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Eavesdropping On The Rising Sun
A young man from Queens jumps into the thick of World War II intelligence activities by translating secret Japanese messages
Fall 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 3
IN HIS MARVELOUS MEMOIR, Flights of Passage, my friend and onetime colleague Samuel Hynes, a Marine Corps combat aviator in World War II, writes that the war is the shared secret of his generation—those young men who came of age between December 7, 1941, and September 2, 1945. For those of the approximately 12 million Americans in uniform for some or all of those years, it was an experience both personal and collective like nothing before or after. Those who went through the hell of combat carry physical and emotional scars as reminders. But those of us—actually the great majority—who served in the infinite variety of supporting roles also stored up memories that will only die with us.
My duties were in the Signal Intelligence Service, the acorn out of which grew today's mighty oak, the National Security Agency. I translated Japanese radio messages snatched from the ether by our intercept operators and, when possible, decoded by our cryptanalysts. The English renderings by the likes of me were sent on to our war planners. My training, like that of the rest of us overnight Japanese linguists, was hasty and inadequate for any genuine grasp of the language, but it still served to collect vital intelligence.
I'm glad to have had my infinitely tiny part in winning the war, though I still wince a bit at sharing the standing of "veteran" with those who actually risked their lives. But all of us temporary citizen-soldiers understood that we had suddenly been entrusted with the gravest kind of responsibilities, on which many lives could depend. That's the "secret" shared by our shrinking community of now truly old-timers—we grew up together under extraordinary pressures. So do all veterans, of course, but we swarming millions were distinctive in feeling the total outreach, the all-encompassing nature of the worldwide cataclysm that left no one untouched. We were actors in the biggest drama of our century, perhaps of all time.
FOR ME IT BEGAN in the classrooms of New York City's Columbia College, where I was a member of the junior class when Pearl Harbor so rudely interrupted our education. The sudden plunge into hostilities had caught the nation with a critical shortage of Japanese translators. At the time, few Americans studied any Asian languages. The world was still European-dominated, the language of diplomacy was French, and that of international business usually English. Only a few major universities—Columbia among them—offered Japanese instruction, primarily for tiny numbers of graduate students in Asian history, literature, and art. The answer clearly had to be a crash program, like so many others of that feverish spring, to begin teaching the tongue to thousands more Americans, as quickly as possible. I enrolled with a number of good language students in an intensive beginning Japanese class.
Spring flew by in the shadow of almost daily depressing headlines about Allied setbacks everywhere, while I and my Japanese-challenged classmates struggled to memorize the ideographs—little "pictures," each a word—in which so much of the language is written. That summer I undertook eight more weeks of concentrated study at Columbia, six or seven hours a day of classroom instruction five days a week, not including many more hours of homework. We were getting more confident by then, and recruiters started showing up, including one from the Signal Intelligence Service, about which I knew as little as most of America did, reflecting a military policy designed not to draw attention to their work.
The signal corps major wooed us one by one in a midtown Manhattan hotel room. The word "intelligence" never surfaced as he and I played a curious and comical game: I asked him what I would do in the signal corps, and he replied that it would be work of great importance to the war, requiring knowledge of Japanese. And where would I serve? In places determined by the government to have great importance, requiring personnel who used the Japanese language. And that was all that I got. Naturally I took it for granted that we weren't learning Japanese for any purpose other than gathering information about the enemy. I naively believed that I would be translating and interpreting at or near the front, interviewing recently captured prisoners, or quickly translating retrieved documents. I did not realize how ludicrous it would have been for me to fire questions at an exhausted Japanese infantryman who spoke in a regional dialect—or to make out the scribbled handwriting in letters or notebooks carried in uniform pockets. The Army's Military Intelligence Language School in Minnesota mainly put highly trained Nisei to do these difficult wartime interrogations. With rare exceptions: those studying the language only after Pearl Harbor ended up at major collection centers translating documents of long- range strategic value.
I gave the major my okay, in due course ending up at a reception center at Fort Lee in Petersburg, Virginia, for the initiation rites of all young recruits. Within a week, however, we were whisked away to become privates, enlisted personnel of the Second Signal Service Battalion, located at Arlington Hall just outside of Washington, D.C. We lived in hastily built wooden barracks on the sylvan 100- acre campus of a former girls' private school. In the midst of construction to keep up with the battalion's rapidly swelling ranks, we learned about our futures as translators of radio intercepts decrypted in those new buildings whose lights burned all day and night.