Language lessons

Many Japanese-Americans took linguistics training in Minnesota to help during the war

During World War II, Fort Snelling in St. Paul became home to the Military Intelligence Service Language School, created to train translators in Japanese language and culture. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
During World War II, Fort Snelling in St. Paul became home to the Military Intelligence Service Language School, created to train translators in Japanese language and culture. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In May 1942, less than a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a group of budding Japanese linguists moved to Minnesota.

The men were students at the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS), which the U.S. military created to train translators during World War II.

How it all began

The MISLS got its start in San Francisco after two U.S. military officers recognized a need for servicemen who knew the Japanese language and culture, with tensions escalating between Japan and the U.S. The War Department reluctantly agreed to fund the project with $2,000, and the officers recruited Japanese-Americans — particularly Nisei, the children of Japanese immigrants — as students.

In November 1941, 60 students began classes in an old airplane hanger.

A month later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, catapulting the U.S. into World War II, creating an intense need for linguists.

Students focused on learning Japanese and also studied Japan’s military and politics, interrogation techniques and geography.

As the U.S. entered into war with Japan, however, the MISLS’ ability to stay in
California waned.

In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order relocating hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to incarceration camps.
The school decided to search for a new home, but several states refused to accept the Nisei students.

Finally, Gov. Harold Stassen offered a location in Minnesota, whose residents were fairly accepting of the idea.

The school moved to Savage to a site that had formerly served as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp.

Camp Savage’s first class included 200 students and 18 instructors, and classes kept growing with the military’s increased demand for linguists.

The government began adding Japanese-American students from incarceration camps, Hawaii and elsewhere in the military to join the language school.

In a MNHS oral history, Toshio Abe described how he was reassigned to the classified intelligence school from a Texas army base in 1942.

“They wouldn’t even tell us where we were going when they put us on a train from Texas,” he said.

Translators at work
Translators at work

Moving to Fort Snelling

The MISLS soon outgrew the space at Camp Savage, and the school moved to Fort Snelling in St. Paul in August 1944.

Classes were demanding, running some 10 hours a day, and students also participated in military training and drills.

The men still found time to enjoy sports, venture to the Mun Hing Cafeteria on Hennepin Avenue and contribute to the fort’s newsletter.

Abe said students, who were mostly from the West Coast, weren’t always prepared for Minnesota’s cold weather: “Many of us suffered frostbite on our feet and hands and ears,” he said.

After Germany’s surrender in April 1945, work at the MISLS kept increasing as the war in the Pacific continued.

Students graduated more quickly, and the military sent intercepted messages and documents from the front straight to Fort Snelling for translation. The fort even used a short-wave radio station to directly intercept and translate broadcasts from Tokyo.

Graduates went to work in the Pacific and Chinese-Burma-India theaters, where they did everything from translating in negotiations to interrogating Japanese prisoners of war.

When Japan surrendered and World War II ended in September 1945, the MISLS provided linguists for the occupation of Japan. The school also added Korean and Chinese classes and even created a Women’s Army Corp detachment.

Saving lives, dollars

In June 1946, the MISLS had 307 graduating students. By then, more than 6,000 graduates had gone through the school since 1941.

Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, chief of staff for military intelligence for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, noted, “The Nisei shortened the Pacific War by two years and saved possibly a million American lives and saved probably billions of dollars.”

In 1946, the school moved back to California, closing its operations in Minnesota.

Today the MISLS still exists in the form of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, which trains linguists for the military, government and law enforcement in two-dozen languages.


Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.


Learn more

Visitors can learn about the MISLS in Minnesota at Historic Fort Snelling, which opens for its summer season on May 27.

For many years, the fort and its surrounding area have been at the forefront of Minnesota’s often-complicated history.

The Minnesota Historical Society is working to revitalize the historic site and share its stories with future generations. Learn more at mnhs.org/hfs2020.