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Tue May 28, 2013
NPR Story

After Long Wait For Combat, Tad Nagaki Became POW Liberator

Originally published on Wed May 29, 2013 7:43 am

Sixteen million men and women served in uniform during World War II. Today, 1.2 million are still alive, but hundreds of those vets are dying every day. In honor of Memorial Day, NPR's All Things Considered is remembering some of the veterans who have died this year.

"Tad Nagaki was a gentle, quiet farmer," says Mary Previte, a retired New Jersey legislator and former captive of the Japanese during World War II. That quiet farmer, who did extraordinary things, died in April at the age of 93 at his grandson's Colorado home.

With her siblings and separated from her missionary parents, Previte spent nearly three years in the harsh conditions of a prison camp in China during the war.

Tadashi "Tad" Nagaki was among her rescuers. Previte was 12 at the time and never forgot him. More than a half-century after the war, she tracked Nagaki down and learned more about his life.

Nagaki, a Japanese-American, grew up on a family farm in Alliance, Neb. After the war, he went back to Alliance to farm corn, beans and sugar beets.

Previte says Nagaki was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, just before Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was 21 at the time and stationed at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

When the U.S. entered the war, Nagaki wanted to join the fight. But when he asked if he could be an airman, Previte says, "he got a letter from his commander in Fort Monmouth that said, 'No, [he] could not be an airman,' because he was Japanese-American."

Instead, Nagaki was sent to another base and given mundane tasks like landscaping. But Nagaki and other Japanese-American GIs wanted to do more. They asked repeatedly what they could do to join a combat unit, Previte says, but for two years, "they kept being turned down."

Finally, the War Department realized it needed Japanese-speakers for intelligence work. The Office of Strategic Services selected a handful of them to serve in China and Burma — including Nagaki.

The war had just officially ended when Nagaki's OSS team parachuted into the camp where Previte and about 1,500 others had been held. Although the emperor had surrendered a few days earlier, the Japanese camp guards raised their guns when they saw the Americans descending. But no shots were fired and they handed their guns over to the Americans.

The rescue brought elation to the camp, Previte recalls. "Everyone was berserk," she says. "I mean, out of their minds pandemonium. People laughing, weeping, dancing."

Nagaki and the other American rescuers were followed around by the freed prisoners wherever they went, Previte says. "One lady cut off a piece of his hair so she could have it for a souvenir."

Previte says Nagaki told her he didn't want to be known as a hero. He said he did what any American would have done. But Previte gives him higher praise.

"Tad Nagaki was an American hero and I can never say enough 'thank yous,' " she says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

All this week, we're remembering veterans of the Second World War who've died in the past few months. Today we learn about Tad Nagaki. He died at age 93 last month.

MARY PREVITE: Tad Nagaki was a gentle, quiet farmer.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

That's Mary Previte. She's a retired New Jersey legislator and former captive of the Japanese during World War II. With her siblings, she spent nearly three years in the harsh conditions of a prison camp in China, separated from her missionary parents. Tad Nagaki was among her rescuers. She was 12 at the time and never forgot him.

BLOCK: More than a half century after the war, Previte tracked Nagaki down and learned more about his life. Tad Nagaki was Japanese-American. He grew up on the family farm in Nebraska. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, just before Pearl Harbor was attacked, and stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. When the U.S. entered the war, Nagaki wanted to join the fight.

PREVITE: When he asked if he could be an airman he got a letter from his commander in Fort Monmouth that said, no, you could not be an airman because he was Japanese-American.

SIEGEL: Instead, he was sent to another base and given mundane tasks, such as landscaping. But Nagaki and other Japanese-American GIs wanted to do more.

PREVITE: What could we do? How could we get to be in a combat unit? And they kept being turned down. I want to be in combat. And they kept being turned down - two years.

SIEGEL: Finally, the War Department realized it needed Japanese speakers for intelligence work. The Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, selected a handful of them, including Tad Nagaki, to serve in China and Burma.

BLOCK: The war had just officially ended when Nagaki's OSS team parachuted into the camp where Mary Previte and about 1,500 others were being held. The emperor had surrendered a few days earlier, but the Japanese camp guards guns raised their guns when they saw the Americans descending. No shots were fired, and they handed their weapons over. Mary Previte remembers the rescue brought elation.

PREVITE: Everyone was berserk. I mean, out of their minds, pandemonium, people laughing, weeping, dancing.

BLOCK: And Tad Nagaki and the other American rescuers were followed around by the freed prisoners wherever they went.

PREVITE: One lady cut off a piece of his hair so she could have it for a souvenir.

BLOCK: Mary Previte says Tad Nagaki told her he didn't want to be known as a hero. He said he did what any American would have done. But Previte gives him higher praise.

PREVITE: Tad Nagaki was an American hero, and I can never say enough thank yous.

BLOCK: Tad Nagaki returned to farming after the war. He died in April at age 93 at his home in Colorado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.