Topic & Content
Published in 1979, this book examines the experiences of Nisei (2nd generation Japanese-Americans) in the Pacific Theater of WWII and their work as interpreters, translators, and interrogators while fighting against the Imperial Japanese.
The book has 16 chapters and no table of contents.
The best I could find for a thesis is that Harrington wrote this book to tell the “other half” of the story of Japanese-Americans in World War II. He specifically opines that the contribution of the Japanese-American linguists, translators, and interpreters in the Pacific Theater was far greater than that of the 442nd regiment and 100th battalion in the European Theater. Despite the U.S. government locking 100,000+ Japanese-Americans up in internment camps and suppressing the activities of these servicemen in the Pacific for decades after the war, they still served honorably.
According to the biographical blurb, Joseph Harrington was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts. A retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, Harrington was inspired to write about the experiences of the Japanese-Americans after discovering that the “official” versions of their history never involved interviewing any of the enlisted men.
The importance of this topic is difficult to overstate. The majority of the literature on the experiences of the Japanese-Americans in World War II (as far as I’ve personally seen) focuses on the internment camps and the actions of the 100th infantry battalion and 442nd infantry regiment in Europe (as if that’s the only thing the Nisei ever did in WWII). However, the efforts of the Nisei interpreters and translators in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) (often referred to as “MIS’ers”) in the Pacific Theater are often overlooked. It wasn’t until decades after the war that their activities were declassified, however, owing to the overall reticence of the Nisei, their story could have remained just an obscure footnote of the war. Thanks to Harrington’s research and interviews, their story can begin to be told.
Note that not all Nisei who served in WWII were solely in the 442nd, 100th, or MIS. These men would serve not only in American units but also with various Allied forces throughout the Asia-Pacific Theater. More than 100 would serve in U.S. Marine Corps units. Some would train with airborne units, some would be recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and others would even liaise with the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong. A number of them also served as interrogators in the 5307th Composite Unit (provisional) (AKA Merrill’s Marauders. One of the units that would eventually become part of the modern 75th Ranger Regiment) in Burma and would be inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame. That’s just to name a few.
While research done for the book is commendable, it’s seriously let down by the writing. Simply put, the book isn’t very well written or organized. The writing has a very sophomoric feel to it, which is made further distracting by poor editing. Harrington attempts to connect the experiences of the many Nisei together, but the lack of details in both dates and events makes it read like a bunch of stitched-together anecdotes that just occurred at various locations. One paragraph could be about a bunch of guys on Saipan and the next could be about a group in New Guinea or the Philippines. The book is filled with the names of many Japanese-Americans, but after a while, you’re just reading a list of the names of some guys who worked as translators and interpreters. The vagueness doesn’t help, either. A passage will read something like this:
John Nakamura, Ken Takahashi, Mike Higashi, Bill Furukawa, and Sabs Shimada were on a boat bound for Saipan. After weeks in Hawaii, they just wanted to get anywhere and see some action. Little did they know that they would have little to do once they got there. Some officers confused them for Japanese soldiers. Meanwhile, Akira Yamada found himself in India and enjoying his time with the locals and sightseeing. On Okinawa, Yamada would later find himself trying to coax civilians and soldiers out of dark caves to surrender.
That’s not a direct quote, but most of the book reads like that. It’s a collection of names, places, and indistinct information. Few dates or other details are given. There’s a further attempt to connect their experiences with an overarching narrative of the Pacific Theater, but the connection isn’t always clear and the narrative itself is just a very loose retelling of the Pacific War. I guess the reader is meant to get a sense that these men were just a small part of a big war, but Harrington doesn’t really use the events to support his thesis particularly well.
Another distracting element of Harrington’s writing is that he frequently interjects his own opinion into the narrative. This wouldn’t be a problem if he was able to express his thoughts more dispassionately or objectively, except that he feels the need to rail at the people or organizations that have committed injustices against the Japanese-Americans (which have already been well-documented in other books). Furthermore, his opinion and analysis usually don’t amount to much. They’re generally along the lines of, “______ was stupid or misguided for failing to listen to the advice of the Nisei linguists about fighting the Japanese.”
There are also no footnotes or endnotes and no bibliography. Even the index is just a list of names (and nothing else but names) in alphabetical order. I believe Harrington did his own research and interviewed many of the surviving Nisei interpreters, but the book is very popular in tone and doesn’t read like a well-thought-out scholarly study. Arguably, the content would’ve been better served if the book was written as a compilation of oral histories (in the vein of Terkel’s The Good War or Cook’s Japan at War).
According to the dust jacket, this book was meant to be the first in a trilogy about the experiences of Japanese-Americans in WWII, however, I don’t think Harrington wrote any further volumes because I haven’t been able to locate any other works by him on this particular topic (although he has co-authored books on other topics on the Pacific War). One of the volumes was to have the title The War That Won Their Battle, but I don’t think it exists or was published.
On a personal note, being Japanese-American myself (4th generation), I’ve always been told about the internment camps, the civil injustices, and the heroics of the 442nd in Europe. I swear that those are the only topics that the Japanese-American community in Oregon talks about. It’s as if the Nisei never did anything else during WWII or since then! Being an amateur historian, I naturally advocate for the preservation of history, but when all you talk about is the internment and the 442nd, you’re literally leaving out a significant amount of history by neglecting the stories of the MIS soldiers who served on the other side of the world. (Ironically, Harrington mentions some Nisei in the Pacific who happened to be from Hood River, Oregon.) I’ve always wanted to know more about what Japanese-Americans did for the U.S. in terms of providing their cultural knowledge and language skills in the war against Japan. After all, if the U.S. was fighting an enemy with a mindset and culture that was seemingly alien and barbaric to the West, then it would make sense to get information about them from the Japanese diaspora. The irony that these Nisei, who were only a generation removed from their country of origin, were fighting against their ancestral culture was not lost on many. In fact, a number of these Japanese-Americans would run into relatives serving throughout the Pacific in the Imperial Japanese military, or they had family members in Japan itself. Indeed, one of my grandfathers was serving in the U.S. Army at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, and other branches of my distant family still in Japan had men in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. No doubt many German-Americans and Italian-Americans had family members on the other side, as well.
Honestly, this book is pretty disappointing to me. It does contain some interesting facts, but I wish the narrative was more cohesive. I recently bought Bruce Henderson’s more recent Bridge to the Sun on the same topic which is hopefully better written and more well-organized.
Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)
The book covers a very unique and often overlooked topic in WWII, even amongst the Japanese-American community. Harrington’s objective was to highlight the service of the Japanese-Americans serving in the Asia-Pacific Theater. In that regard, this book succeeds, but it has some serious drawbacks. While there are some snippets of interesting information and factoids scattered throughout the book, it’s seriously hampered by poor organization and a lack of details in the writing. Rather than reading as a cohesive narrative, it’s more like a collection of disjointed anecdotes which jump around the Pacific with few details to connect them all together. By no means is this book worthless or terrible, but had more context been given to help the reader link the stories and narrative together, coupled with a stronger introduction and thesis, then this book could demonstrate how truly important their service was. As it stands, it’s just really mediocre.
Rating: 2.5 (Average. Neither good nor bad.)
I own this book, plus did posts for the MISers and told of how highly my father respected the Nisei he served with in the Pacific as part of the 11th Airborne. I agree that for many, this is a must-read!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sounds like a missed opportunity to relate some interesting stories. Too bad he didn’t take the oral history route and let the vets tell their own stories like Makos’ “Voices From the Pacific”. Once arranged chronologically the continuity sorts itself out on its own.
LikeLiked by 1 person