Topic & Content
Published in 2022, this book examines the lives and military service of six prominent Nisei (2nd generation Japanese-Americans) of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Specifically, these six men are Kazuo Komoto, Nobuo Furuiye, Grant Hirabayashi, Hiroshi “Roy” Matsumoto, Tom Sakamoto, and Takejiro Higa. The book is organized as follows (I’ve added chapter information in parentheses):
Prologue: Tokyo Bay: September 2, 1945
- One: The Type of Soldier We Want (Kazuo Komoto)
- Two: “Harm Them…Harm Me” (Nobuo Furuiye)
- Three: “Where Is Pearl Harbor?” (Grant Hirabayashi)
- Four: Executive Order 9066 (Hiroshi “Roy” Matsumoto)
- Five: Rope In The Open Sea (Takejiro Higa)
- Six: Camp Savage (Kai Rasmussen, Tom Sakamoto, and the first class at Military Intelligence Service Language School.)
- Seven: Solomon Islands (Kazuo Komoto on Guadalcanal and New Georgia.)
- Eight: North To Alaska (Nobuo Furuiye in the Aleutians campaign.)
- Nine: The Cousins (Grant Hirabayashi at MISLS and his cousin Gordon Hirabayashi’s court case against the U.S. Government.)
- Ten: A Hazardous Mission (Roy Matsumoto at Camp Savage and training in India for Merril’s Marauders.)
- Eleven: Merrill’s Marauders (Roy Matsumoto and Grant Hirabayashi with the 5307th Composite Unit in Burma.)
- Twelve: Myitkyina (The capture of Myitkyina and Grant Hirabayashi interrogating POWs and Korean comfort women.)
- Thirteen: The Admiralties (Tom Sakamoto at Brisbane with the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) and at the invasion of Los Negros.)
- Fourteen: Sulphur Island (Nobuo Furuiye on Iwo Jima.)
- Fifteen: The Last Invasion (Takejiro Higa at the invasions of Leyte and Okinawa.)
- Sixteen: China (Roy Matsumoto and Grant Hirabayashi in Chungking, China. Roy was later assigned to OSS Detachment 202. Grant later interrogates a Japanese officer with knowledge of Japan’s atomic bomb program.)
- Seventeen: Return to Japan (Tom Sakamoto at the Japanese surrender ceremonies and with a press junket in Hiroshima and Kure. Nobuo Furuiye with the Naval Technical Mission to Japan and at Sasebo.)
Epilogue: Okinawa: Spring 1995
Part one introduces the main characters with each chapter focusing on a specific person’s upbringing and where they were at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked. Part two focuses on their activities at the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) and their deployment throughout the Pacific and Asia.
The purpose of this book is to tell the story of these six Japanese-American linguists who fought in the Pacific against their ancestral people and homeland. Additionally, the author points out that, while their loyalty to America was questioned throughout the war, these men served honorably and courageously; demonstrating that patriotism isn’t bounded by ethnicity or race.
Bruce Henderson is a journalist who has taught reporting and writing at the University of Southern California and Stanford University. He has written more than twenty non-fiction books, including several on WWII.
Having just read Joseph Harrington’s rather disorganized and underwhelming Yankee Samurai, this book is far better written. Unlike Yankee Samurai, which tries to cram every possible Nisei into the narrative (in a very hodge-podge and anecdotal manner), Bridge to the Sun wisely chooses to focus on six Nisei to provide the reader with a more coherent and compelling story. Many others are mentioned, and the back of the book contains a roster of more than 3,100 Nisei veterans of the Pacific, including those killed in action, as well as a number of Japanese-American women who served in the Women’s Army Corps or as nurses, but the narrative specifically focuses on those six men.
The best thing about this book is the focus on a handful of personal stories which brings more agency to the narrative. Major General Charles Willoughby credited the work of these Nisei in the Pacific with shortening the war by two years and saving over 1 million lives. Indeed, it’s arguable that the contributions of the MIS in the Pacific were equal to, if not greater, than those of the famous Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe. In many ways, I’d have to agree.*
Several of the Nisei would eventually be commissioned, and some would stay in the Army and have distinguished careers in military intelligence. Roy Matsumoto was awarded the Legion of Merit for his actions with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma and was later inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame. Additionally, some of these men saw action during the island-hopping campaigns, but their primary work was doing interrogations and translation to gain actionable intelligence from Japanese POWs and documents. Alas, the classified nature of their work meant that much of their activities would remain secret until the 1970s, and it wouldn’t be until the 2000s that the MIS’ers finally started receiving government recognition for their efforts.
Henderson’s writing is effective, if pretty ordinary. It won’t win any awards for scholarship, but the clear organization and focused nature of this book mean that it does far better justice to the story of the Nisei MIS’ers than Yankee Samurai. While the book doesn’t contain highly-detailed source citations, it at least does list the sources used for each chapter, as well as a bibliography. In addition, Henderson conducted interviews with surviving veterans (or their relatives) and sourced information from existing interviews and other primary and secondary sources for this book.
*It’s hard to compare the work of military intelligence to an infantry regiment in combat. The 442nd is one of the most highly decorated units in the U.S. Army, and their exploits are well-known in the Japanese-American community. Even today, the bulk of the history written about Japanese-Americans in WWII is focused on the internment or the 442nd (much to my chagrin). This is understandable because civil rights topics appeal to public sentiment about injustice, and infantry combat is visceral and violent. The latter panders to the idea that facing bombs and bullets is the truest test of courage and manhood. That said, for every combatant, there are three or four people in support roles working to sustain their operations. I’ve read enough personal accounts of infantry combat that it all starts to sound the same regardless of the war, combatants, or location. Additionally, most war memoirs written by infantrymen aren’t works of Shakespeare. Military intelligence work, on the other hand, is very broad in scope and technique, and much of it occurs behind the scenes. Reading about a bunch of guys translating stuff and interrogating POWs isn’t terribly enthralling. In this light, I wouldn’t be surprised if Henderson chose these stories because they do have some exciting action moments in them. Otherwise, I’m willing to bet that most of the MIS’ers spent the war flipping through the pages of Japanese-English dictionaries and translating papers. At the end of the day, this book is refreshing because fills a rare niche in that it’s a military history work that is focused on linguists and people doing translations and interrogations of POWs.
On a personal note, as I mentioned in my review of Yankee Samurai, I’m 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, but I’m annoyed at the fact that those seem to be 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 are the internment camps 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. 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 them. In fact, Takejiro Higa would run into some of his relatives and friends while on Okinawa.
The strength of the book is perhaps also its downside. If you’re looking for an overarching operational or strategic perspective on the activities of the MIS during the war, then this book isn’t for you. Since it only focuses on a handful of stories, you get the sense that there are so many other stories or that the broader picture of the MIS is being left out. It’s easy to see how this book could’ve been significantly longer had it included more stories. Alternatively, there’s certainly plenty of material for subsequent books that could focus on other MIS soldiers (I’m not aware of any planned further volumes). If there really were more than 3,100 Nisei who served in the Pacific Theater, then this book covers less than 0.19 percent of them. It’s clear that there are far more stories to tell, but the question is how to find those stories and if a publisher deems them worthy of being told.
Another issue of this book related to its narrow scope is that all six of the Nisei covered are kibei (Japanese-Americans who were born in the states, educated in Japan as children, and then returned to the U.S. prior to the war). Their upbringing definitely wasn’t the normal experience for the average Nisei. Thus, it feels like Henderson cherry-picked these men because they had these particular experiences. In this regard, these particular subjects had excellent speaking, reading, and writing fluency in Japanese from being immersed and educated in the language from a young age, far beyond those who learned it in an academic setting outside of Japan.**
**On a personal note, I can speak to the difficulty in learning Japanese, myself, having never grown up in Japan nor having learned Japanese when I was young. I studied Japanese for six years (two in high school and four in college) and got an undergraduate degree in Japanology. I then spent five years working in Japan and being immersed in the language. So, I have a total of 11 years of studying the language. Despite these qualifications and experiences, I’m in no way fluent. At the peak of my abilities, I had a conversational command of the spoken language, and maybe an advanced beginner or low intermediate level of reading and writing. I knew maybe around 800 – 1,000 kanji (Chinese characters) when most literate Japanese people know a couple thousand if not many more. (My Japanese is probably even rustier now since I haven’t used it much since 2015.) Learning Japanese is very hard for native English speakers, and it takes far longer to gain fluency than learning a western language (I know because I’ve also dabbled in French and German). Now imagine learning technical Japanese military jargon (heigo), and Japanese shorthand (sosho), along with translation and interpretation skills in only six months at MISLS! This was possible because the men attending MISLS were already fluent or had a strong command of the language, and were spending the entire six months learning ONLY those specific things. Still, it’s safe to say that only those with an already strong command of the Japanese language had any hope of passing the Army’s screening tests, much less graduating from MISLS. Even then, these men carried several dictionaries with them in the field and still had difficulty since heigo and sosho are very different from standard Japanese and difficult to even read. It just goes to show the highly specialized nature of their intelligence gathering. Just because some random Nisei knew the language and the culture doesn’t mean he would automatically qualify for MISLS. I certainly wouldn’t have made the cut.
Similarly, when I returned to the U.S. from my time in Japan, several people tried to convince me to become a translator or interpreter or work for an American-based Japanese company (clearly people who had never spent a significant amount of time learning an East Asian language). I quickly scoffed at that idea knowing that my Japanese skills were not nearly at the level required for those jobs. When a job calls for fluency in a language, that usually means you need advanced speaking, reading, and writing skills in that language. You’re not gonna get by with a couple of years of high school or college-level classes, especially when it comes to Japanese. Had I spent every waking hour of my time as an undergraduate and living in Japan doing nothing but learning the language, then maybe I could’ve become more fluent. However, I was working and doing other things. Even at that, I carried around two electronic dictionaries and two paper-bound dictionaries (a kanji dictionary and an English-Japanese communication dictionary) in my backpack to work every day. I also did some amateur translation work on magazine and newspaper articles in my free time. It’s HARD! Even with my multiple dictionaries, translating a single sentence can be a chore with you needing to look up many different kanji. Translating a single page might take the better part of a day, if not several days. An entire shelf of my bookshelf is dedicated to Japanese dictionaries and language references.
Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)
Overall, Bridge to the Sun provides a very organized and concise examination of several Japanese-Americans who served in the Pacific War during WWII. The stories of these six men are interesting and compelling; allowing the reader to get a good sense of their accomplishments and experiences. Henderson’s research is supported by a good mix of sources and his writing is clear. The only real downside is that the book’s narrow scope means that a broader picture of the MIS activities during the war is lost in favor of personal narratives.
Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good/worth your time)