CROSSROADS TO SOMEWHERE
The Saga of Tad Nagaki: Nebraska
farmer to OSS Operative
By W.T. Wimpy Hiroto
This is the first installment of a 3-part series.
Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. The parachutes seemed to open on cue. Fhlop.
Fhlop. Fhlop. Seven cotton balls in synchronized unison. The morning of
Aug. 17, 1945, was already sweltering hot despite buffeting winds. Jumping
from 400 feet eliminated the danger of anti-aircraft fire but could bring
the threat of small arms into play. Members of Duck Team had little time
to worry about potential enemy resistance. Their assignment was to free
1500 prisoners of war at Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center on China’s
mainland. Tadashi Nagaki was second man out of the lumbering B-24 Liberator
bomber, aptly named “The
The military saga of Tad Nagaki does not follow the well-worn path of
evacuated Nisei internee to a slogging 442nd Regimental Combat Team soldier
in Italy. This GI would go for broke in a far less familiar, almost forgotten
World War II theatre of operation.
Drafted in November of 1941, he was just a farm boy being sent off to
fight a war with other fellow Nebraskan recruits.A stocky 5’5”athlete
who excelled at baseball, football and track Nagaki had set his sights
on becoming an *air cadet, passing all required tests and physicals; only
to be denied acceptance because of ethnicity, Nagaki’s very first
experience with racial prejudice. (*The
U.S. Army had it’s own air force at that time; Ben Kuroki, ironically
also from Nebraska, was one of only two Nisei ever accepted into its service.)
A star-crossed military experience continued to sour when, as a signal
corps trainee, everyone shipped out for overseas duty except him. While
assigned to such menial tasks as pruning trees and loading supply trains
(with 40 other Nisei), Nagaki spotted an ominous notice on the bulletin
board: “Volunteers for a Special Nisei Combat Unit” were being
sought for “highly secret intelligence work more hazardous than
There is a standing axiom for military survival. Never volunteer for nothing.
To Private Nagaki anything would be better than gardening and manual labor
for the duration. He signed on without any reservations, one of 23 to
make the harrowing decision. In the final reckoning only 14 would complete
the training regimen, three from California, 10 from Hawaii and Nebraskan
The rigorous preparation began with radio training in Illinois, Military
Intelligence Language School sessions at FortSavage, Minnesota, and six
weeks of unrelenting survival conditioning on Catalina Island. The irony
of training in California while all Japanese were barred from the west
coast military zone was not lost on the Nisei trainees. Although all communications
with the outside world were restricted and censored, the Catalina experience
gave hint to where *OSS Detachment 101 would eventually be headed.
[*The Office of Strategic Services wasamilitaryorphan.Knowntodayas
the forerunner of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it was formed in
1942 by Col. William J. Donovan with the support of President Franklin
D. Roosevelt.Nick-named“WildBill”by detractors, Gen. Douglas
MacArthur refused to allow the organization to operate in the Philippines
under his command. At home J. Edgar Hoover fought to undermine it’s
intelligence gathering abilities at every turn as he jealously viewed
Donavan’s ragtag unit a potential rival to his civilian Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Despite this opposition in its shorttenure,OSShelpedarm,trainand
supply resistance movements in areas occupied by the Axis powers during
WorldWarII.ItwasdisbandedbyPres. Harry Truman in 1945.]
The Japanese Imperial Army conducted an Asian version of Blitzkrieg early
in 1942, rampaging through sievelike defenses at will. With the fall
of Singapore, Java, the Philippines and China proving to be inept ally,
the loss of all Southeast Asia’s rich and important natural resources
loomed imminent.The string of conquests also gave the Japanese a potential
jumping off point to invade Australia.
Strained supplylines and unfriendly jungles were seemingly the only obstacles
they couldn’t overcome. Confronting such an impasse became a greater
hurdle for the invaders than Chinese, British, Indian and Australian troops.
Seizing upon this unexpected opportunity OSS guerilla teams were formed
and sent into remote regions to operate behind enemy lines. Their first
order of business would be to win the allegiance and support of native
chiefs and their tribes; harassing a superior forcewould requirehelp from
Combat was not John Wayne and Gary Cooper single-handedly winning the
war. It was constant danger and peril, especially for the Nisei. The brotherhood
of *OSS Nisei was a combination of versatility and commitment. Their duties
ranged from sabotage, guerilla warfare, hit and run harassment, translating
captured documents, preparing propaganda leaflets, building airfields,
reporting troop movements, helping rescue downed American pilots.
[*Calvin Tottori, a detachment member, authored “The
OSS Nisei in CBI (China/Burma/India) Theater”, a first person memoir
of the collective exploits of this unit. Dick Hamada, a member of 2nd
Battalion, recalls the aftermath of an early skirmish with the Japanese.
Before reporting the results of an ambush, he asked his Kachin Ranger
counterpart for a body count estimate, unsure of the true total based
on some clothing and captured weapons. When he openly questioned the exact
number reported, the tribesman produced twenty ears from his pouch. “From
that day on I never doubted their claims,” Hamada confessed.
Tad Nagaki added, “I never had the chance to interrogate Japanese
prisoners (since) they resisted capture with suchfanaticalzeal.Itseemedsurrender
was never an option (with them).” Beingmistakenfortheenemywasalways
a clear and present danger. 2nd Lt. Ralph Yempuku, the only Nisei field
grade officer, pointed out the depth of Kachan native hate for the Japanese.
“They had a history of torture and bayoneting villagers to death.”
Capt. Joe Lazarsky, lst Battalion Kachin Ranger leader,carefullymadeaproductionout
of Yempuku’s first introduction to the natives. The captain ordered
the warriorstocarefullystudyYempuku’sface to guarantee he wouldn’t
be mistaken and killed as an enemy Japanese in a U.S. uniform. “I
told them the lieutenant was a “Big Dua” just like the rest
of us (white) men,” Lazarsky emphasized. Yempuku would later lead
his own guerilla unit behind enemy lines along the Burma Road. (*When
Lt. Yempuku returned to civilian life in Hawaii he became a noted entertainment
and sports entrepreneur. Rafu Shimpo columnist George Yoshinaga later
became an associate in his U.S. and Japan ventures.)]
As the war wound down in Burma, Detachment 101 was deployed to China where
disturbing rumors were being heard of the possible slaughter of all prisoners
of war, civilian and military, by the Japanese. Rescue plans became the
top priority for Gen. Albert Wedemeyer as he ordered the safe evacuation
of all POWs in China, Manchuria and Korea.
OSS had 7-man teams available for such duty, all with code names of birds.
Nagaki’sDuck Team parachuted into Weihsien Assembly Center where
1500 Allied civilian prisoners were being held. Hamada parachuted into
Peiping (Beijing) to liberate 624 prisoners, including survivors of the
Doolittle air raids on Tokyo; Fumio Kato’s team jumped into Mukden
to rescue Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, hero of Corregidor and Bataan, along
with 1600 other POWs; Tottori flew to Taiwan while Yempuku landed on Hainan
Island to save 400 starving prisoners.
“The Nisei bought an awful hunk ofAmerica with their blood,”
declared Gen. Joseph Stilwell, commander of U.S. forces in CBI. “You’re
damn right those Nisei boys have a place in the heart of America forever!”
Nagaki was among those honored with the Soldiers Medal for Heroism.
In recounting his time in service Nagaki dismisses any sense of heroism
or extraordinary duty. “Just served my time like any other GI,”
is his simple explanation. As if living among 120 Shan tribesmen, sleeping
in a basha (hut), eating native cuisine of chicken curry and rice (not
too bad compared to K and C rations) and riding elephants bareback was
routine army duty. Not to mention a constant battle fighting superior
numbers of the enemy.
After being honorably discharged from the Army in 1947 he married *Asako
“Butch” Nakazono whom he had met on a blind date while training
in Minnesota. She had been his lone stateside contact during his CBI adventures
and she dutifully kept Nagaki’s parents as informed as is possible
from censored mail. They had earlier agreed to get married only after
he had returned from active duty. (*By
coincidence Asako’s brother, Eichi, was also in the CBI while with
Military Intelligence. Meanwhile Tad’s older brother, Akira Skeets,
was a private first class with the 442nd.)
According to Nagaki it was no problem transitioning back to the uncluttered
life of tilling the soil. With bride in tow he returned to Nebraska to
start raising a family along with his beloved crops.
[Little did Tadashi
Nagaki realize his 1945 parachute jump into eastern China would be reprised
a half century later in a most unexpected manner. Next Week: A child prisoner
of Weihsien launches a belated search for the seven American parachutists
. W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]