Author: Kat Bergeron
Title: Cat Island’s History Lures PBS
Publisher: Sun Herald (South Mississippi’s Newspaper), 10/25/2008
Source: Puka Puka Parades, December 2008
A cryptic letter discovered by a Kansas City World War II collector has lured a crew of PBS’s popular “History Detectives” to the Mississippi Coast in search of answers about secretive war-dog training on Cat Island. The letter, written by a World War II soldier, made reference to a plan to train dogs to attack Japanese.
Raymond Nosaka, Hawaii, is a Nisei, or second generation Japanese. He has come to the Coast to describe for the PBS program the failed experiment to teach dogs to hate Japanese soldiers. The spry 92- year-old openly talks about the challenging five months when, as a loyal American soldier, he was ordered to taunt dogs and allow them to assault him.
Nosaka remembers clinging to trees in the swamps, facing the possibility of falling into the mouths of vicious dogs and alligators.
“This was so top secret that for 10 years we were not allowed to talk about it,” said Nosaka, a retired IRS agent.
Nosaka and 26 others from Company B of the 100th Infantry Battalion Separate (“separate” indicates Japanese descent) were hand-picked in 1942, flown to Mississippi under cover and whisked to mosquito-infested Ship Island to live. The Coast Guard daily ferried them to a dog-training camp on Cat Island, where they progressed from making the dogs track them to attack them.
“The trainers didn’t say, ‘Go get them’, they say ‘kill,'” said Nosaka, who was on territorial guard duty at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed; he then was in the first Army draft.
Nosaka will be an eyewitness for “History Detectives,” co-produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and expected to air in June. Other experts will be included, but Friday morning Nosaka was in the camera’s spotlight when Tukufu Zuberi, the show’s host, interviewed him at VFW Post 4526 in Gulfport. Today, Zuberi heads to the island, now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore chain.
“What sets this one apart is Cat Island, and hanging out with dogs,” said Zuberi. “A swampy island is definitely a different dimension.”
The mystery for this segment’s detectives swirls around the name “Pestre” found in the soldier’s letter. He may be the “Swiss man” who convinced President Roosevelt dogs could be trained to hate Japanese soldiers. You must wait until the show airs to find out.
The Nisei were picked because they were loyal U.S. soldiers but Japanese in appearance and – so the theory went – in smell. After the experiment failed and was closed down in five months, an intelligence investigation followed.
The 400 island dogs continued to be trained as sentries, scouts, suicide dogs and to locate wounded soldiers. Americans had donated 18,000 pets to be trained in the country’s four war canine centers.
Amazingly, the vicious attacks did not change Nosaka’s lifelong love of dogs.
The Nisei arrived in Mississippi on November 6, 1942. Two years later on that same date, Nosaka was fighting the Germans in Italy when he and several others were injured by a bomb blast. When they took shelter in a cave, what showed up to comfort them? A mystery dog.
The hound shared its affection and much-needed body warmth but disappeared just before rescuers arrived.
Rumors circulated across the Mississippi Coast that Japanese submarines lay offshore in December 1942. For a war-wary population that volunteered for lookouts and suffered through blackouts, the news was scary.
A shrimper reported that two Japanese in a boat hailed him to buy shrimp for a Christmas meal. He didn’t believe their story that they were U.S. soldiers living on Ship Island.
The incident led to investigations by the Secret Service and other American intelligence agencies, but the locals never heard the end of the story. It was hush-hush.
The men in the boat were Nisei, or Japanese-Americans. Twenty-seven of them from the 100th Infantry Battalion had volunteered for top-secret duty in Mississippi.
They were soldiers before the outbreak of World War II, but with America’s unfounded fear of anyone with Japanese background, these men were stripped of their right to bear arms. They were relegated to post exchanges and other service installations and denied combat training.
Despite this they remained loyal, ready to serve.
In September 1942 the hand-picked Nisei flew to the New Orleans airport, which was vacated and circled by military police, and in secrecy headed to Ship Island.
The Nisei project began when a former Swiss hunting guide convinced President Franklin Roosevelt that he could teach dogs to hate and attack Japanese on sight. Such dogs would be invaluable in the Pacific campaign. Mississippi’s barrier islands were picked because they were semi-tropical. The Nisei were picked because they looked somewhat Japanese.
“In retrospect, one has to wonder how a president ever came to buy the theory that blood and sweat smelled differently, one race from the other,” the Nisei commanding officer, Jim Lovell of Hawaii, later wrote.
“On the other hand, under the exigencies of the times, the president was susceptible to any well- intentioned idea that would exact yet another pint from the perpetrators of The Day of Infamy.”
The Nisei lived on sandy, buggy Ship Island but worked with the war dogs on Cat Island, where the Quartermaster Corps was set up. In their mission to teach the dogs to have the scent and appearance of the Japanese enemy, the Nisei submitted themselves to sweaty tracking regimens and vicious dog attacks.
Four hundred dogs and their trainers lived on Cat Island during the war. In addition to the Nisei project, dogs were also trained as sentries, scouts and to locate wounded soldiers.
Mississippi was one of several U.S. training sites for donated war dogs. When the public call went out for canines, Americans had donated more than 18,000 pets. About 10,400 of them completed training.
One of the Cat Island trainers was John Russell, a Pennsylvanian who was part of the 41st Scout Dog Platoon. He has returned several times in recent years to re-experience the Coast.
“I recognize very little,” he said. “I guess growth and your Hurricane Camille changed everything.”
“I mostly remember the mosquitoes on the island. I never saw so many in my life. And it was about 120 in the shade. Cat Island was nothing but palmettos and sand, but they chose it because it was like a South Pacific island.”
Russell, after more than 50 years, remembers several of the Nisei.
“Henry Sakari -I think that’s right but we knew him only as Henry,” Russell said. “He was a character, a typical American kid. I still have photographs of him.”
“These men were supposed to act as bait. People didn’t understand that the scent of a Japanese- American is the same as an American or a European. You’d have to get men from Japan if you wanted the true body odor caused from diet and environment. But the men were good sports.”
Snarling teeth and the hatred of vicious dogs was no game. The men learned to climb trees fast, and some were bitten. Perks helped balance the scale, as they worked with dogs only 3-1/2 hours a day.
“We had better than bankers’ hours,” Yasuo Takata, one of the Nisei, later wrote. “The gang was getting fat, what with all the eating they did and the beer they drank.”
The men were given a three-month supply of beer, but the water tasted so bad on Ship Island they drank beer instead and used up their supply in one month.
“In the beginning training scout dogs was fun,” Takata said. “All we had to do was to hide ourselves in the jungle with a jar of horse meat. Each dog trainer then sent his dog out to find us. When the dog spotted us, the trainer would fire a shot, and we would drop dead with a piece of meat held in front of our necks. The dog would eat the meat and lick our face.”
“I don’t know whether the dogs smelled the meat or our J** blood. When the dogs became too friendly, we used our whips, slingshots and rocks to chase them away.”
Soon they were wearing helmets and padded clothing in the steps necessary to instill hatred. All was for naught, and after four months the grand experiment ended.
“You could say we were the guinea pigs,” said Raymond Nosaka of Hawaii.
“Living on Ship Island wasn’t bad, although we couldn’t use soap when we took showers because of the sulphur in the water. We did have lots of good, fresh fish and oysters, and once we got a weekend pass to go to New Orleans to the Sugar Bowl. We experienced a lot of firsts.”
In March 1943 the Nisei dog volunteers were sent to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg to train for combat with others from the 100th. Their unquestionable bravery in Italy paved the way for acceptance of the 442nd Infantry, which was formed by volunteers from Nisei relocations camps on Hawaii and the mainland.
In 1944 the heavily decorated men of the 100th joined the 442nd, which chalked up 18,000 Purple Hearts and a much-admired reputation for fierce bravery. The 100th, however, has maintained its own identity, and is the subject of books and articles.
To learn more about Ray Nosaka’s experiences with the Cat Island dog program (including photos and video), please go to www.khnl.com/global/story.asp?s=5357880. Ray Nosaka’s experiences are also included in the book “Eyes of the Emperor” by Graham Salisbury.
To learn more about the television program “History Detectives, please go to www.pbs.org.