Japanese Language School opened at Presidio of San Francisco
Nov. 1, 1941
On Nov. 1, 1941, the U.S. Fourth Army began a secret program to teach the Japanese language to military students. The first class met in an abandoned hangar on Crissy Field, at the Presidio of San Francisco. But before the students could move into the haphazard building that would become their home and classroom, they had to chase away the rats.
Who were these students and where did they come from?
It was no secret that tensions between Japan and the United States were escalating. The rest of the world had been at war since 1939, and Japan was in direct conflict with the Soviet Union, China and Europe. Alarmed, the U.S. Congress approved the first-ever peace-time draft in September 1940, with the first induction notices being issued that December.
Draftees came from every ethnic and economic corner of America — including Japanese immigrants and their families. The “Issei,” first-generation Japanese, who had immigrated before 1924, and their American-born children, or “Nisei,” responded with pride. These Japanese-Americans hoped that military service would dispel once and for all any doubts about their loyalty to America, while at the same time they fervently hoped that war with their homeland would not be necessary.
Meanwhile, the Army was well aware of its need for linguists. According to historian James McNaughton, the Army “would need not just a few dozen officers, but hundreds and possibly thousands of interrogators and translators.” A former language attaché officer suggested using Nisei Soldiers as linguists, thinking that these men would already be fluent in Japanese and only need training in the military aspects of the language. At bases in Hawaii and the West Coast, about 3,000 Nisei were proudly wearing a U.S. Army uniform by the summer of 1941. It was from these ranks that the first class of students would come.
The Army tasked three officers: Capt. Kai Rasmussen, a Danish immigrant who had spent four years in Japan learning the language and studying the Japanese Army; Capt. Joseph Dickey, who had served in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo; and Lt. Col. John Weckerling, a veteran of eight years in Japan. These three worked together from July to October 1941, interviewing 1,300 Nisei Soldiers from the West Coast to find “Nisei of unquestioned loyalty reasonably qualified in the Japanese language.” In four months of searching, they found 58. Two Caucasian students rounded out the first class to 60.
If finding Nisei students who were proficient in both English and Japanese and could pass a rigorous security check was difficult, finding instructors proved more so. Eventually, a cadre of four was located and selected. Only one had any experience teaching at a Japanese language school. For a library they had Rasmussen’s personal collection of textbooks from Tokyo: eight volumes of readers, one Japanese-English military dictionary, various Japanese and American training manuals, a compilation of Chinese characters, and a handful of other books. Their school was a shabby warehouse with no desks or chairs, only two old Army cots.
Instructors had two weeks to pull together a program of instruction and curriculum for the first class of 60 students and convert the building into classrooms and barracks. Weckerling managed to obtain $2,000 from the Fourth Army Quartermaster and hired carpenters to build partitions to make three classrooms, offices and barracks space inside the hangar.
When classes began, the instructors quickly realized that this was not going to be a refresher course for the majority of their students. Only 20 or so were fluent in Japanese. The rest had to start from scratch learning a language that is notoriously difficult for English speakers to learn. They studied day and night, having only Sundays off.
The students were looking forward to a much-needed break from their books on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when the terrible news came that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. The country reeled from the attack, often taking out their anger and suspicion on these students who were studying hard to defend their nation and were caught between the heritage of their homeland and loyalty to their country.
When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, the Nisei at Crissy Field threw themselves into their studies, tormented, heartbroken and energized all at once. But they could not stay in San Francisco. In April, the language school moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota. It was big enough to handle the recruitment of 150 new Nisei students to meet the new demands, and far enough from the bitter politics of the West Coast to welcome the Japanese-Americans into their community.
On May 1, 1942, the Fourth Army Language School held a small graduation ceremony for about 40 Nisei and two Caucasian reserve officers. Ten students were held back to serve as instructors. The rest were on their way within days to serve in overseas assignments. Before the end of the war, the school, which was renamed the Military Intelligence Service Language School, would train more than 4,800 Japanese linguists.
The humble beginnings of the Fourth Army Language School would change in size, scope, name and location, eventually becoming the Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center, the premier language learning institution in the world. Today the school has 3,500 students at any given time, from all four branches of service, who are learning 23 basic course languages ranging in duration from 26 to 64 weeks. Through its language training detachments in 26 locations worldwide, the school trains another 35,000 students across the globe. What hasn’t changed over the past 70-plus years is the school’s vision to deliver the world’s best culturally based foreign language education and training — at the point of need.