Japanese American Women in World War II
"Are you the girl with a Star-Spangled heart? Join the WAC now!"¾ World War II Army recruitment poster
Since the American Revolution, women have played vital wartime roles in support of the U.S. military. They served primarily as nurses, cooks, seamstresses and other non-combat occupations, and in some instances, found themselves in perilous situations. The common bond these women shared was the dedication and personal sacrifice required of them in a domain traditionally conducted for and by men.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States struggled to fortify armies on both the Pacific and Atlantic fronts, and the manpower shortage required the military to turn to women for support. The successful induction of more than 20,000 Japanese American men in the U.S. Army during World War II led to the recruitment of Japanese American women "for the duration of the emergency." Amidst the racism and hysteria of the time, as well as the unjust imprisonment of those of Japanese descent living on the West Coast, approximately one hundred Japanese American women volunteered to serve in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and more than two hundred joined the Cadet Nurse Corps. Although the Navy and Army Air Forces refused to accept Japanese Americans, the Army gave them the chance to expand their horizons and prove their loyalty to the United States.
The Women’s Army Corps was officially converted from an auxiliary group (the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) to a military organization with full Army status on July 1, 1943. Although recruitment of Japanese American women began in March of 1943, they were not inducted until September 1943 when the exclusionary policy against them was lifted. The women learned about the opportunity through a variety of channels: newsreels, posters, newspapers, magazines, and by word of mouth. The Army’s recruitment pitch touted more than 400 occupations, including nontraditional work, travel, benefits, and the ultimate opportunity to show one’s patriotism.
The motivation for joining the WAC was a complex issue for most Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) women. They came from all parts of the United States and Hawaii. Some volunteered from behind the barbed wire of the internment camps where Army recruiters came to talk with the women. Others, who lived freely outside the evacuation zone, had to consider the pros and cons of a regimented lifestyle. Most important to those who had brothers or husbands in the Army was the chance to contribute to the effort to help bring the men home quickly. But would the interned Nisei women volunteer to serve the country that stripped them of their constitutional rights? Would the military life provide the experience and adventure it promised? As explained by one former WAC:
I felt that the Nisei had to do more than give lip service to the United States and by joining the WACs I could prove my sincerity…. After all, this is everybody’s war and we all have to put an equal share into it.
But in deciding to become a WAC, they faced personal challenges as well. Some women encountered harsh disapproval from their families — strict parents who did not want their daughters to run off into the unknown or siblings who felt that that military was only for women with questionable reputations. In addition, the prevailing sexism that existed particularly within the military compounded the racism that many Japanese Americans lived with on a daily basis.
Still, the characteristics that enabled the Nisei women to have successful albeit short careers in the military were admirable traits that are highly valued today. Perhaps they were ahead of their time, but the Nisei women who entered the WAC generally had a strong sense of leadership, independence and responsibility within their families. And many of them had at least some higher education as well as a more "Americanized" religious foundation, which may have given them the ability to forge new career paths for themselves.
After induction, the women went through five weeks of basic training at one of five training centers. Most of the Nisei women were sent to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. They were not segregated, as had been the Nisei men, African Americans and Puerto Rican women. There they studied military operations, Army organization, map reading, first aid, and supply. Marching, drilling (for example, how to "fall in" and "fall out"), and other physical training were required.
The Army life was rigid, and the women were kept to a tight schedule with numerous duties in addition to their classes. Kitchen patrol, trash collection, bed checks and mandatory cleaning of their barracks were some of the chores designed to maintain military neatness in cramped living conditions. The issuance of uniforms proved to be a particularly challenging process — the coats, skirts and boots were ill fitting for many women in the WAC, and the petite stature of the Nisei women was especially problematic requiring them to spend considerable time having their uniforms altered. But all WACs joked about the "rich mud-brown color" of their regulation underwear.
The women also found that they had to "hurry up and wait" in long lines for just about everything, especially meals. The food served was a major adjustment for the Japanese Americans. They simply were not used to the huge portions and heavy carbohydrates of the "chow line." In fact, despite the physical demands, some women had gained weight by the end of basic training. In the end, most of the women managed to adapt to Army life and found that the experience left them with the added benefits of heightened satisfaction, morale, and camaraderie.
After the completion of basic training the women received their assignments, in most cases as clerks, typists, drivers, cooks, and unit cadre. Some women thought that their civilian skills would be useful to the Army and others hoped they would have the chance to learn new skills. In either case, most found that although they were given the chance to list their preferences, they actually had little say in the type of work they would eventually be doing or where they would be stationed. But the women whose assignments allowed them to expand and deepen their knowledge in a particular field were the fortunate ones who had job satisfaction and the feeling that they were contributing to the war effort.
The attack on Pearl Harbor necessitated the military’s review of its intelligence agencies. To meet the Army’s needs, the Military Intelligence Service formed a separate school for specialists in the Japanese language to serve as interpreters, interrogators and translators. The Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) was first established at the Presidio of San Francisco in 1941. After the war broke out, it was moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota in 1943 and finally to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in August 1944. Along with 6,000 Nisei men, 48 Nisei women (as well as three Caucasian women and one Chinese-American woman) were assigned to the MISLS.
After basic training, the first group of women assigned to the MISLS arrived at Fort Snelling in November 1944. Many of the Nisei women were originally recruited to become military translators because the Army assumed that they were naturally inclined to speak and read Japanese. This was not necessarily the case even though many had at least some previous Japanese language instruction or spoke Japanese to their parents. Depending on their background and aptitude for the language, they were placed in one of three levels of instruction. The program was, in fact, a grueling six-month course of study that specialized in Japanese military language. In keeping with the policy of non-combat roles for women, they were trained separately from the men in document translation only. In addition, the students learned about Japan’s history, geography, military structure and political and cultural background. Classes were held from morning until late afternoon, with a two-hour mandatory study hall after dinner. Some women continued studying in their rooms until lights out at 10:00 p.m., and those who were really struggling managed to study secretly after that in their rooms or the showers until the early morning hours.
Life at the MISLS was not all drudgery. The women had access to more Japanese food — too much, in fact — than they ever had in their lives. They had time off to sightsee and attend concerts and museums or go fishing in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. They often used their furloughs to travel freely in the East or visit their friends or families who were living in the internment camps. And with the lopsided ratio of more than fifty men to each woman, they had plenty of opportunities to date.
After graduation, a few of the top graduating women taught briefly at the MISLS but most were assigned to the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. There they worked with captured Japanese documents, translating military plans and political and economic information that affected Japan’s war capabilities. The section was later moved to the Central Document Center in Washington D.C. Haruko (Sugi) Hurt moved to the nation’s capitol with the Center. She found the atmosphere and the people interesting although the work was tedious. But, according to Hurt, "The government did not want the public to know that the Japanese Americans were doing important intelligence work, although there were 6,000 Nisei men on the front lines as members of the MIS helping the war effort."
At the end of the war, 11 Japanese-American WACs (along with one Chinese American and one Caucasian) accepted assignments in Tokyo, Japan, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. As part of the Army of Occupation, the Nisei WAC’s job was to work with captured documents as well as help build relations with the Japanese. Miwako Yanamoto recounts how they were able to first travel around the South Pacific islands for about six weeks, including ten days in Hawaii, because they kept getting bumped off the planes for higher ranking officers or men whose mission was more important than document translation. During this time they were called "mannequins of democracy," serving as unofficial ambassadors. But as soon as they arrived in Tokyo, they learned that General MacArthur did not approve of enlisted women serving overseas. He ordered them to either return to the United States as WACs or serve one-year contracts in Japan as civilians with the Civil Intelligence Service.
Twelve of the women remained in Japan as civil servants. In this capacity, Miwako Yanamoto says she received much better pay than she did as a sergeant. But while she translated documents to be used in the war crimes trials, living in war-ravaged Japan was a jarring experience. She describes the destitute situation in which people were living in the subways and scrounging for food in garbage cans. There were many orphans who were trying to survive in any way they could. "It was tough times for the Japanese," she said.
Over the course of World War II, Nisei WACs served throughout the United States at various bases, recruitment offices, medical detachments, the Army’s Public Information Office and the Military Intelligence School. They served as translators, typists, clerks and researchers in occupied Japan and Germany. In addition, some of the women in medical fields served overseas and were commissioned as second lieutenants.
Sue Suzuko (Ogata) Kato is satisfied with her contribution to the war effort. "It was enriching and I formed a lot of friendships — friends for life," she said. "It was a learning experience for me…. I knew they needed WACs to take desk jobs so the fellows could go to the front. We did it for all Japanese Americans. I was proud to be an American…."
Because of the WAC’s wartime success, the Army asked Congress to permanently establish the Women's Army Corps and it finally became law in June 1948. The WAC remained part of the U.S. Army organization until 1978, when women were fully assimilated into all but the combat branches of the Army. The Women’s Army Corps was an important chapter in this country’s military history because it made significant contributions to the greater national effort. And the Nisei women who served their country in the face of great hardship were part of the group that greatly affected the role of women in American society.
Editor’s Note: We owe a debt of gratitude to Miwako Yanamoto, former WAC, for all her input and the resources she provided for this article and accompanying database. It would not been possible without her assistance.
Bellafaire, Judith A., The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service, CMH Publication 72-15. Washington D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History.
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McDermott, George L., Women Recall the War Years: Memories of World War II, Chapel Hill, NC: Professional Press, 1998.
Morden, Bettie J., The Women’s Army Corps, 1945-1978. Washington, D. C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2000.
Nakano, Mei T. Japanese American Women: Three Generations, 1890-1990. Berkeley: Mina Press, 1990.
Nakayama, Takeshi, "Momma Wore Combat Boots," The Rafu Magazine, December 18, 1993, p. 10.
Treadwell, Mattie E., The Women’s Army Corps. The United States Army in World War II Series. Washington D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1954.
Yanamoto, Miwako, "Nisei WAC has No Regrets about Enlistment," Japanese American National Museum Quarterly, Volume 10, Number 5, Winter 1995.
Reprinted with permission from "Echoes of
Silence: The Untold Stories of the Nisei Soldiers Who Served in WWII"
with thanks to AJA WWII
Memorial Alliance educational project for making "Echoes" possible