Deciphering the Rising Sun: Navy and Marine Corps Codebreakers, Translators, and Interpreters in the Pacific War

Roger Dingman, Deciphering the Rising Sun: Navy and Marine Corps Codebreakers, Translators, and Interpreters in the Pacific War, Naval Institute Press, 2009. 340 pp., illustrations, notes, index.

Review by Mark M. Hull
Department of Military History, US Army Command and General Staff College

In Deciphering the Rising Sun, Roger Dingman has crafted an interesting and highly readable story concerning a little-known but important aspect of the intelligence war in the Pacific: the Navy’s recruitment, training, and employment of Americans as translators of the complex Japanese language.

While the Army and Navy had been sending selected officers to Japan for years, by the period immediately before Pearl Harbor, there were only a handful of those officers on active duty. Compounding this difficulty was the on-going rivalry between the services to recruit likely candidates. The Army established its own Japanese language training school at the Presidio in November 1941 as it became clear that war with Japan was all but inevitable. Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum of the Office of Naval Intelligence – himself a Japanese linguist with interwar experience in Japan – stepped forward to find the right place, right faculty, and right students to allow the Navy to maintain parity.

Although there was a ready pool of ethnic Japanese who could have performed this work, in most cases their employment was impossible due to existing, often misplaced, security concerns. This forced the Navy to turn elsewhere for people with the necessary background or aptitude. Following a highly successful pilot program at Berkeley (and a somewhat less-than-successful one at Harvard), the Navy Japanese Language School was relocated to Boulder, Colorado, where the first batch of civilian recruits pioneered an eight-month intensive language course in spoken and written Japanese. They were a mixed lot; some had grown up in Japan or China (experience with non-Japanese languages was an acceptable substitute), others had lived or worked in Japan before the war, while still others had no first-hand experience upon which to draw, only the hope that their facility with languages would be enough to see them through. At the end of the fast-paced, high-pressure course, the students were commissioned as reserve officers in the Navy or Marine Corps.

While ethnic Japanese were not considered sufficiently trustworthy for employment as Navy translators and interpreters, they nevertheless made up the critical core of the Language School faculty, and provided a living link between the students and a language and culture that was entirely foreign to them. The graduates, male and female, went on to perform well in a myriad of assignments, some landing in the first waves with the Marines to aid in prisoner interrogation while other graduates focused on the translation and evaluation of captured Japanese documents. The author ably points to the dramatic differences in the linguists’ attitude about the Japanese after the Boulder linguists came face-to-face with war; some echo the racial stereotypes which were very much the norm, while others – particularly those assigned to post-war occupation duty – developed a sincere affection for the people, their culture, and their language. In every meaningful respect, the Navy program, as demonstrated in the field by the fledgling linguists, was a success in the war against Japan.

It would have been useful if Dingman had compared the Navy interpreter/translator program to that used by the U.S. Army, where enlisted, Japanese-speaking Nisei were used in significant numbers. While he exclusively highlights the successes of the Boulder school graduates, it is invariable that some were more capable than others. To fairly evaluate the program it would be useful to also mention those cases where the Boulder alumni were less than perfectly effective.

Deciphering the Rising Sun is very much a history focused on the individual experiences of the linguists themselves, rather than an operational or strategic overview of the Human Intelligence gathering and evaluation aspects of the Pacific War. It is also a welcome reminder that good, readable military history can remain on the micro level without becoming trivial.

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