'Secret weapons' of WWII: Exhibit spotlights Japanese-American linguists

Japanese-American translators at Fort Snelling
Japanese-American translators at Fort Snelling. A new exhibit at Historic Fort Snelling shares the stories of soldiers who received intensive training in the Japanese language at Camp Savage and at Fort Snelling.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

It was early 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing Japanese-Americans into internment camps over fears they were spying for Japan.

Fred Korematsu refused to go.

After he was arrested and convicted of defying the government's order, he challenged his case. In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, saying the incarceration of Japanese-Americans was justified because of military necessity.

Korematsu's conviction was eventually overturned in 1983. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, he never stopped fighting for civil rights and justice. He died in 2005.

His daughter, Karen Korematsu, is continuing his legacy. The founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, she was in town earlier this week to keynote an exhibit on the Asian Pacific legal experience in the United States.

During her visit, Karen Korematsu toured an exhibit opening to the public Saturday that explores Japanese-Americans' involvement in World War II despite the government's distrust: Approximately 6,000 helped the United States win the war by working at the Military Intelligence Language School right here in Minnesota.

Karen Korematsu
Civil rights activist Karen Korematsu, who is the daughter of a man who challenged the Japanese internment during WWII, photographed Wednesday, May 20, 2015, at MPR studios in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

"It has to do with an unknown part of that Japanese-American incarceration story," Korematsu said.

"Minnesota's Secret WWII Weapon: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service" at Historic Fort Snelling shares the stories of soldiers who received intensive training in the Japanese language in Savage, Minn., and at Fort Snelling.

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, military officers realized there was a need for Japanese translators in the Pacific. However, the military could only find a few soldiers already proficient in Japanese.

The 4th Army Intelligence School opened in San Francisco on Nov. 1, 1941. A few months later, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and the school eventually moved to Camp Savage in Minnesota. It outgrew that facility within a few years and moved again to Fort Snelling.

The work of the Japanese-American linguists, which included deciphering codes and messages, was kept secret to most Americans until the 1970s. Their efforts have also been credited with shortening the Pacific war by about two years.

"I don't know how we would have done it and won without them," Korematsu said. "We owe them a great thanks and tribute."

She says the exhibit is timely because the same issues about racial profiling, immigration and national security exist today in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Education is key, she said.

"If we don't learn from our mistakes in history, then we are doomed to repeat them," she said.

The exhibit at Fort Snelling features a set of 30 photographs on display at the visitor center. A new set of 30 pictures will be on display when the exhibit returns in August.

Minnesota's Secret WWII Weapon: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service

When: May 23-July 5
Tuesday through Saturday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sunday: 12-5 p.m.

Aug. 25-Sept. 7
Tuesday through Saturday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sunday: 12-5 p.m.

Sept. 12-Oct. 31
Saturday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Where: Historic Fort Snelling, St. Paul

Online: More info

MPR News associate producer Britta Greene contributed to this report.

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