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The Man Who Could Speak Japanese
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
In 1944 virtually no one in the Marine Corps spoke Japanese. Unlike the ETO , where plenty of oi’s were bilingual, Americans were at a severe linguistic disadvantage in the Pacific. It was worsened by the fact that many Japs spoke English; they could eavesdrop on our combat field telephones. As a result by the third year of the war the headquarters company of each Marine battalion carried on its roster a full-blooded Navaho who could communicate over radiophones in his own tongue with the Navahos in other battalions. After the outbreak of the war Washington had set up several crash courses to teach Japanese to bright young Americans, but the first graduates wouldn’t emerge until the spring of ig45.
“We’ll be the only outfit with its own translator,” he said.
“Private Harold Dumas will be coming down from post headquarters at fourteen hundred.”
That was too much. “He’s only a private ?’
“Knock it off!”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
A noncom wasn’t supposed to question higher wisdom, but clearly there was something odd here. Back in our pyramidal tent I passed the word among my people, whose astonishment matched mine. Their first reaction was that I was snowing them, but within an hour the dope was confirmed by the sergeant major, a bright little sparrow of a man named John Guard. Guard had some intriguing details, including an explanation for the translator’s low rank. Until very recently—two days ago, in fact—Harold Dumas had been locked up in Portsmouth naval prison. The nature of his offense was unknown to Guard, but the sergeant major knew where Dumas was believed to have learned Japanese. He was a native of California; his neighbors had been Issei (first-generation Japanese-Americans) and Nisei (children of Issei).
The fact that the newcomer was a Californian is important to an understanding of what happened later. The Marine Corps maintained a rigid geographical segregation. Every man enlisting east of the Mississippi was sent to boot camp at Parris Island and shipped to New River after his recruit training. West of the Mississippi, boots went to the San Diego base and, once they had qualified, to nearby Camp Pendleton. Virtually none of us in Tent City knew anything about life on the West Coast. We had never seen a giant redwood, or the Grand Canyon, or Hollywood. We had never even met anyone from California until Harold Dumas arrived that afternoon at two o’clock.
He made a great entrance. He was wearing a salty barracks (visored) cap, a field scarf (necktie) so bleached that it was almost white, heavily starched khakis, and high-top dress shoes. The shoes were especially impressive. The Marine Corps had stopped issuing high-tops after Pearl Harbor, and they were therefore a great status symbol, signifying membership in the elite prewar Old Corps. Dumas was the only post-Pearl Marine I ever knew who had them, but then, he was unusual in lots of ways.
Prepossessing is the word that best describes him, though it is really inadequate. The moment he strode into Tent City with his elbows swinging wide, every eye was on him. Six foot two, with a magnificent physique, he carried himself like Randolph Scott in To the Shores of Tripoli , the movie that had conned thousands of Marines into joining up. His face was freckled, his eyes were sky-blue, his expression was wholly without guile; he was a man you trusted instinctively, whose every word you believed, for whose reputation you would fight, and whose friend you longed to be. When he removed the barracks cap, he was a towhead; and even before we had met—before that firm, hearty handclasp that characterized all his greetings—he was known to us simply as “Whitey.”
“The name’s Dumas,” he said in a rich, manly baritone, looking straight at you with an expression that, in those days before Madison Avenue had corrupted the word, could only be called sincere. Sincerity emanated from him; so did an air of achievement. Whitey was in his midtwenties, a few years older than the rest of us, and it developed that he had used his time well. No one could call him a braggart—he was in fact conspicuously modest—but over the next few weeks particulars about his background slipped out naturally in normal conversation. He had been a newspaperman and a professional boxer. The fact that he had made money in the ring had been his undoing, accounting for his imprisonment; he had slugged a bully in a San Francisco bar, and under California law, he explained, a blow by a professional fighter was regarded as assault with a deadly weapon. If it hadn’t been for his knowledge of Japanese, which he had disclosed to the authorities in Portsmouth, he would still be in the dreary exercise yard there.
“Isn’t it typical of the Marine Corps to keep him a private?” Yates said scornfully. “In the Army he’d be at least a major.”
The more we saw of Whitey, the more we admired him. He was everything we wanted to be. He even had a sexy wife, a Paramount starlet. After much coaxing he was persuaded to produce a picture of her, an eight-by-ten glossy print of a beaming blonde in a bathing suit; it was signed “With all my love—Laverne.” Even more impressive, Whitey, unlike most of us, was a combat veteran. He had been a machine gunner in the ist Marines during the early days on Guadalcanal. This was a matter of special interest to Sy !vice, who had landed on the ‘Canal later with the ad Marines. Sy wanted to reminisce about those days with Whitey, but Whitey politely declined. He had lost two of his best buddies in the hre fight along the Tenaru River, he told us, and he didn’t want to talk about it.