Soldier becomes ‘Armored Angel’, freeing prisoners
by Renita Foster
Public Affairs Office
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
had reached American headquarters in
a possible massacre, seven-man rescue teams that included medics, communications
specialists and interpreters were hastily organized to find and evacuate POWs in
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
four years earlier on Dec. 7, 1941, Nagaki was having
a grand time visiting
heard an announcement of any kind that day about the bombing,” said Nagaki. “I was in
Nagaki was the only Nisei (second generation Japanese
Nagaki was transferred to
“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.
expert training in parachuting, radio operations, infiltration, survival,
hand-to-hand combat, cryptography and guerrilla tactics, Nagaki’s unit jumped into
the first espionage unit sent behind enemy lines throughout
“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.”
living in straw huts and adjusting to life in the
Additionally, he trained two
platoons of Kachin and Shan tribesmen in north and
“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
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.
prisoners was Mary Previte, a future assemblywoman in
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.
20,000 Allied POWs were liberated from
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.)