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'Forgotten Patriots' Honored for Service

Teaching U.S. officers Japanese in WWII kept 138 tutors from internment camps and earned them praise years later.

November 03, 2002|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

The ceremony felt more like a family reunion than the long-overdue military rite it was. Toddlers waltzed in the aisles, their grandparents and great-grandparents hovering nearby. Camera-laden kin snapped shot after shot.

And elderly men and women fought back tears as they grasped in their hands the Navy's Distinguished Public Service Award, an acknowledgment of their work during World War II as Japanese language teachers at the U.S. Navy Language School in Boulder, Colo.

The work of teaching naval intelligence officers how to speak and write Japanese kept the teachers -- who were Japanese American -- out of internment camps. It also provided the students -- who would go on to become politicians, journalists and academics -- with insights into a country that was little understood.

At a time when most Japanese Americans were locked away for fear that they might somehow be acting as spies for the land of their ancestors, the teachers in Boulder were given free rein. In intimate classes of four or five, they taught their students the skills they would need to interrogate prisoners of war, break codes and translate intercepted documents. And they schooled the military men and women in the richness of Japanese culture by screening 1930s black-and-white Japanese movies, teaching folk songs and introducing the students to the concept of eating raw fish.

The students were honored by the Navy long ago. But for their teachers -- "forgotten patriots," as Pedro Loureiro of the Pacific Basin Institute dubbed them -- Saturday was a day of recognition. The director of naval intelligence came from Washington, D.C., to pass out the certificates, apologizing for the bureaucracy that kept them from being awarded sooner.

It was also a day of resurrecting memories that had long been pushed aside. Many of the teachers said they rarely spoke of their time at the school, and few had kept in touch with one another.

"I was surprised," said Miye Sano, who lived with her husband, Joseph, on the school campus. "Some people, I hadn't seen in years. I wouldn't have recognized them if they hadn't told me their names."

Many of the 138 teachers who worked at the school between August 1941 and July 1946 have died, but they were represented at the ceremony by widows and widowers, children and grandchildren. The 12 who did attend range in age from 89 to 97.

One of them was Fumiko Morita Imai, who will turn 91 on Wednesday. She was recruited by a professor at the University of Washington, where she had minored in Oriental studies. She said her only previous experience was teaching the violin.

By teaching, she managed to avoid the internment camp where her father, mother and brother were taken and spent the war years.

Imai showed off a black-and-white Navy School photo identification card and then another one from the University of Michigan, where she taught Army intelligence officers. Her parents, who had moved from Japan to Seattle before she was born, "were proud of me teaching," she said.

When asked to recall what she remembered best about her time at the language schools, Imai giggled. "It's so long ago," she said. And then she thought for a moment.

"I had a good time with the students."

Frank B. Gibney, the president of the Pacific Basin Institute, a center that studies East Asian and U.S. policies, was among the many graduates of the language school. Along with Loureiro, he had pushed for the recognition of the people he calls sensei, the Japanese word for teacher or master.

The teachers, he said, were charged with a daunting task, but they succeeded and he is grateful. "We owe you a great deal, indeed."

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