A Kibei in the Burma Jungle
By Roland Kotani, Editorial Assistant, The Hawaii Herald
When Herbert Miyasaki would recount his wartime experiences to his son 20 years later, his disbelieving kid would insist that his dad was just spinning tall tales, “Nah, nah,” denied Merrill, whom Miyasaki had named after his World War II commanding officer, Frank Merrill. Miyasaki could only tell his son to go ask Judge Russell Kono who had been with him and the rest of Merrill’s Marauders in the jungles of Burma.
“I learned my Japanese at home because my parents issei and spoke nothing but Japanese,” explains Miyasaki today. “My parents could barely sign their names and could say, ‘Me no sabe,’ but that’s about all.” His father, a general merchandise store owner on the Big Island decided to send him to Japan for his university education. When war clouds appeared on the horizon, however, Miyasaki immediately returned to Hawaii and joined the Army in December, 1940.
“In those days before the war, you stayed in the Army for one year and you were discharged,” recalls Miyasaki. “But almost one year to the date my one year was up, I was home on furlough when Pearl Harbor was attacked.” He was immediately called back and, after a short stint as a weatherman at Kohala airport, was assigned to the 100th Infantry Bn. When the 100th Bn. went to Camp McCoy in mid-1942, officers made good use of Miyasaki’s bilingual capabilities. Miyasaki says, “Many guys would ask me, ‘Hey, which is more easy for you — English or Japanese?’ “I would say, “Which you tink?” Miyasaki became the unofficial translator for letters in Japanese sent by Issei parents to their American-born sons in uniform.
In November 1942, a team from the MISLS at Camp Savage, Minnesota came to Camp McCoy to recruit trainees from the nisei soldiers. While other members of the 100th Bn. took the qualifying exam, Miyasaki was simply called into the office of company commander Jack Mizuha who informed him that he would be going with the MIS group. “I don’t want to go,” protested Miyasaki who wanted to stick with his buddies. Mizuha replied, “No, it’s an order. Anybody can shoot one rifle but not everybody can speak Japanese. You can do more good up there than down here.” So Miyasaki reluctantly accompanied about 60 former 100th Bn. members who joined the second group of MIS trainees at Camp McCoy in December 1942. At Camp Savage, Miyasaki found the classroom work intensive but not difficult, “Jes like I’m bragging, but that’s the way it was,” says Miyasaki. “Nothing new except for military terminology but it was very accelerated.” While certain classes were set aside for Kibei students who were fluent in Japanese but weak in English and other classes reserved for students who were still beginners in Japanese, Miyasaki was placed in a class whose students were considered proficient in both languages. In his group, students were required to learn about 200 kanjis per day.
On weekdays, MISLS students would go to class between 8 AM and 4 PM; exercise and drill, eat dinner and take a shower, then return to class from 7 to 9 in the evening. On Saturdays, the students were given an exam on all subjects of the preceding week. If a visitor went into the barracks bathhouse near midnite on a Friday night, he would find all the toilet seats occupied. “You cannot study beyond 11 o’clock but if you on a toilet bowl, nobody going bother you,” explains Miyasaki. “That’s how we used to study. I didn’t have to study myself but I was a barracks leader. So naturally, I would be helping those guys because I don’t want them to flunk out. Some guys studied until one o’clock,” he recalls. Those who neglected their studies were lowered in their class levels until one day they were gone.
When his group of Camp Savage trainees graduated in the summer of 1943, Miyasaki was called in with Hawaii nisei Edward Mitsukado to see Col. Kai Rasmussen. “They’re organizing a group of interpreters to experimentally use on the front line,” the Col. told them. Even while he asked them to head the volunteer outfit, however, Rasmussen warned, “There’s gonna be 75 percent casualties.” Miyasaki admits no personal bravado. “Mitsukado and I were kinda forced to volunteer,” he says with a chuckle. “We did the selecting of the rest of the 14 guys; we didn’t know them then except that they were well-versed in English and Japanese. Nobody knew about this thing — it was hush-hush.” After being turned down by several prospects, Miyasaki and Mitsukado assembled the group of volunteers which included Hawaii nisei Russell Kono, Howard Furumoto, Robert Honda, Roy Nakada, Tom Tsubota and seven Mainland MISers.
In the fall of 1943, the volunteer outfit shipped out on the Lurline, which Miyasaki remembers had been painted a wartime olive drab color. “We went to Australia where we were chased by Japanese boats all over the place and then we picked up a whole battalion of combat men from Guadalcanal,” he says. “These guys, they see our Japanese face, they like kill us already.” But as the MIS group delivered daily lectures on the Japanese military and fraternized with the troops, they developed a camaraderie with members of the 5307 Composite Unit. By the time the unit landed at Bombay, India, Miyasaki and the other interpreters were accepted not only as American fighting men, but as particularly valuable intelligence experts who had to be protected from capture and death.
The 5307 Composite Unit was sent into the Indian jungle for training in November 1943. “We ate food from the jungle and lived in the jungle, not in tents, but in makeshift homes,” recalls Miyasaki. Amazing, India is a hot country but — hooooo — so cold. “Water brought up from the river in the steel helmets would be frozen over the next morning with a layer of ice so thick it couldn’t be broken by hand. Some guys who went to take a bath in the river when the sun was going down disappeared,” stated Miyasaki. “Days later, their bodies would rise or somebody would step on them and find them.” In February 44, the unit moved into the staging area on the India-Burma border. “Our assignment was to kill the enemy because that’s the main thing in any war. We were to cut off their supply lines and lines of communication in the rear since an isolated unit without supplies can’t do anything,” states Miyasaki. The 5307 Composite Unit was an exceptional unit not listed in the U.S. table of organization, “Composite Unit — what size unit is that?’ asks Miyasaki. “Nobody knows, yeah?” We can be augmented, reinforced and become a light division. We didn’t have any vehicles; they couldn’t go into that terrain in Burma. We had mules flown in from the United States. Those big mules carried our radios in the mountains. We had no artillery. We were hit and run because we had to be. We couldn’t stay in a place for sustained combat,” explains Miyasaki.
Vinegar Joe Stilwell was the commander of American forces in the China-Burma-India theater under the direction of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme Allied commander in the region. According to Miyasaki, Mountbatten “used to come in the jungle with a bathtub and everything, with somebody carrying him, and looked like a Hollywood actor.” Mountbatten gave his orders to Stilwell who laid the burden of the American responsibilities in the theater on the 5307 Composite Unit. “We being the strength of American forces in the area, naturally we were given the hard missions and we were a thorn in the side of the Japanese,” explains Miyasaki. Mission after mission was handed to the unit which covered itself in glory under the nickname Merrill’s Marauders.
“At Maggot Hill of Nphum Ga, there was a water hole that changed hands a half dozen times in the course of a week,” recalls Miyasaki, who refuses to watch war comedies like M A S H which he feels make a travesty of the horrors of war. “You don’t even think about it now but without water, you can’t live two days. How many guys died from drinking their own urine! They suffered so much.” At Nphum Ga, the Marauders were subjected to a constant artillery barrage. “In an artillery attack, you just stay in your foxhole, hoping that you don’t get hit,” Miyasaki remembers. “In the foxhole, how many guys went crazy? From the crack of dawn, boom-boom-boom. Maybe the first day everybody’s okay. On the second day, some guys crack up. By the third day, everybody’s tired. Some of the mules are hit and dying and who’s gonna carry out heavy equipment. That’s when plenty guys cracked up.”
When the Marauders were not fighting, they were on the march. “We marched over a thousand miles easy, all told,” estimated Miyasaki. But he cautions that even this figure doesn’t show what the Marauders faced. “In the jungle, 10 yards is a long distance,” he explains, “If that 10 yards is grassy land, you can make it in less than five minutes. If that’s a bamboo thicket, you’ll take half an hour, easy. Then there were plants with all kinds of thorns that you couldn’t go through, period.” But the terrain wasn’t always unfavorable. “If river, 20 miles one day easy,” says Miyasaki explaining that the Marauders would tie up the fold in their ponchos and holding both ends to form an airtight pocket, float merrily downstream. Obstacles often faced the Marauders in the path of their march. “When we come across a snake nest, nobody wants to go — we don’t know snakes, Hawaii guys,” admits Miyasaki. “So if somebody said, ‘Hey, inside there get snake,’ we’d go around until we found an opening and we might waste two hours just to get there.”
At other times, the lead mule would be the first to encounter a Japanese booby trap. “Wham”, shouts Miyasaki, emphasizing the fate of the poor beast. “That’s how we knew a place was booby-trapped.” If land mines weren’t bad enough, the Japanese would sometimes resort to bamboo spears set on catapults set off by hairline triggers. “When you hit that, ‘Shoo!’ ” Miyasaki whistles, imitating the whirl of the spear in flight. “Somebody’s gonna suffer and ma-ke.” The Marauders would circle around the dangerous area until they came to a clearing where they would test the path ahead by hurling bamboo poles.
While on the march behind enemy lines, the Intelligence section would listen to Tokyo Rose every night to catch her occasional references to the 5307 Composite Unit. “She tried to kill your morale, but we used to listen for counterespionage purposes,” explains Miyasaki. Tokyo Rose would say, “Oh yes, we know you Marauders are in that area. There’s nothing secret about it.” Their Intelligence was way ahead of the U.S., he concludes.
After listening to Tokyo Rose, the Marauders would try to throw the Japanese off the track by quietly changing their path of march. After six o’clock radio silence was maintained. Night patrol was the most frightening assignment. “We rotated but everybody had to go and it was scary,” states Miyasaki. In the darkness of the jungle, the Marauders relied on bird calls from the advance scouts or point men who were often American Indians or would rap five times rapidly on their rifle butt as a greeting. During the monsoon season when the heavy rains drowned out competing sounds, the troops would tie themselves together and signal by a tug on the rope.
They called our group, “The League of Nations,” recalls Miyasaki, who would handpick a multiethnic contingent when he went out on night patrol. One of his men would always be a Gurkha, a Nepalese tribesman. “The Gurkhas would rather fight with their bent knife and kill you silently than use a bullet,” he says. “They were small, but they reminded me of Cuban fighting chickens — more guts than anything. They weren’t afraid to die and they weren’t afraid to fight — they’d tackle a six-foot Haole without hesitation. But Miyasaki would also pick a couple of Caucasians, “the six-foot-five, football player kine guys.” He explains, “if I got knocked down, they would pick me up easy and they would even carry four or five bandoliers of ammunition at one time and take off.” Miyasaki’s multiethnic patrol must have worked because he survived his night duty without a scratch.
As ethnic Japanese, the MISers faced special problems. “Plenty times, we were captured by Chinese, American, or British soldiers who thought we were enemy soldiers,” says Miyasaki. “I used to eat with the Chinese troops so I would know more about their behavior and learn some Chinese so in case they catch me again, I can tell them dis and dat more easily.” Because it was standard operating procedure to carry no identification, this became a real problem. By the end, the Marauders put bodyguards on their valued nisei interpreters.
In return for their special protection, the MIS unit fulfilled special duties by translating captured Japanese documents and interrogating prisoners. While Frank Merrill spoke fluent Japanese thanks to his prewar stint as a military attache in Japan, he often had to call on the MISers to translate military symbols and evaluate the workings of the military mind of the enemy. Miyasaki served as personal interpreter for Merrill throughout the North Burma campaign.
Like MISLS graduates on other fronts of the war, Miyasaki also had to interrogate Japanese POWs. “Not one prisoner came to us with his hands up,” he recalls, noting that the enemy troops in Burma were more hardened than those faced with MISers in Micronesia and on Okinawa. “All of the captured Japanese POWs were wounded prisoners who couldn’t stand up or were starved for 15 or 20 days.” Miyasaki would read the diaries found on the captured soldiers and seek to establish rapport by calling them by their names and using the dialect from the area of Japan from which they came.
With an officer, Miyasaki would use a different approach. One of his first actions would be to return the officer’s sword. “The sword had nothing to do with the Emperor, oftentimes, it was a family heirloom and a symbol of the officer’s authority,” he explains. When American officers questioned him about lack of caution, Miyasaki would reply, “You look upon him as a dirty Jap? By the same token, he looks on you as a dirty, cheap American and you think he’s gonna bloody his precious sword on you?” Miyasaki found that when he returned an officer’s sword, the officer would often grasp the top of the handle with two hands and prop it under his chin. Then he would open to Miyasaki’s questioning. “He must have thought, ‘Hey, this guy’s alright, now I’m not naked'” figures Miyasaki. The Hawaii nisei would treat his prisoner with deference and speak humbly and the Japanese officer would cooperate.
But interrogation was also often a battle of nerves. When a Japanese officer mistreated a fellow prisoner, Miyasaki would bawl him out for mistreating an Emperor’s soldier and slap him in the face. Once when Miyasaki was in the midst of interrogating a Japanese officer, the Americans were hit by a heavy artillery barrage. “You ought to have seen it — the guards who were assigned on two sides of the prisoner took off,” he remembers. “I just yelled, ‘Guards!’ I made them come back right with the artillery barrage still going on.” Miyasaki castigated them, shouting, “If you want me to interrogate, god dammit, don’t show the cowardly side of you! If you’re a coward, get out and get a new guard.” Today, Miyasaki admits, “I was scared stiff. But the Japanese captain he neva move. If I had run away, I’d lose right there — he’d have the feeling, ‘Hummm, what the hell, why should I answer this coward?’ ” Through the shelling Miyasaki questioned the prisoner while Russell Kono took notes.
As months dragged on, the Marauders were handed mission after mission without respite. “The Marauders were overtaxed, that’s true; for a unit our size, the task was too great,” says Miyasaki. “Yet the Marauders did the work and didn’t run away from it.” After the 5307 Composite would capture an objective, their promised rest period would dissolve in an enemy counterattack. While Joseph Harrington criticized Stilwell for a callous attitude towards his men, Miyasaki argued that Vinegar Joe was only taking orders from above and that Stilwell was removed from his post in the China-Burma-India theater when he insisted that men be given a rest.
While fighting the Japanese, the Marauders also faced other enemies — malaria, dysentery and typhus. “The American forces weren’t used to monsoon weather,” explains Miyasaki. “And monsoon weather brings malaria, the infestation of lice, which spread typhus, and dysentery from the water.” While none of the interpreters were seriously wounded, all of the interpreters contracted disease. “Yeah, I got sick with malaria — a little bit crazy, delirious, because that’s how you get when you get malaria,” recalls Miyasaki. “When you got dysentery, you shit blood from your okole and your pants were always dripping blood.”
By the time the Marauders had finished their work, the unit was decimated. “At the end, what was left of the Marauders? Hardly anything, hardly anybody was left,” says Miyasaki. When the Marauders staggered into the town of Myitkina as part of the makeshift Chinese-American force on August 3, 1944, only 200 of several thousand original members of the 5307 Composite Unit were left. While the Marauders suffered well over the 75% casualties which had been predicted, all 14 of the MIS troops survived the harrowing campaign. “But, we were so weak,” recalls Miyasaki. All of the MISLS graduates were awarded Combat Infantrymen’s Badges and the coveted Bronze Stars.
Although all members of the MIS contingent were offered field commissions when they came out of combat, Miyasaki, Honda, and Kono turned their commissions down and chose to attend the Officers Candidate School in the United States first. “When I was in the 100th Bn., I was selected one of 17 to make officer but they denied me my commission because I was Japanese,” explains Miyasaki. “Then when they sent me up to MIS school, we were the guys who know Japanese but there’s a bunch of Haole young kids who come in there and they know ‘a, i, u, e, o,’ phonetics, and they’d get commissioned as second lieutenants, linguistic specialists. Old Man Col. Rasmussen tried to get us commissions but no, they turned it down because we were nisei, and they weren’t taking any chances.” So when Gen. Stilwell offered them commissions, Miyasaki and the other two Hawaii nisei chose to prove themselves by going through officers’ training instead. All three of them graduated near the top of their class at Officers Candidate School and Miyasaki became the first nisei to serve as an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning.
In the end, Miyasaki, a kibei who had joined the service with intentions of serving a year of duty, wound up spending over 50 years in the U.S. Army. Although the exploits of Merrill’s Marauders are now legendary, the story of the 14 Nisei who served in the 5307 Composite Unit is still unknown. “But I don’t feel bad,” says Miyasaki today, as he finishes a brief summary of his World War II duty. “We were told beforehand that the type of work we were going to do would not be publicized. The American public was calling us ‘Jap’ and all kinds of names, and sometimes you felt like throwing down everything and saying, ‘To hell with you guys.’ But still, there was a job to do and somebody had to do it. The scums of the earth don’t have to appreciate what we did. But my conscience is clear.”