Soldier becomes ‘Armored Angel’, freeing prisoners

by Renita Foster


Public Affairs Office

Sgt. Tad Nagaki paid little attention to the cumbersome parachute and combat equipment strapped to his body as he struggled to climb aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber in Kunming, China. His thoughts were focused instead on his last mission in World War II.


Reports had reached American headquarters in China in the summer of 1945 that Japan planned to kill all its prisoners of war (POWs).


To prevent a possible 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 had immediately volunteered for the mission. But 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 here.


“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) at Fort Monmouth, 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, Ky., 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 detail with the quartermaster branch.


“I couldn’t believe it,” said Nagaki. “There’s a war going on and other Americans were 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 work, Nagaki saw an announcement posted on the camp bulletin board. It was a request for volunteers to join 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, Miss., 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. Only fourteen out of 23 Soldiers were selected for an elite Nisei team 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. “We also knew how much more dangerous the duties were for us if captured by the Japanese.”


While living in straw huts and adjusting to life in the OSS, Nagaki gained valuable tactical experiences in sabotage and hit and run harassment operations. He also translated enemy documents and prepared propaganda literature.


Additionally, he 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 jump behind the Japanese forces because parachuting was the only way I could earn airborne wings. It might not have been the same as a pilot, but I did get wings.” Nagaki said.


Nagaki began the journey to Weihsien Concentration Camp on Aug. 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 1,500 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 to be exact. 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 whom 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 they 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 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 chewing gum and chocolate.


The children added to the celebration by relentlessly singing songs over and over. 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 decided to find Nagaki and the other rescuers to personally thank them.


“I was very surprised and very delighted the first time Mary contacted me,” said Nagaki. “She had tried finding other members of the rescue team, but they had passed away. I was the first one she found alive so it was an emotional moment for both of us. One of the questions she asked me was how I felt about being followed by children everywhere that day at Weihsien. I told her like being on a pedestal. I remember 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 and Christmas 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 would 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.)