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Japanese-American Wartime Experience at the Presidio

Commemorated at November 22 Event


Presidio of San Francisco (November 19, 2008) – From the outside, Building 640 appears to be a nondescript warehouse where the Army may have repaired vehicles or stored the commonplace goods of military life. The unremarkable exterior safeguarded one of World War II’s greatest secrets – a Military Language School where Japanese American (Nisei) soldiers were trained one month before Pearl Harbor.

The heroism of these young soldiers and a new $1 million grant to tell their stories at the place they served will be celebrated at the warehouse along the Crissy Field waterfront. Return and Remembrance: Japanese American Experience at the Presidio takes place on Saturday, November 22, from 10:30 am to noon, at Building 640 (Mason Street), in the Presidio. Guests will gather where history was made to hear the recollections of a language school veteran, learn about plans to transform the warehouse into an Historic Learning Center, and get deeper into the history of this remarkable period.

All are welcome. The event is sponsored by the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), the Presidio Trust, and the National Park Service.

“The Presidio was the backdrop for so many pivotal events in our nation’s history and what happened here should never be forgotten,” says Craig Middleton, executive director of the Presidio Trust, which is collaborating with the NJAHS and National Park Service to create a Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Historic Learning Center at Building 640. “We’re constantly looking for ways to keep these stories alive. We hope that this facility will one day play a key role.”

In September, Congress awarded $1 million to the NJAHS for the project. Funds will be used to take the first steps to rehabilitate the historic warehouse, preparing it for its eventual use as a public educational center. The NJAHS are in the midst of a campaign to raise funds for the facility, which will feature exhibits and ongoing public programs. The 10,000 square foot site will showcase a mock-up classroom and barracks, as well as displays from a growing Japanese American Military collection of 10,000 documents and objects. This archive will serve as a research center for visiting students and faculty. It is hoped to open in 2011, the 70th anniversary of the school’s creation.

Return and Remembrance will feature comments from:
Thomas Sakamoto, Military Intelligence Service veteran who served at the Presidio during WWIICraig Middleton, executive director, Presidio TrustBrian O’Neill, superintendent, Golden Gate National Recreation AreaYasumasa Nagamine, Consul General of JapanJudge Ken Kawaichi, board president, NJAHS
A ranger-led walking tour will follow the presentation.

In 1941 at the eve of World War II, the Army established the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Language School in Building 640. Here, it secretly recruited enlisted Japanese American (Nisei) soldiers and trained them for strategic and tactical operations as military linguists for the coming war. Attached to every combat unit in the Pacific War, these MIS soldier linguists translated documents, intercepted intelligence, impersonated the enemy in battle, gathered key intelligence from prisoners of war, and ultimately helped American and Allied forces win the war in the Pacific. Just one month prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first group of 58 Nisei and two Caucausians began their secret language studies in the makeshift classrooms of Building 640. After Pearl Harbor, everything changed. From the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command, a few hundred yards from the MIS classroom, General John L. Dewitt issued the orders leading to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Thus, even as their training intensified, MIS soldiers learned that their families were being imprisoned in detention centers. Although only one class would graduate from the Building 640 facility, the valuable mission it began at the Presidio would continue at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling in Minnesota, where, in the wake of the mass evacuation of Nisei from the West Coast, the MIS Language School was forced to relocate.

The Presidio Trust was established by the United States Congress in 1996 to oversee the Presidio of San Francisco, an urban national park located at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. The 1,500-acre site contains expansive open space and spectacular views, a 300-acre historic forest, and rare and endangered plants and wildlife. It also comprises nearly 6 million square feet of buildings, including 469 historic structures that contribute to its status as a National Historic Landmark District.”

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Presidio Trust Media Relations

Lisa Petrie

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