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Japanese Interpreters

July 2024
1min read

Cal Dunbar of West Yellowstone, Montana, who served as a Marine sergeant in World War II, has some interesting footnotes to add to William Manchester’s article in our December, 1975, issue: As an ex-enlisted Japanese language interpreter with the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, I really enjoyed “The Man Who Could Speak Japanese.” The article has all the flavor, color, and authenticity of the period—particularly in regard to the manner with which Marines who could really speak Japanese were treated by the other Marines of all ranks.

However, I think it only fair to venture that the impostor would have had a quick exposure in outfits other than the 29th Marines at that stage of the Pacific warfare. I graduated from the enlisted Japanese Language School at Camp Pendleton in May, 1944. By that time the Japanese Language School had sent out several classes, and we already had Major Wolf of the 1st Marine Division, of Guadalcanal fame, and Marine Captain Pratt of the 2nd Marine Division, Tarawa operation, instructing at the Pendleton school. It would have been a delicate maneuver to con anyone very long at the battalion level in the field, as there were competent interpreters in the service, even if they were few in relation to the number of Marines involved.

But Manchester has the reaction of the Corps to these interpreters down pat. I recall one incident that took place in early June of 1944 at Oahu, where the seven of us sent from the school at Pendleton were waiting to staff the interrogation centers soon to be established at Tinian and Guam. As the Saipan battle raged, replacements flowed through the camp to replenish the divisions engaged in heavy fighting. We seven mustered nightly in the formation as the others passed through. Finally, after a couple of weeks, the first sergeant began to recognize us. One night he asked us why we were still there. One of our more mature members replied that we were interpreters. “What?” The sergeant looked baffled.

“We speak Japanese,” we explained.

The grizzled “old” NCO looked us over carefully for some time—apparently weighing the ferocity of the annihilation in the Saipan operation—and finally asked in wonder: “But— who are you boys going to talk to?”

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