In 1942, the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) was established in Minnesota. The school trained soldiers as Japanese linguists to support the U.S. military in World War II. The MISLS became a point of pride for Japanese Americans who faced discrimination during the war. A unique institution, the school had a strong impact on the outcome of World War II.
As war with Japan became a possibility in the early 1940s, some military officers realized that there would be a need for Japanese linguists. As a result, the Fourth Army Intelligence School was established in San Francisco in 1941. The school primarily recruited second-generation Japanese Americans, called Nisei. Among the Nisei were a group called Kibei—Japanese Americans who had received education in Japan. A few of the students were white.
Students were taught reading and writing, interrogation, translation, document analysis, geography, and map reading. There were lessons on the structure of the Japanese military as well as Japanese politics and society.
The language school was controversial since many felt the Nisei could not be trusted. Nisei soldiers attending the school faced discrimination. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing the relocation of many Japanese Americans to internment camps. The order prompted the school to move as well. Several states rejected the school’s request to relocate within their borders.
Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota agreed to take in the language school. Minnesota had adequate facilities, and most of its residents were accepting of Japanese Americans. In June, the school moved to Camp Savage in Scott County. It was placed under the direct control of the War Department and renamed the MISLS.
After the move to Camp Savage, many of the school’s students came from relocation camps. The curriculum emphasized versatility but focused on military aspects of the Japanese language. Each class at Camp Savage was bigger than the previous one. The last class had eleven hundred students taught by one hundred instructors.
As Camp Savage expanded, the school population outgrew the post and moved to Fort Snelling in August 1944. The MISLS headquarters were located in building 57, and students enjoyed improved facilities. After Germany’s defeat, activity at the school increased. Students graduated more rapidly. Japanese radio messages and communiqués were intercepted and translated directly.
After Japan surrendered, the MISLS grew. More linguists were needed for the occupation of Japan. In early 1946 the school was at its largest, with three thousand students. A Women’s Army Corps detachment was added to the school. Korean and Chinese language sections were created. At the time, some five thousand MISLS graduates were overseas. In June 1946, the last class graduated at Fort Snelling. Shortly afterward, the school moved back to California. During the MISLS’s time in Minnesota, the Japanese American population in the state grew to approximately five thousand.
The Nisei who attended the school faced unique personal challenges when deciding to join the military. Many parents of Nisei felt uncomfortable with their children’s participation in the war. After being discriminated against by the federal government, some Japanese Americans found the idea of military service problematic. The U.S. intelligence service feared that after Executive Order 9066, recruits would be hard to find. However, Nisei volunteered in the hundreds, and those who enlisted did so to prove their loyalty to the United States.
The school graduated over six thousand linguists, roughly 85 percent of whom were Nisei. Graduates had a wide range of experiences. Early students became instructors at the MISLS. Most graduates were deployed to the Pacific or China-Burma-India theaters. There, they communicated with Japanese soldiers, gathered and translated documents, and engaged in combat. Nisei served on the staff of U.S. generals and worked as translators during high-level negotiations. The linguists served in every branch of the military and supported more than 130 wartime organizations.
During the war, graduates of the MISLS worked in secrecy due to the importance of their mission. It was not until the 1970s, when World War II military intelligence documents were declassified, that their story became public. The intelligence the MISLS graduates provided had been extremely useful. The Nisei linguists were credited with shortening the war in the East by two years, saving nearly a million lives and billions of dollars.
Ano, Masaharu. “Loyal Linguists: Nisei of World War II Learned Japanese in Minnesota.” Minnesota History 45, no. 7 (Fall 1977): 273–287.
Densho Encyclopedia. Military Intelligence Language School.
Historic Fort Snelling. World War II (1941–1945).
Ichinokuchi, Tad, ed. John Aiso and the M.I.S.: Japanese-American Soldiers in the Military Intelligence Service, World War II. Los Angeles, CA: The Military Intelligence Service Club of Southern California, 1988.
Ishimaru, Stone S. Military Intelligence Service Language School, U.S. Army, Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Los Angeles, CA: Tec Com Production, 1991.
Military Intelligence Service Language School historical material, 1943–1946
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Two photocopied reports and a set of orders for the Military Intelligence Service Language School.
Minnesota Historical Society, Library. Research Guides, Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling.
Nakasone, Edwin M. ed. Japanese American Veterans of Minnesota. White Bear Lake, MN: j-Press Publishing, 2002.
Unsung Heroes: Military Intelligence Service; Past, Present, Future. Seattle, WA: Military Intelligence Northwest Association, 1996.
When Japanese American students face discrimination at its West Coast base, the Military Intelligence Service Language School relocates to Minnesota in 1942.
The idea of a military language school is conceived by a group of U.S. Army officers.
The Fourth Army Intelligence School opens at the Presidio in San Francisco, California.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, forcing many Japanese Americans to move to internment camps.
The school graduates its first class, then moves to Camp Savage in Minnesota. It is renamed the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS).
The first class at Camp Savage convenes.
The first class graduates from Camp Savage.
The last class at Camp Savage has eleven hundred students and one hundred instructors.
The MISLS moves to Fort Snelling.
The MISLS has graduated sixteen hundred enlisted men, 142 officer candidates, and fifty-three officers.
Members of the Women’s Army Corps join the school.
A Chinese-language division is added to the school.
A Korean-language division is added to the school.
The MISLS has 160 instructors and three thousand students in more than 125 classrooms at Fort Snelling.
The last class graduates from Fort Snelling. The school moves back to California and is renamed the Army Language School.