Published: Oct. 28, 2019

This transcript of the CU at the Libraries episode “The Gift That Keeps On Giving” has been rewritten for the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries news site. Press play to listen to this episode below or find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.


“After decades of wanting to help tell this story, it was in the year 2000 when the University Libraries’ Archives created the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School Archival Project, an exploration of the CU Boulder training site that served over 1,000 language officers during World War II. 

“Our mission was to document and preserve the Navy Language School’s legacy by gathering materials of the student and sensei experiences during wartime. 

“We also followed the language officers’ contribution to the war effort and their impact as veterans on U.S. and Japan relations long after the war ended. 

“These are stories that could have remained scattered and lost forever.

“Hi, I’m David Hays, I’ve been a Libraries archivist with CU Boulder for quite a while, and this is where my role in the project began. Eventually, it became not only about the school's tie to CU Boulder or the graduates' distinguished war and peace records. 

“The project began to reveal a story that remained untold for far too long of understanding and peace, and a story that allowed them to reconnect with their histories and with each other. 

“We’re going to start with the recruit’s experience with the language school. Then, we’ll hear about the wartime contributions of the alumni as highly-skilled Navy Marine language officers. Then, we’ll land on the gift that keeps on giving: how veteran language officers became the primary interpreters of Japan to America, and what that continues to mean for peace and understanding between these cultures today.”

Students with their Sensei.


Part 1: The U.S. Navy JLS at CU Boulder

David Hays: “So how did CU Boulder come to get the Japanese Language School in the first place? Well to start, the original Navy Language School moved from Tokyo to the U.S. in 1940. The school first landed at the University of California Berkeley and Harvard.

“Then the empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941.

“The U.S. government removed 100,000 Japanese Americans from the Pacific coast, placing them in concentration camps in the interior.

“CU Boulder offered to host the Navy Japanese Language School in June 1942 and took a handful of students in from Berkeley. Between 1942 and 1946, more than 1,500 students entered the school. The students who attended this school were brilliant.

“The students were required to take challenging courses in vocabulary and written language, mastering several thousand Kanji and the ability to read Japanese documents, which would prepare them for the future translation work that was to come.”

Gerald Meehl: “The school, it was a 24/7 total Japanese immersion. They’d have a test every Saturday. It was cumulative of what they learned that week plus everything they learned before. So it was intense. These guys were really studying hard to learn Japanese and to learn a certain number of kanji characters and to be able to have a proficiency to read a Japanese newspaper and to carry on a conversation in Japanese.”

DH: “Gerald Meehl is the author of One Marine’s War: A Combat Interpreter’s Quest For Humanity In The Pacific. This is the biography he wrote about his good friend Robert Sheeks. 

GM: “Bob was born in Shanghai. His parents were Americans. His father was an American businessman. He was raised in Shanghai, and he had a Chinese amah (nanny). He had a real affinity with the Chinese, knowing some of their language and really connected to the culture.

DH: “Most students came to the Navy Language School harboring some level of prejudice towards the Japanese, including Bob.”

GM: "In 1932, the so-called Shanghai incident occurred, where the Japanese came in and they were fighting the Chinese Army. The Japanese army was doing very public atrocities because they’re trying to intimidate the rest of the Chinese population. 

“Bob witnesses one particular atrocity and it really affected him. As a 10-year-old kid, Bob looks at this and he’s like, woah. It was just shocking. And so after that moment, Bob had this tremendous hatred of the Japanese. As a kid, I mean, seeing something like that just really affects you.”

At Berkeley and Boulder, my childish burden of hostility toward Japanese influences not only was lifted from me, but I became a great admirer of Japan’s culture, and many aspects of Japanese traditional values and character. This was due largely to Ari Inouye, his inspiring character and teaching, and also that of his faculty colleagues, such as Ashikaga Ensho (who besides language also taught me calligraphy…) -Robert Sheeks

DH: “Through other interviews and primary source material gathered through our Archives’ project, we know that graduates of the program developed an abiding respect for the Japanese people and culture.

“Navy school language class sizes were small. With the rigorous coursework the students were expected to tackle, it was hard for them not to develop close relationships with their sensei in time. Students went on hikes with their sensei and shared traditional Japanese meals with them at their instructor’s homes. Many of the students remained close to their sensei long after graduating from the program. 

“The former Navy and Marine language students never forgot their Japanese American sensei. Many kept in touch with their sensei through the war and then for the rest of their lives. It would influence how Navy language officers treated Japanese POWs, displaced civilians, and occupied populations during and after the war.”

Students and Sensei in Boulder.

Part 2: Navy Language School Graduates At War

DH: “After 14 months of schooling, graduates of the Navy Language School became officers in either the U.S. Navy or the Marine Corps. They then received preliminary training in intelligence before officially entering the war. The year was 1943. 

“By this time, U.S. forces were fighting in the Solomons at Guadalcanal, had taken the Marshall Islands and were to attack Tarawa.

“Some of the Navy Language School graduates went to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington D.C. to break codes and translate documents. Others fulfilled missions in Pearl Harbor. Those who entered the Marine Corps performed intelligence duties with divisions and regiments during the island campaigns on Tarawa, Bougainville, the Marianas, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.”

“After the Navy Language School training, I served through all of WWII in the Marine Corps in Pacific Island campaigns where, thank God, I was able to help save lives of enemy soldiers and civilians who, in my view, were all refugees and victims of war.” -Robert Sheeks

DH: “Marine Corps Language Officers, including Bob Sheeks, pioneered varying methods to coax Japanese soldiers and civilians into surrendering. 

“The Japanese government encouraged their armies to commit suicide rather than surrender. Japanese civilians were told that the Americans would torture them if they surrendered and that suicide would be in their best interest. 

“Officers air-dropped leaflets and audio messages on the battlefield, often convincing Japanese prisoners of war, POWs, to assist the U.S. in their efforts.

“Gerald remembers Bob’s stories of how, despite orders from his superiors, he tried to save Japanese soldiers from themselves during Tarawa.”

GM: “He went in on the Tarawa invasion in November 1943 and he was at the end of this pier getting shot at. The Marines were pinned down on the beach on shore in this tiny little island. And the assistant division commander— this guy, General Hurley, ordered Bob to go onto the beach and find a prisoner, interrogate him and find out what's going on. Those were the exact words, and Bob says, ‘Yes sir.’”

DH: “So Bob tries to get into the beach, but he is being shot at. He comes back and he says there's no way to get a prisoner.”

GM: “After the terror invasion, they finally ended up basically killing all the Japanese on this island, something like on the order of 5,000 Japanese were killed, and about a thousand Americans died in this three-day battle.”

DH: “Bob is thinking to himself, ‘You know, even if the Japanese want to surrender and one of them would get close enough to me, there would be so much noise. He wouldn’t be able to hear me.’”

GM: “So he thought well if we could get some loudspeakers and be back a little ways and actually be able to broadcast surrender appeals over loudspeakers, that may work better.”

DH: “Bob went back to Honolulu to work on getting loudspeakers that he could mount on Jeeps. He also had a little portable megaphone loudspeaker powered by a truck battery that could carry the sound closer during the Battle of Saipan. He spoke to them in Japanese.”

GM: “You don’t use the word surrender in Japanese because that’s a very dishonorable term. You say ‘Please come out, we have water we have food. We’re not going to hurt you. Others have come out and they’re safe and everything’s fine.’”

DH: “Over 10,000 Japanese soldiers surrendered that day, and around 1000 followed the Emperor's wishes and committed suicide. As the Japanese lost territories, the Marine and Navy Language officers worked with POWs and displaced civilians to assist in the surrender of bypassed Japanese units after the imperial surrender.

“During the Occupation of Japan, Navy and Marine Language Officers performed a wide array of liaison work between the U.S. Military and the Japanese people and government. Officers also provided translation services during the Japanese constitutional process and the Pacific Theater War Crimes trials.

“From interviews and archival documents, we know the humility of the Marine Navy Language officers’ services reflected the education they received at CU Boulder at the start of the war. This is why the archives took on this project: to make the vast contributions of the Navy Language School officers widely known.

“All to turn a former enemy into a future ally.”

U.S. and Japanese Soldiers

Part 3: Education After The War

DH: “When the war ended, many former CU Boulder Japanese language students went on to find themselves interpreting Japan to Americans for different audiences across a number of specialized careers. This effort would enhance communication and understanding between Asian countries and America for 74 years and counting. 

“Many followed their interest in Japan and Asia into careers in military and civilian intelligence, American diplomacy, journalism, and even to Asian/American foundations. 

“One field I haven’t yet mentioned is academia. 

“After the war, there were about six thousand people studying Japanese in the U.S. Laurel Rodd, professor emeritus at CU Boulder said that number is now closer to about 175,000. This number includes elementary and secondary schools, undergraduate programs and around 30 universities with comprehensive graduate programs. CU Boulder is one of them.”

Laurel Rodd: “I think a significant portion of the people who wound up with expertise in Japanese after the war came out of the Navy Language School. Plus the Army and the Air Force did have language schools as well. People who were trained for the military largely in intelligence and translation during the war years wound up to go on to be the faculty at the university programs after the war and therefore, in services. So foreign service officers who had the expertise about the countries they'd been studying during the war.”

DH: “Laurel’s mentor at the University of Michigan was also a Navy school graduate, Edward Seidensticker. He was a well-known translator of Japanese literature.

“Marcia Yonemoto has been teaching history at CU Boulder over two decades. She earned her Ph.D. in Japanese history from the University of California, Berkeley. One of her professors in undergrad was Thomas C. Smith, a distinguished historian of early modern and modern Japan. Yonomoto said that the growth and understanding of Japanese culture in the United States has grown due to linguistics.”

Marcia Yonemoto: “Just the connections between the United States, Europe, Asia, you know the United States and Japan are just much closer. People have a more informal knowledge of Japan, its culture, its language than people of my generation did I and certainly generations prior to that.” 

DH: “At the heart of this story is education. The sensei give to the Navy Language School officers. Then the Navy Language School officers pass along their knowledge to their students.”

USN JLS Graduates

Part 4: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

DH: “Working on this project for the University Libraries’ Archives has become one of the highlights of my career.

“In the last 20 years, I have produced a newsletter for the Navy Language School alumni called The Interpreter. This newsletter contains stories, comments, obituaries and memoirs penned by both sensei and language school attendees and has helped reconnect them with the people they knew many decades ago.

“Back in 2002, we hosted the Japanese Language School’s 60th-anniversary reunion here at CU Boulder. Robert Sheeks and Gerald Meehl were there. So were Laurel Rodd and Marcia Yonamoto, as were more than 100 other veterans and their kin. 

“The archives amassed more than 100 manuscript collections of those affiliated with the school as part of this project. And through all of this, it hit me that our archival project had somehow become an informal alumni association for the language school.

“The project helped to tell the tales of these alumni’s lifelong contributions, after almost 60 years of silence. This story is finally being told through more than a dozen books, theses, and articles, due to our archival project. 

“The gift that keeps on giving has become our responsibility because there are always more stories to explore

“This has been a story of how a relatively small group of instructors changed the lives of their students, who in turn served their country, providing an enduring contribution to the knowledge, appreciation, and understanding of another.”