Knowledge of Japanese language, culture crucial to WW II success in the Pacific

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 11, 2011 

Knowledge of the Japanese language and culture by the U.S. military was crucial in prosecuting the Pacific military effort in the Second World War. Bellingham residents Irwin and Carole Slesnick published a book in 2006 about the use of Japanese interpreters during the war and during the occupation of Japan. Entitled "Kanji & Codes," it provides a fascinating account of the training and use of Japanese interpreters by the military.

The U.S. Army, anticipating the possibility of eventual conflict with Japan, sent four men to Japan in 1908 to learn the language and to familiarize themselves with Japanese culture. The development of a Japanese language school in Tokyo followed. Over the next four decades, the U.S. established 14 additional language schools at home and abroad to train Americans to read and speak Japanese.

The schools turned out over 8,000 men and women who could speak, read or write Japanese at varying levels of proficiency. The training and education was rigorous and intense, and included Japanese culture as well as language. A number of these men and women were also trained in cryptology and were expert in code breaking. The interpreters were recruited from U.S. citizens of diverse ethnic backgrounds, including many of Japanese descent.

Irwin Slesnick was one of thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines trained as an interpreter. The preface to the book gives a bird's-eye view of the role of an interpreter on the battlefield in Okinawa. Slesnick, as an enlisted man assigned to a Marine battalion on Okinawa, was expected to interrogate prisoners, read captured documents, persuade Japanese soldiers to surrender, and direct civilians out of harm's way.

It was particularly important to use interpreters to persuade Japanese troops to come out of caves and surrender, saving both Japanese and American lives. The numerous caves on both Okinawa and Iwo Jima were often occupied by Japanese soldiers and sometimes Japanese or Okinawan civilians. All six Marine divisions and many Army and Navy units in the Pacific made use of Japanese interpreters and cryptologists.

The combination of cryptology skills and literacy in the Japanese language, and particularly the knowledge of Japanese military terms, turned out to be crucial in following the movement of Japanese warships. The U.S. military was fortunate in being able to break the major Japanese codes and thus were able to follow naval movements.

In early 1942, cryptologists in Hawaii determined that a major Japanese fleet was on its way to an American destination. Some thought they were headed for Midway Island, some thought the West Coast would be targeted, and others thought it could be a second attack on Pearl Harbor.

The cryptologists had determined that the invasion site was designated by the Japanese as "AF." The Slesnick account describes how Edwin Layton, Admiral Nimitz's head of intelligence for the Pacific Fleet, tricked the Japanese into revealing the attack destination.

An uncoded radio message was transmitted from Midway urgently requesting barged fresh water as their still had broken down. The Japanese then put out the news that "AF" was running out of water. This confirmed that Midway was the destination of the Japanese fleet, and enabled the Navy to soundly defeat the invaders, a major turning point in the Pacific war.

Before retiring, Slesnick was a professor in the biology department at Western Washington University. Carole worked as an editor, and co-developer of science activity kits.

Don Pilcher lives in Bellingham. Irwin and Carole Slesnick assisted him with this story.

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