Soldier becomes ‘Armored Angel’ freeing prisoners

by Renita Foster

published in The Monmouth Message, (Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, December 8, 2006.)


Sgt. Tad Nagaki didn’t notice the cumbersome parachute and combat equipment strapped to his body as he struggled to climb aboard the B-24 Liberator Bomber in Kunming, China. His thoughts were focused instead on what would probably be his last mission in World War II.


Reports had reached American headquarters in China the summer of 1945 that Japan planned to kill all Prisoners of War (POW). To prevent the massacre, seven-man rescue teams that included medics, communications specialists and interpreters were hastily organized to find and evacuate POWs in China, Manchuria, and Korea. 


Determined to make one last difference as World War II came to an end, especially since so many lives were at stake, Nagaki immediately volunteered for the mission. As the “Armored Angel” droned toward Weihsien Concentration Camp in the Shantung Province, he remembered how he almost didn’t get the chance.   


Almost four years earlier on Dec. 7, 1941, Nagaki was having a grand time visiting New York City. The Nebraska farm boy and now Army Soldier, was fascinated by the huge city and all it had to offer. So much so, he didn’t learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until he returned to his unit at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.


“I never heard an announcement of any kind that day about the bombing,” said Nagaki. “I was in Japan earlier that year, and when I heard speculations there might be war with the United States I thought I better get home. That was around April. Now it was nine months later, but I was still surprised and shocked.” 


Although Nagaki was the only Nisei (second generation Japanese American) in his unit, he never noticed any different treatment until his outfit deployed without him. 


But America was Nagaki’s country too. More determined to serve than ever, he pursued his ambition of becoming a pilot. He passed the physical examination and produced recommendations for acceptance as an air cadet. A letter from his commander, however, denied the request because he was Nisei.


Instead, Nagaki was transferred to Fort Thomas, Kentucky where he shared a barracks with about 40 other Nisei Soldiers. Gardening, planting trees, and loading supplies became their main duties. Later, it was laundry with the quartermaster branch.


“I couldn’t believe it,” said Nagaki. “There’s a war going on and other ‘Americans’ are allowed to go and fight. But I’m stuck cleaning up an Army post! Is that any way to treat a devoted American Soldier when his country’s threatened?”


Then one morning as he prepared for daily details, Nagaki saw an announcement posted on the camp bulletin board. It was a request for volunteers for a special Nisei warfare unit. After two long, unsuccessful years of “begging” for combat duty, Nagaki grabbed the opportunity to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT).


During infantry training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) petitioned for Nisei volunteers in intelligence work described as “more hazardous than combat” and “a one-way ticket.” As someone who lived for adventure and action, Nagaki was a natural. 


Fourteen out of 23 were selected for an elite team of Nisei in OSS Detachment 101, including Nagaki. His Japanese reading and writing abilities acquired while attending Japanese summer school as a youngster proved invaluable.           


After expert training in parachuting, radio operations, infiltration, survival, hand-to-hand combat, cryptography and guerrilla tactics, Nagaki’s unit jumped into Northern Burma in January 1943. They were the first espionage unit sent behind enemy lines throughout China, Burma, and India.


“We Niseis had bonded together for the sole purpose of proving our patriotism. And the significant strength in the brotherhood we felt was our secret weapon,” said Nagaki. “And we all knew how much more dangerous the duties were for us if captured by the Japanese.”


While living in straw huts and adjusting to insects and K-rations, Nagaki accumulated valuable tactical experiences like sabotage and hit and run harassment operations. He also translated enemy documents and prepared propaganda literature.


Additionally, Nagaki trained two platoons of Kachin and Shan tribesmen in north and central Burma. And he parachuted behind enemy lines to gather information and monitor Japanese troop movements. 


“I volunteered to go behind the Japanese forces while stationed in Burma. Parachuting was the only way in so that helped me earn airborne wings. It might not have been the same as being an airplane pilot, but I did get wings!” grinned Nagaki.


Nagaki began the journey to Weihsien Concentration Camp on August 17, 1945. Located in the Shantung Province, the operation was given the code name “Duck.”  The Japanese had surrendered three days earlier, but none of the 1500 prisoners in the camp knew the war was over.


The B-24 flew as close to the trees as possible to ensure the jump was a short one, just 400 feet in fact. The maneuver deprived the Japanese guards space and time to fire at the rescuers.


Nagaki was astonished at the sight below as the bomber circled the area. The prisoners, many of which were children, were running wildly toward the gates as they realized freedom was just moments away. Thunderous cheering and shouting, even dancing greeted the rescuers as the floated towards the earth. The team had barely touched the ground when they were mobbed by the exhilarated POWs and brought back to the camp.  Although the guards had initially pointed weapons at the prisoners, they now retreated to their barracks.


“They knew the war was over,” said Nagaki. “We contacted the Commandant and there was a quick, peaceful surrender.”


A parade of worshipers followed the American Soldiers everywhere, begging for souvenirs like buttons, insignia and pieces of parachute. One little girl cut off hair from Nagaki’s head while another woman insisted he autograph her baby’s bonnet. The Americans delighted the POWs in return with treats of Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum and chocolate.


The children added to the celebration by relentlessly singing ‘You Are My Sunshineand  Maresey Doats and Doesey Doats and Little Lambsey Divey.’ After learning American songs from their rescuers, the children continually sang those as well.     


Among the prisoners was Mary Previte, a future Assemblywoman in the New Jersey legislature, who was only 12-years-old and hadn’t seen her parents in five and a half years. Fifty-two years later, Previte literally tracked down Nagaki and the other rescues to personally thank them.


“I was very surprised and also very delighted the first time Mary contacted me,” said Nagaki. “She had tried contacting other members of the rescue team and only found widows. I was the first one she found alive so she was very emotional as well. One of the questions she asked me was how I felt about being followed by children every where that day and I told her like being on a pedestal. I still remembered the event quite well, right down to the little girl cutting off some of my hair for a souvenir.”


Previte still calls Nagaki every holiday, including this last Thanksgiving. She also sends him a birthday card every year.


More than 20,000 Allied POWs were liberated from Manchuria to Indo-China by the OSS Soldiers who were honored with the Soldier’s Medal. But Nagaki insists he’s no hero.  “I did what any American what have done,” Nagaki said simply. “We were gung ho and more than willing to help. And that’s the way all of us felt.”    


(Editor’s Note: This is the sixth story in a series featuring the Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) during World War II.

Link to Story No.1 --- Pearl Harbor attack energizes ‘Nisei’

Link to Story No.2 --- Freed from one camp, he helps liberate another

Link to Story No.3 --- March to freedom filled with danger

Link to Story No.4 --- Veteran “went for broke” to serve country

Link to Story No.5 --- ‘Merrill’s Marauders,’ Nisei helped shorten World War II

Link to Story No.6 --- Soldier becomes ‘Armored Angel’, freeing prisoners

Link to Story No.7 --- Hiroshima 1945: Japanese-American officer finds old home an atomic wasteland


Caption: Nisei MIS attached to OSS detachment 101 to through Guerrilla and Ranger survival training on Catalina Island. Tad Nagaki is in the front row, fifth soldier, left to right.


Caption:  Sgt. Tad Nagaki (left), interpreter, and T/4 Raymond N. Hanchulak, medic, are awarded the Soldier’s Medal for heroism for helping to liberate 1,400 allied prisoners from the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center in China’s Shantung Province, August 1945.  Photo courtesy Mary T. Previte.