naval Institute Press, 2010, 250 pp.,$29.95 (hardcover)

In this book about war and language, the author wisely focuses on one particular group, the Navy Language School at the University of Colorado, and its affiliated Oklahoma A&M College at Stillwater.

Dingman provides the background to the onset of World War II, analyzing the emotional discourse, as well as the voices of reason associated with people like the very prescient but barely heeded Albert Hindmarsh, who, after visiting Tokyo in 1937, became a firm advocate of “designing and erecting peace- preserving machinery,” before the warmongers got the upper hand.

Sadly, they already had.

By the end of June 1942, the school at Boulder, with its portfolio to train interpreters for combat service, was ready for its first intake. The choice of language recruits inevitably reflected the social, gender and racial lines of the day: Only a handful of women were inducted into the program; there were no blacks.

The bar for the 10-to-12-month course was set high. Students would be expected to learn 1,600 Japanese characters; read, translate and transcribe Japanese texts and newspaper articles. Students were required to work for 14 hours a day, six days a week, 50 weeks out of the year. Speaking English was banned after the first two weeks of the course, and students were subjected to an arduous monitoring exam every Saturday.

Living conditions were testing. When time spent rehearsing for amateur theatricals resulted in lower test scores, the plays were terminated. Agents were infiltrated into the student ranks to spy on sexual habits and political leanings. New recruits to the school in Stillwater, Oklahoma, were greeted by a sign outside the town, reading “Alcohol is the end-all of humanity.”

Astonishingly, only a small percentage of students fell by the wayside and were returned to civilian or military life.

The staff would shape an inchoate language course into, arguably, the best Japanese teaching program in the country. This was due not only to the organizers of the programs, but to its Japanese American instructors, many relieved to be released from detention camps located on the burning prairies of southern and central California.

Fred M. Tayama, a leader of the loyalist Japanese American Citizens League, was almost beaten to death by pro-Japan inmates at one camp in Manzanar. For people like Tayama, a teaching post at Boulder was “deliverance as well as a demonstration of patriotism.”

The author does not shrink from recounting the realities experienced by language officers in the Pacific War, even when it casts U.S. troops in a dubious light. Alongside descriptions of the struggles to conduct interviews and interrogations under fire, Dingman touches on the disinclination of marines to take live prisoners, and the unauthorized but common practice of “souvenir hunting,” which included striping the bodies of the enemy, right down to their gold teeth.

Having few subjects to interrogate posed enormous problems for language officers tasked with obtaining key intelligence from Japanese captives. Interpreters often had to plead with soldiers to keep them alive. One officer, Larry Vincent, was offered a live soldier by a sergeant, on condition that he “would let him kill the man when the interrogation was finished.”

Many young interpreters cut their teeth in places like this, and on long forgotten islands like Kwajalein and Tarawa, during what Dingman calls “battles of annihilation.”

In the white heat of engagement, noncombatants were among those frequently induced from their hiding places, then shot on sight. Compassion among young marines, half-deranged at the slaughter of fellow soldiers and friends, was apt to dissolve on the front line of the killing zones.

In their passage through the Pacific to the beachheads of Okinawa, inexperienced language officers discovered that their work, often on their own initiative, went far beyond simply interrogating prisoners. In broadcasting surrender appeals, and in attempting to persuade marines not to gratuitously exterminate soldiers and civilians, combat interpreters became the bridges between victors and defeated that would play an indispensable role in facilitating the American Occupation of Japan.

As this immensely detailed account demonstrates, the Boulder-trained language officers, fired and hardened in the Pacific, were among America’s finest emissaries of peace.