Frank Takaji Yamamoto
US Army & US Army Reserves, Military Intelligence Service
World War II (1944-1947) – 1st Lieutenant
Korean & Vietnam Wars (Inactive Duty 1947-1968) – Major
Frank Takaji Yamamoto of Mill Valley, California had a long and active military intelligence career in the Civil Service in Japan and San Francisco, as well as in the Army and Army Reserves. During World War II, Yamamoto, a Japanese language specialist, initially served as a language instructor at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Later, he served as an interpreter and interrogator of Japanese Prisoners of War during the World War II war crimes trials in Manila, Philippines. For his efforts during World War II in the Military Intelligence Service, as a Japanese American, Yamamoto was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on November 2, 2011. The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the United States Congress and is, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
Frank Takaji Yamamoto was born on April 25, 1923 in Los Angeles, California to Shusaburo and Take Yamamoto. His parents were Japanese immigrants and they owned a meat and poultry shop in Los Angeles. Yamamoto’s mother passed away early in life in 1939. Yamamoto attended Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles and graduated in 1942. He recalled the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 while he was still in high school. Yamamoto felt the war was initiated by Japan because of the United States embargo of oil to Japan. In April of 1942, Yamamoto, his father and siblings, were evacuated to the Manzanar Internment or Relocation Camp at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in California with other Japanese Americans. At the time, his father did not explain why they were being evacuated and Yamamoto felt his fate was in the hands of the United States government. Life in the internment camp was terrible. The “apartment” in which he lived with his family was spartan, very small and he slept on a cot. Each family was assigned a 20 foot by 25 foot apartment, as a part of a 20 foot by 100 foot barracks, separated only by a partition with no ceilings. There was no privacy, the entire camp was enclosed by barbed wire, and armed by Military Police. Each residential block had a communal mess hall, laundry room, a recreation hall, ironing room and a heating oil storage tank. The apartments were usually cold in the winter and hot and dusty in the summer. There was not much to do in the camp, there was really no education to speak of, and the food was poor. At the time, Yamamoto questioned why Japanese Americans were interned, but not German or Italian Americans. He recalled working in the camouflage net factory, an experimental plantation for producing rubber from the Guayule plant for use in the war. Yamamoto and his family felt depressed during their time at Manzanar. He claimed, “we felt that we didn’t have any future and we didn’t know what would happen to us.”
In June of 1943, Yamamoto and his siblings were released from Manzanar and allowed to move inland within the United States. Unfortunately, Yamamoto’s father died while at Manzanar in February 1943. Yamamoto later moved to Omaha, Nebraska, lived with a sibling, and worked at the Blackstone Hotel as a bookkeeper-clerk. On May 23, 1944, he was drafted into the Army. He was single at the time and his family had no reaction since he was primarily on his own. Yamamoto was sent to Fort McClellan in Alabama for 2 months. “The training was very difficult and rigorous”, claimed Yamamoto. He learned how to operate various weapons, how to climb under barbed wire and other activities to survive combat during the war. Yamamoto and the other Japanese American soldiers were trained together and segregated as a unit from the other soldiers. However, they were trained by Caucasian instructors and superiors. Despite the segregation, he felt they were treated well, experienced no discrimination, was respected by the other soldiers and the living conditions were good in comparison to the Manzanar Internment Camp.
In August 1944, Yamamoto was sent to the Military Intelligence Language School at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, Minnesota for specialized Japanese language training. He was to serve in the Military Intelligence Service, as one of 6,000 Nisei, or second generation Japanese Americans, performing secret intelligence work against the Japanese military. At Fort Snelling, Yamamoto and the other students were kept busy studying Japanese language and how to translate Japanese code daily for seven hours during the day and two hours in the evening. He was an honors student and Yamamoto recalls staying up late studying in the latrine since the “lights out” was at eleven pm. One day a week, the men did physical training which consisted mostly of cross country marches, and Saturdays was reserved for examinations. Free recreation was allowed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Yamamoto excelled at Camp Snelling and after completion of his studies with honors; he was made a Japanese language instructor. While at Camp Snelling as a student, Yamamoto felt he was treated well and his training and instruction was taken seriously. His morale was very high at this time and he was interested in being of service to the Army. However, Yamamoto also “hoped that the war would be over soon.” He shared a small barracks with about 3 to 4 men and the food was fairly good. After becoming an instructor, Yamamoto was moved to a private room and his living conditions were quite good.
Yamamoto began his duties as an instructor in February 1945 and taught Japanese American students Japanese reading, writing, POW interrogation, translation and interpretation. Students were also taught how to study captured documents, how to read Japanese maps, and an overview of Japanese military organization and technical terms. In addition, the students learned the social, political, economic and cultural background of Japan. Yamamoto was still serving as an instructor at Fort Snelling when he learned that the war in Europe had ended. He stated, “I was glad the war ended and I was hoping we could live a normal life.” He was also at Fort Snelling when the Japanese surrendered. Yamamoto claimed, “I was very, very happy it was over.” After the surrender of Japan in August 1945, instruction at Fort Snelling shifted from an emphasis on Japanese military language and tactics to general Japanese civil terminology, Japanese government and administration. Overall, Yamamoto felt he was treated well as an instructor and respected by his students and superiors.
In March 1946, Yamamoto received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and was transferred to the Pacific. He was transported from Fort Mason, California via a liberty ship to Tokyo, Japan. He arrived in Japan in April 1946. He had no apprehension as a Japanese American serving in the Pacific and felt respected upon his arrival. Yamamoto was only in Japan for a few weeks and merely waited for an assignment. On May 11, 1946, Yamamoto was assigned to Manila, Philippines to serve as an interpreter, translator and Japanese POW interrogator during the Japanese war crimes trials. He recalled the dislike of the local Filipinos for him, as a Japanese American, serving in the US Army. Yamamoto thought this dislike was due to Filipino apprehension that the US was going to oppress them, like the prior actions of the Japanese In addition, Yamamoto claimed that “the Japanese POWS were shocked to see him, as a Nisei, interrogating them and they were at first resistant.” In addition to acting as an interpreter, Yamamoto was also required to record the last remarks of Japanese soldiers prior to execution as war criminals. He also witnessed the executions by either hanging or firing squad which he claimed was scary. “It was one of the most difficult aspects of his war service”, Yamamoto claimed. He also noted that, “I kind of felt sorry for high ranking Japanese officers because they had to assume the blame for what their subordinate soldiers did, most of the time, and the punishment was hanging.” The common “insubordinate behavior by the Japanese soldiers was water torture”, claimed Yamamoto. Overall, life in Manila was very difficult given the long work hours, the stress of the work, the devastation of the area and the terrible weather conditions. Yamamoto said that morale was poor amongst the Military Intelligence Service, they were ill prepared for the monsoons common in Manila, and they worked on average, 5-6 hours per day, 7 days a week. Despite the uncomfortable weather, the living conditions were good and he shared a shack type barrack with 3 other men. Had he known about the devastation of Manila and the monsoons, Yamamoto would have objected to being assigned to Manila. By this time, Yamamoto’s rank was 1st Lieutenant.
In April 1947, Yamamoto was reassigned to Tokyo, Japan to serve as a translation team captain at the Allied Translator and Interpreter Service, Far East Command. As team captain, he headed a team of 12 military and civilian interpreters engaged in the review, analysis, evaluation, and translation of captured enemy war documents. While in Tokyo, Yamamoto did not recall any particularly subversive documents being discovered. In Tokyo, the living conditions were very good and he had an opportunity to travel in Japan. After working for 3-4 months, Yamamoto was discharged from active duty with the Army on November 11, 1947 from Camp Zama, Japan. His rank at the time was 1st Lieutenant. Yamamoto felt he was motivated to keep going during his service by the recognition he received by the US government. He made many friends during his service and is still in contact with many of these soldiers today. Upon release from active duty, Yamamoto was happy to become a civilian.
As a result of his service, Yamamoto was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, the American Theater Ribbon, the Philippine Independence Ribbon, a Good Conduct Medal, the Occupation of Japan Medal and a Certificate of Achievement from the Department of the Army. In addition, Yamamoto was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States, on November 2, 2011. This award was bestowed upon Yamamoto and other Japanese Americans that served in Military Intelligence, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion during World War II. Yamamoto stated about his service in the Military Intelligence Services, “I was happy to be a bridge between the Japanese and Americans because whenever there was difficulty, I could come in between, knowing the cultural side of both countries.”
Upon his discharge from active duty, Yamamoto also enlisted in the Army Reserve, Military Intelligence Services. He served from November 1947 until Aril 1968. Yamamoto never was called to active duty service despite serving in the Reserves during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. His duties were limited to yearly 15 day training sessions in Japan and Seoul, Korea. In addition to his duties in the Army Reserves, Yamamoto also took a civil service position in 1947 with the Legal Section, Supreme Commander for Allied Powers in Tokyo. He was a legal interpreter and his duties included: comparing Japanese and English texts of draft laws and ordinances, studying and researching Japanese laws for implementation of a new Constitution, and acting as an escort of Japanese VIPs to the United States on Interchange of Persons Program. In June 1951, Yamamoto was reassigned to the Allied Translator and Interpretative Services Headquarters, later designated as the 500th Military Intelligence Group, in Tokyo. He worked in this post for seven years. While in Tokyo, Yamamoto also pursued his undergraduate education at Sophia University and received a BS in Economics/History and Government. In general, Yamamoto felt his military training and service prepared him very well for his career in the Civil Service.
In August 1958, Yamamoto joined the US Civil Administration of Ryukyu Islands and became a court interpreter and an aide to the Deputy Civil Administrator. He also served as a member of the Secretariat of the Ryukyu Islands Joint Economic and Finance Advisory Board and the Joint Agricultural Advisory Committee. Yamamoto participated in economic, political and social conferences, and helped prepare for the visit of President Eisenhower to the Ryukyu Islands.
By this time in Yamamoto’s career, his focus was no longer limited to translation and interpretation. His duties were much broader and he served in more of an advisory capacity, as well as a special investigator. In July 1961, Yamamoto joined the Naval Investigative Service (now known as NCIS) in Yokosuka, Japan. Yamamoto was assigned as an Intelligence Operations Specialist and his duties involved research and analysis of sabotage, espionage, and counter subversive matter. He also investigated the defections of sailors during the Vietnam War who received the help of Japanese communists in Northern Japan via Russian fishing trawlers. He also recalled that American sailors would regularly throw monkey wrenches into naval aircraft and ships to show their disaffection. On April 2, 1968, he was discharged from the Army Reserves with the rank of Major. After living abroad for almost 24 years, Yamamoto returned to California in July 1970 when he was transferred to the Naval Investigative Service at Treasure Island, 12th Naval District in San Francisco. He served as an Assistant Chief in the Sabotage, espionage and counter subversive section until his retirement on August 31, 1974.
Today, Yamamoto enjoys his retirement in Mill Valley, California. He is not active in any veteran organizations although he did participate in local Reunions of the Military Intelligence Language Services. Upon reflection on his service, Yamamoto felt that the sacrifices he made during the war were justified because it helped end the war and ensured democracy in Japan. Moreover, Japan now has a friendly relationship with the United States. As a result of his service, Yamamoto has learned the importance of patience, a good education, and trying to reach your goals in life. He would like people to remember that during World War II there was lots of discrimination towards minorities and it should be avoided in any way in the future.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on July 8, 2012.