Missionary Interrogators in the Pacific

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 3201-35, 3284-3321:

[A]mong the first wave of US Marines to hit the beach at Guadalcanal on August 8, 1942, was a man who had been a Congregationalist missionary to Japan for twenty-six years.

Sherwood F. Moran (1885–1983) had been home on furlough on December 7, 1941. Immediately, he went to US Marine headquarters in Washington. Volunteering for service, he told the Marines there that his idiomatic Japanese was probably better than any other American’s. The Marines sent him to the South Pacific, and put him in charge of interrogating POWs. He had radical ideas about how this task should be carried out: “By the expression on your face, the glance of your eye, the tone of your voice” you must “get him to know” that you really do regard all men as “brothers,” he instructed other Marines. He proved to be so good at extracting intelligence from captured soldiers that he was told to write an instruction manual for others assigned to this job. The resulting document systematically rejected the beliefs of many Marines that Japanese prisoners should be shot, if not tortured. The American interviewer, Moran’s manual advised, should speak to the Japanese prisoner “as a human being to a human being,” treating him with respect.

On Guadalcanal, Moran was by far the oldest man around. He was soon being called “Pappy” by the young men working under his supervision. Language fluency was what got Moran to the South Pacific, but what he did with his Japanese is what made history. Moran may have been, as his family liked to say of him, “probably the only Marine of his era who never took a drink, never smoked a cigarette, and never cursed.” He was much more than that. He was, among other things, a classic ecumenical Protestant missionary.

Educated at Oberlin College and at Union Theological Seminary, and inspired more by Jane Addams’s social work than by any ideology of religious conversion, Moran was a devoted follower of the Student Volunteer Movement’s greatest orator, Sherwood Eddy. Moran and Eddy were sometimes called “the two Sherwoods” because Moran served for a year as Eddy’s personal secretary, traveling with him and absorbing his liberal views about the missionary project. Worldly enough to have become an accomplished tap dancer, and to have considered a career in vaudeville before a trusted female friend warned him against the unwholesome characters he would meet in the New York theater milieu, Moran was anything but retiring in his ways and was far from orthodox in his theology. Moran married his Oberlin sweetheart, Ursul, and settled down with her in Japan to raise a family and exemplify what the two understood to be a Christian life, and to help local Japanese in whatever way they could. Moran quickly took a serious interest in Buddhism and in Japanese art—on which he published several monographs late in life—and became an outspoken critic of the militarism of the Japanese ruling elite.

Moran’s manual instructed the interrogators to speak to a Japanese prisoner not only as a brother, but almost as a seducer. In his very first paragraph Moran compared the “interviewer”—a label he preferred to “interrogator”—to a “lover.” Each interviewer must develop his own skills, so that each “will gradually work out a technique of his own, his very own, just as a man does in making love to a woman! The comparison is not merely a flip bon mot; the interviewer should be a real wooer!” Some Marines in their “hard-boiled” manner will “sneer that this is a sentimental attitude,” Moran predicted, but he urged resolution and persistence in the face of such banal scorn. The central theme of “Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field,” as the manual was entitled, was the need to establish rapport with the prisoner. Moran insisted that “the Japanese soldier is a person to be pitied rather than hated,” a man who has been misled, deceived, and manipulated by his government and his officers. Every prisoner actually had a story he wanted to tell, and the job of the interviewer was to create an atmosphere in which the prisoner would tell it. The interviewer should learn as much as he could about Japan and its history and culture. Those like himself who had lived in Japan had a great advantage, yes, but others should do all they could to inform themselves so as to do a better job.

Of course one must never forget the goal of extracting intelligence.

The missionary foundation for Moran’s work with POWs becomes all the more significant when we recognize two counterparts in the army and the navy who adopted virtually the same approach, and who were both missionary sons. The notorious service rivalries in the Pacific war prevented Moran from knowing about it, but Army Col. John Alfred Burden (1900–1999) and Navy Lt. Otis Carey [sic] (1921–2006) were operating on the basis of the same instincts. That the anti-torture policies and practices of all three services in the Pacific War were instituted by missionary-connected Americans has gone unnoticed until now. A sign of just how thoroughly this episode had been forgotten by the 1980s is the fact that none of these three men is mentioned in two books written in that decade by the leading students of the war in the Pacific: Akira Iriye’s Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941–1945 and John W. Dower’s War Without Mercy.

“Otis Cary’s name,” reports Ulrich Straus, “was the only one cited repeatedly” many years after the war, when Japanese veterans “wrote up their wartime experience in prison camps.” Cary, who was remembered with respect, even affection, “was determined,” writes Straus, “to treat prisoners not as enemies but as human beings, individuals who deserved to have a bright future aiding in the reconstruction of a new, democratic Japan.” The son and grandson of Congregationalist missionaries, Cary, who always considered Japanese his native language, had come “home” in 1936 to attend Deerfield Academy and then Amherst College, as did so many missionary sons. He enlisted in 1942 and by early 1943 was the navy’s primary officer for interrogation. He was stationed first in Hawaii and then in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, where he led in the interrogation of POWs captured in the fighting there. Cary was first hampered by the army, which was in control of the American operation in the Aleutians and wanted nothing to do with the navy’s Japanese language specialists. Still, Cary managed to win acceptance when he had the astonishing luck of encountering, as his first POW, a soldier from his own hometown in Japan. Carey extracted information from this man that was deemed highly valuable by the top brass.

But Cary did not operate on a large scale until later in the war, in the Marianas, especially on Saipan in the summer of 1944. It was there that Cary, confronted with a flood of captives, made such a lasting impression on the soldiers he interrogated. “Following lengthy discussions,” notes Straus, many of the prisoners “eventually found persuasive Cary’s argument that [they] had given their all in the service of their country, had nothing to be ashamed of, and should look forward to contributing to the reconstruction of a post-war Japan.”

Cary’s successes in the Aleutians and the Marianas would be better known if he had written about his exploits in English instead of only in Japanese. As translated by Straus, Cary explained that the soldiers “were used to being coerced and knew how to take evasive measures,” but “if treated humanely, they lost the will to resist.” While there were rumors about high pressure methods used on the POWs, Cary insisted that nothing of the sort happened on his watch. The unanimous postwar testimony of the POWs in his charge vindicates the claim. Cary went back to Japan after the war and headed the American Studies program at Doshisha University, the close partner of his US alma mater, Amherst. Largely unknown in the United States, to which he returned ten years before his death in 2006, Cary was an important and widely celebrated figure in Japanese academia.

Cary apparently had no contact with his Army counterpart, John Alfred Burden, who was a medical doctor in Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Burden immediately enlisted in the army, ready to use the language skills he acquired as a Tokyo-born son and the grandson of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries. He was able to speak the Tokyo dialect more fluently than most of the Nisei with whom he worked in the South Pacific. As a captain posted to Fiji in October 1942, Burden was frustrated that his superiors did not quickly send him into the combat zones where his language facility could be of immediate use. He finally persuaded them to send him to Guadalcanal in December, accompanied by two Japanese Americans who, Burden complained bitterly, had been stuck in a prejudice-filled atmosphere on Fiji driving trucks around the base. Burden went on to lead the first joint Caucasian-Nisei team of interrogators, eventually establishing an impressive record.

This very long extract will have to be my last from this book. Burden and Cary deserve their own Wikipedia articles, as do a few other missionaries who once worked for the OSS.

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Filed under education, Japan, language, migration, military, nationalism, Pacific, religion, U.S., war

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