GI Christmas

Wallace Amioka: MIS Vet Recalls His Christmas in Niigata

Hawaii Herald, 12/16/1988
By Ben Tamashiro

One of the immediate consequences of the bombing of Pearl Harbor was that many people found themselves “frozen” to their jobs. Still others were held to their jobs long after the war had ended.

Wallace Amioka, for instance, was placed in a deferred status because he was employed in the petroleum business, vital to the war effort. He was safe from the draft, working in the downtown offices of the Shell Oil Company in the Dillingham Transportation Building in Honolulu. But in January 1944, when the Army’s language school at Camp Savage, Minn. came to Hawaii to recruit people skilled in the use of Japanese, Amioka volunteered to take the test. He passed, was inducted into the Army at Schofield Barracks, and was off to Camp Savage along with approximately 300 others. He was 29 when he joined the MIS.

Although the group had been issued some heavy clothing in anticipation of winter in Minnesota, that gear barely kept them from freezing when they arrived at Savage. To make matters worse, they had to walk about a mile into camp in a blizzard after getting off their train.

The next day, the group went to the supply room to get their winter clothing- but, incredibly, the place was locked! Through the windows they could see the supply people huddled around a hot pot-bellied stove playing cards. They pounded on the door and called out to attract attention, but no one inside made a move. Their own temperatures rising by the second, Amioka and a couple of others broke down the door. They all surged into the room and proceeded to help themselves to long johns and whatever else the needed. The riot act was read to them the following day, but, under the circumstances, no court martial proceedings were taken against them.

After completing the regular language courses, Amioka was sent to Officer Candidate School and returned with the rank of second lieutenant. He was put in charge of 10 interpreters, all GIs of Okinawan ancestry. They formed a team that was being prepared to land on Okinawa with the first of the American invasion forces. Although he is not Okinawan himself, Amioka had learned enough of the language at school to be given operating command of a team that was considered to be an ultra high secret weapon in the MIS (Military Intelligence Service) arsenal. To help guise his mission, for example, when Amioka had to report to his project officer, he would catch the trolley that ran through the camp, pretending he was on his way to Minneapolis. He would then jump off the trolley just before it left camp, and by this circuitous route make his way to his superior’s office.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the nisei soldiers in the Army had gone off to war- the 100th Infantry Battalion to Italy in September 1943, followed by the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in June.

American forces invaded Okinawa on April 1, 1945. In order to meet this invasion timetable, Amioka and his team left camp in early March. Encountering a variety of transportation delays at every transfer point between camp and their destination, however, they got to Okinawa three weeks after the invasion had begun. Therefore, operations, assigned to the 27th Infantry Division. Subsequently, with the fall of Okinawa and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was forced to surrender. And with that, World War II came to an end.

The end of the war, however, was only the beginning of another assignment for Amioka. While most of the team members were discharged from the service, he and a few others were not released by the 27th. The division had been designated for occupation duty in Japan, and shortly he found himself in the division’s advance party headed for Atsugi Airfield. They landed on Sept. 7, 1945, right on the heels of Gen. MacArthur’s arrival.

“I was in Tokyo for just a short while,” says Amioka. “In mid-September I was assigned to Niigata, a large seaport town of about a quarter million people on the Japan Sea. Niigata had been a major embarkation/ debarkation point for Japan’s ventures into China and Korea, and, with its large industrial base was on the list of targets to be bombed by the Air Force. But the Air Force mistakenly bombed nearby Nagaoka instead. Unscarred by war, that is where I spent my first Christmas in Japan.” (Niigata, incidentally, was one of the cities considered for the dropping of the atomic bomb.)

“The Niigata Hotel had been taken over as a billet for company grade officers. I was the only nisei within the group of 30 or 40. Filled with Christmas spirit, more so because this was the first such celebration in Japan for all of us, I decided to light up the party … with undiluted, concentrated Okinawan potato sake. We had brought bottles of this stuff over with us from Okinawa. Pouring some of the full-strength sake into little cups, I turned off the room lights and lighted some candles. Touching the candles to the cup, the sake burst into flames. It was a great show.

“In the kitchen, I already had sake diluted at 5-to-1; five parts water, that is, the norm for drinking purposes. Flipping on the lights, I called for this diluted sake and we all had a jolly good time. This is one of my fondest memories of the years I spent in Niigata.”

Although the war was over and the troops were being rotated home as quickly as possible, those plans did not include medical doctors nor MIS officers like Amioka. “I was told that I was frozen in my job for the next two years. That being so, I decided to call my wife over from Honolulu. When advised that I might have to stay an additional year after that, I said I would take my chances. My wife came over in May 1947 and my first child was born in Tokyo a year later.”

With a full regiment of the 27th (later the 97th) stationed at Niigata, and still later with the military government team, Amioka, with the help of Japanese lawyers, was kept busy translating documents, newspaper articles, and court records for the military. Conversely, he translated English materials into Japanese for the local government officials.

One of the more interesting aspects of his long stay in Niigata was the fact that Amioka actually comprised a one-man interpreter unit. Operating by himself, ostensibly responsible only to himself, he was attached to the division for logistical support only. As required by regulations, however, he maintained unit reports and records-on himself. He could cut whatever orders were necessary on himself. “Hell,” he exclaims, “I could have promoted myself to a general!”

Amioka returned to Hawaii in November 1948 with his family. Discharged, he signed up with the Army Reserves and so was called to service in the Korean War. Today, he keeps himself busy on contract as a public affairs consultant to several petroleum companies. Reflecting back on his MIS experience, Amioka says, “That’s how I came to spend three Christmases in Japan. But the first one was the best.”