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The Homefront, Then and Now

From Behind the Plate to Behind the Lines

In 1942, when Gen. Jimmy Doolittle prepared to bomb the Japanese mainland, (See my Blog Post Jan. 2, 2014) he consulted films shot from the roof of a Tokyo hospital that rose among the city’s tallest buildings. The photographer was just an amateur with his 16-mm movie camera; although some fans questioned whether he earned it, his salary came from being a Major League baseball catcher.

Catcher Morris (Moe) Berg played for 5 teams between 1923 and 1939, and they all found him mediocre on the field. But after hours he showed a genius his fellow players were hard-put to understand. He read 10 newspapers every day. A magna-cum-laude graduate of Princeton, he knew Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Sanskrit, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese, Hungarian, Korean, and – more importantly – Japanese. In 1934, when stars such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had toured baseball-enthused Japan, Berg was asked to go along. Using his language skills, he responded to the Mayor's welcoming speech and spoke to the legislature. Using the cover of taking flowers to the hospitalized daughter of an American diplomat, Berg sneaked up to the roof and filmed sights such as the harbor and railway yards that could become military targets.

After war was declared, Berg screened his Tokyo footage for U.S. intelligence officers, and it was an available resource when Doolittle planned his raid. By that time Berg was working for the Office of Strategic Services (today's CIA) and ended up on the Balkans desk. Berg, now age 41, agreed to parachute into occupied Yugoslavia to gauge the strength of two partisan groups and recommend support go to Marshall Tito. Then he penetrated Italy where he sought to learn what progress the Germans were making toward building a nuclear bomb.He befriended Italian physicists and tried to recruit them to go work in America. Learning the German physicist Werner Heisenberg was to lecture in Switzerland, Berg masqueraded as a Swiss graduate student to gain admittance. Armed with a pistol, Berg had orders to kill the scientist if he was close to creating a bomb. But Berg judged the Germans were nowhere near success, so he complemented Heisenberg on his speech and told the Allies they could concentrate on their own essential effort to be the first to develop the fearful new weapon.

When peace had been won, Morris Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilian service during wartime. Always reluctant to release personal information, he refused to accept the honor, possibly because he was not free to explain what he had done to deserve it. After his 1972 death his sister accepted the medal. Today it hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. And CIA Headquarters in Washington, DC, displays one, and only one, baseball card, that of mediocre catcher Moe Berg

For more information consult The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicolas Dawidoff.
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Lest We Forget

Fear of people with Japanese-American blood built quickly on the west coast of the U.S. Mainland after the Japanese bombed Pear Harbor, but it was instantaneous on the islands of Hawaii. In fact, influential leaders of the Japanese-American community were arrested and detained within 48 hours. Priests, teachers, newspaper editors, and officers of civic organizations were kept in local jails until temporary camps could be built on Kaua’i, Maui, the Big Island, and on isolated, bridge-less, Sand Island in Pearl Harbor. A handful of women and some 100 Germans and Italians were included in the dragnet. In many cases, their families had no idea where they’d been taken – or if they were alive.

None of them was accused or convicted of any crime. Yet most of them were detained for the duration of the war. One camp was in Honouliuli Gulch on O’ahu. Twenty-seven-foot wooden guard towers, topped with machine guns, interrupted the long, double barbed-wire fences. Army tents provided cover and cots served as beds until barracks could be erected. Among the prominent internees were Thomas T. Sakakihara, a Territorial Representative in the U. S. Congress, and Sanji Abe, elected to serve as Territorial Senator in 1940. He attended one session before being interned in 1942.

In February of 1942, internees began to be transferred to camps on the Mainland and, given the choice, over 1,000 wives and children joined them there. New detentions continued throughout the war, keeping the Japanese-American community in fear; Japanese language, clothing and customs disappeared as pride in their heritage evaporated. Eventually 1,200 to 1,400 men and 1,000 of their family members were detained. Another 1,000 local Japanese were not interned but were denied access to their land during the war, a fact little-known until r the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided internees with an apology from the U. S . Government and reparations of $20,000 each.

At that time, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii responded to requests for information about the camps with research of the camp sites, and the U. S. Congress and Hawaiian governments have appropriated funds for further research, preservation, and memorializing the internees’ story. A folder of resource material was distributed to every public high school in the state in 2007. An extensive web site debuted in 2009 with the goal of making the Honouliuli site a public historical park where the internees' story can be shared with future generations. See  Read More 
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