In this primary source activity, students will review a photo from World War II of soldiers studying the Japanese language. Students will answer a series of questions related to why language training is important in wartime.
This lesson is part of "Great States: Minnesota | Unit 10: World War II and Minnesota", an investigation of how Minnesotans, both serving in the military and on the home front, supported their country during WWII.
220.127.116.11.4: Identify contributions of Minnesota and its people to World War II; describe the impact of the war on the home front and Minnesota society after the war.
- An interactive whiteboard, projector, or another type of screen to show images to the class
- Image: Japanese-American Translators at Fort Snelling, 1945 [Photo: St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press; Source: Minnesota Historical Society, Identifier E448.24.]
Explain to students that in World War II, America fought on two different fronts: the western front against Germany, and in the Pacific against Japan. As the war approached, America knew it needed to enlist the help of personnel who could speak Japanese. The military made efforts to recruit Nisei (Americans born to immigrants from Japan). Despite going to Japanese school to learn the language and preserve their parents’ culture, many of the Nisei were not fluent speakers and lacked the language skills that the military needed. So, the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) was opened in San Francisco in 1941 to train the Nisei in Japanese linguistics.
Explain that after President Roosevelt signed the executive order to relocate all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast into internment camps, the MISLS moved to Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Nisei were the most likely to work in intelligence for language translation. Over 6,000 graduated linguists went on to break codes, instruct new students, and serve on the front lines. These soldiers also intercepted enemy transmissions, translated documents, and interrogated prisoners of war. The War Department created an all-Japanese American regiment, which went on to become one of the most decorated units of the war.
Explain that MIS linguists had their hand in nearly every battle in the Pacific. Some even worked as undercover agents. Their work was also vital during the transition from war to peacetime. The linguists interpreted surrender documents and were vital in the occupation and rebuilding of Japan, acting as cultural ambassadors. Major General Charles Willoughby said of the Nisei, “[They] shortened the Pacific War by two years and saved possibly a million American lives…”
Show students the image of the Nisei students from Fort Snelling and ask them to answer the following questions related to why language training is important in war:
Why would it be important to know the language of the country with which we are at war?
What jobs could a person who knows the enemy’s language perform?
What contribution did Minnesota make to the success of the war effort during World War II?
Gather intelligence, talk to local people, intercept messages, prisoners
Interpreter, decoder, negotiator, interrogators, intelligence workers
By hosting a Military Intelligence Service language-training center, Minnesota prepared linguists to perform their jobs.