Ensigns and Sensei

by R.E. Graalman Jr.


On April 5, 1945, Oklahoma A&M President Henry Bennett received a telegram from U.S. Senator Elmer Thomas:

Captain Taylor of the Navy Department proposes to establish at Stillwater school for teaching Japanese language. Open about 15th of June and build up to enrollment of 750–800 by end of July. Navy official either at Stillwater or on way to make arrangements. [1]

So began a brief and fascinating episode at Oklahoma A&M (renamed Oklahoma State University in 1957) when handpicked naval officers were sent on a classified mission to Stillwater. Their assignment was to become fluent in the Japanese language in advance of the war’s impending conclusion and aftermath. It is a story not only about those participants, many of whom enjoyed enormous success following the war, but also their devoted Japanese teachers, or sensei.

Ensign Robert E. Graalman, my father, couldn’t have been more surprised and pleased to receive his assignment. Having graduated from special training on the East Coast in May of 1945, he opened his orders to discover he would return to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where he had begun college in 1938 as a 16-year-old freshman, only 70 miles from his hometown of Okeene. He was one of two Oklahomans to be so ordered.

When World War II began, little information about this enemy could be found in the West — the study of Japanese language, history, and culture virtually non-existent in the nation’s schools and military establishment. Jessica Arntson, an expert on the sensei experience in World War II, points out, [2] as WWII neared, “Only 60 non-Japanese students were studying Japanese in American universities” — most of that being theoretical and not applied. The military would have to start from scratch, training those who would be involved in the use of language to gather, interpret, and analyze information needed to conclude the war and carry out a successful occupation.

Two similar and competing efforts, one sponsored by the Army and one by the Navy, ran simultaneously, their assignments being to produce as many fluent Japanese speakers and readers as possible in the shortest amount of time.

In various places around the country, small groups of carefully selected officers became “special students,” largely for their literary and linguistic gifts, in an intense effort to produce interrogators, translators, analysts, and code-breakers who would help clear the way to the peace table. And their roles would likely be extended for years, as mountains of captured documents would need translating for various purposes, including charging and trying war criminals — important to most Americans, whose impressions of the enemy had been, from Pearl Harbor on, highly charged and stereotypical.

For the Navy, the program commenced at two of the country’s most renowned campuses: University of California-Berkeley and Harvard College. The Harvard program lasted less than a year, due to a conflict between Harvard administration and naval officials — Harvard insisted that the course materials should be chosen by Harvard administrators, and the Navy wanted to supply its own. At Berkeley, the program began promisingly, but with residence status uncertain for Japanese sensei returning to California, a new site would be required. On June 23, 1942, the program was moved to the University of Colorado, in Boulder, where it remained for three years, as hundreds of ensigns took on the rigorous curriculum.

How those students, as well as the sensei and their families, eventually arrived at Stillwater originated with educators and city officials looking for ways to improve the local economy. The president of the school, Henry Bennett, was well known in Washington, D.C. In fact, after the war, he was a key figure in President Truman’s Point Four program, an international investment of American know-how and capital, primarily involving agricultural education. Years later, Point Four served as a model for what became the Peace Corps. Throughout the war, city and university employees had aggressively pursued military programs that could utilize campus space — much unused with so many absent men — and bring federal dollars to town, which had already enjoyed some benefits from smaller efforts. Now they sought one considered a prize: training air navigators. When the disappointing news arrived that Stillwater had been rejected, officials lamented having wasted much of its budget to lobby in D.C. Therefore, the subsequent telegram announcing the language school couldn’t have been more timely, and things moved swiftly to implementation.

• • •

More than 20,000 officers had been interviewed for the assignment, such being its importance. Out of that number, more than 1,100 — mostly men — were selected. Of those, upwards of some 500 eventually arrived in Stillwater, including over 100 who had started in Boulder. [3] They were expected to master, in just over a year, an amount that a student in a typical language curriculum would receive over two decades of study — from having no expertise to complete fluency, command, and familiarity with all things Japanese. Their selection was competitive — Phi Beta Kappa and a flair for verbal games and solving puzzles being common traits — and their performances were closely monitored; any evidence of not performing up to expected standards meant immediate expulsion.

My father began his war service as a Seabee in Hawaii, often assigned to censor letters. A studious individual, he enjoyed an uncommon brand of humor. He liked to tell his children that he had “faced grave danger during the war,” especially for a time when he noticed that one sailor had unwittingly switched a letter for his wife into an envelope addressed to his mistress, and vice-versa. When challenged to prove how dangerous that might have been, my father protested: “Why, he might’ve wanted to kill me to keep me quiet!”

Now Ensign Graalman went home for the war’s conclusion. He had applied to study Chinese in Boulder, which was also taught at that site, but the Navy decided otherwise and sent him to Stillwater. Like most of his generation, little more was to be said. After shipping out, he tried graduate school for a while and then returned to Okeene and Fairview, Oklahoma, in the banking business. He eventually served on the city council, the school board, and presided over the city library for more than 20 years.

Many of the individuals attending the school had never been away from coastal centers of culture in the United States. V.K. Schuster later reported in a letter on their arrival in landlocked Stillwater:

The culture shock most of the students had, being plunked down in the heartland of the U.S. … They took for granted such things as theaters, gourmet foods, fancy hotels, nightclubs, and cocktail parties. They were not prepared for the Bible Belt or the fact that Oklahoma was a dry state.

Their effects on life in Stillwater were immediately noticeable, even humorously so. In addition to other matters related to geography and culture, little were the students prepared for the heat of an Oklahoma summer. In response to complaints about the brutal conditions, the Navy agreed that a ban on wearing shorts should be lifted, and authorized a style suitable for naval standards. This troubled many townspersons, who claimed never to have seen such a sight in public, and the local paper took up the debate over how tasteful the new fashion was and whether locals should embrace the daring fad. This in turn alarmed naval officials, who feared that publicity, including resulting photos, might eventually compromise identities of the participants — endangering them should they be captured overseas.

Others benefited in ways they couldn’t have imagined. John Hinkel, the owner of a local struggling bookstore, was said to have “died and gone to heaven” due to the voracious reading habits of the students, who bought up all his stock previously not of interest to the public — particularly poetry, drama, and philosophy. Even the rival town of Norman benefited, as a trip south could mean escaping the ban on alcohol, thanks to the presence of a naval officers’ club in that community.

But in the ‘40s, before “the heartland” was a phrase with well-known connotations for the rest of the country, signifying simple times and warm-hearted neighbors, the choices of Boulder and then Stillwater seemed to have worked out remarkably well — considering the passions of war that had swept the country. The local paper, in an editorial on June 17, 1945, pointed out that residents could “easily understand why the Navy was anxious to locate this important school here. Many who live west of the Mississippi River have long contended that the people are more friendly and understanding and cooperative.” Hendrika Schuster, in a letter held with Sheerar documents, compared the way she saw Washington, D.C., residents celebrate V.E. Day after Germany’s defeat (“headed for liquor stores…” ) to what she observed on V.J. Day in Stillwater, where church bells began to ring and “ …folks dropped what they were doing and headed for the nearest church.”

• • •

Any successful outcome depended on the quality of teaching by those chosen for the task — the sensei, whose goals were several. They sought a source of income, of course, and also wished to escape the tedium of incarceration, desired to be productive, and needed to prove their loyalty to the U.S. According to Arntson, there were three categories of participants: 1. “Issei,” or Japanese nationals who had emigrated from Japan to the United States; 2. “Kibei,” or American-born Japanese who had returned to Japan for a portion of their education; and 3. “Nisei,” or second-generation Japanese born in the U.S. and therefore Americans. Upwards of 100 participants were eventually entrusted with educating over 1,100 naval personnel during the war. Of those, around 50, including four women, came to Stillwater.

The sensei were among many thousands who had been demonized by the U.S. government and American media, taken first from their family homes to detention camps (some families housed in horse stalls at California race-tracks) and then on to the middle of America, where few residents had ever met a Japanese person. The public would largely fear and distrust them for most of the war and beyond, due to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the savagery of the Pacific campaign. While the job of the officers was straightforward — to learn Japanese perfectly — their teachers’ motives were several. The cultural clash was sure to be significant, and for both groups, the results were far-reaching — well beyond the end of the war and into the present.

While many from the heartland are proud of the generous spirit and welcoming embrace typical of its residents, racial barriers are difficult to overcome quickly — and the suspicions during World War II were vivid, bitter, and enduring. It is possible that no foreign population has ever been feared in the U.S., even reviled, more than the Japanese of the 1940s, for their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, vicious code of honor in battle, and obscure beliefs. Such impulses were to shape the early records of the Stillwater program, as the sensei arrived with their families. Arntson’s thesis is an invaluable record of the sensei experience, supplemented by first-person accounts of the challenges they faced and overcame. She supplies details about the tensions the sensei felt for various reasons. Those emotions are reflected in a passage concerning the departure of sensei families to their new homes in Boulder, their travels shrouded in secrecy, “ …headed out in trains with curtains drawn — with armed guards… to protect the group from any resentment they might encounter brought on by war hysteria directed at Japanese Americans, misunderstood as the enemy because of their ancestry.” In certain cases, there were even accounts of dissension within the Japanese-American community, as some objected to the sensei assisting the U.S. government, which had treated them harshly for no reason other than their ancestry.

Henry Featherly, a sixth-grader in Stillwater at the time the school began, recalled years later that there was a pervasive “atmosphere of enmity towards Japanese” at the time. He reported that the press corps were constantly warning of “threat of sabotage and spying by anyone with a yellow skin. It was into this kind of atmosphere that the rumors of a super secret Japanese language school to be located on the Oklahoma A&M campus were received… With the arrival of the staff and later the students, the building (Cordell Hall) became a secure and protected enclosure and a source of awe and curiosity to most of us.”

John H. Morrill, the military director of the program, later reported in correspondence his observations of early community responses: “When it was known that Japanese Americans would become the faculty at the School; and that they would soon arrive; and would also need housing; you townspeople were understandably outraged,” and he goes on to refer to their “angry faces” at public gatherings; then he effectively emphasized the need for patriotism to overcome their suspicions, pointing out that their “angry faces changed to understanding, when I explained the urgent need for interpreters who could quickly translate captured documents in the combat areas out in the Pacific… It was necessary and you did it [sic punctuation and capitalization errors].” Such comments reflect how desperate Americans were for a successful conclusion to the war, and how skillfully Morrill used their exhaustion and patriotism to plead the Navy’s case.

Local troubles emerged also over the subject of how to educate the children of the sensei. At a school board meeting of August 8, 1945, the following action was presented: “Petition having been filed requesting the Board of Education to set up a separate school for a certain group of children now residing in Stillwater. The Board examined the petition and after considering it, the matter was tabled, for the reason, the Board has no legal authority to consider such a request.” In a newspaper story two days later, details became clearer on the intentions of the petitioners, and how the board reacted: “A petition submitted to the school board requesting that a separate school be opened for Japanese has been tabled. The petition, 341 signers, was not acted upon, it was pointed out at the meeting, because Oklahoma law provided only separate schools for Negro children of school age.” In other words, as various interpretations later revealed, the law only allowed African Americans to attend schools created for them — no others admitted. Stillwater Public Schools it would have to be.

Any tensions this situation generated seem to have dissipated rapidly. In a revealing display of how quickly young people, even under stressful circumstances, can adjust to change, Japanese students in Stillwater Public Schools seemed to have been readily accepted — to the extent that they quickly became popular and involved, and one, Eddie Jio, was even elected president of the student council.

Later, an incident with strong traditional American overtones of high school fun, but soured by tragic events, further brought the community together — a response no doubt strengthened by the recent conclusion of the war and subsequent diminishment of tension. Following a Stillwater Pioneer football game in Bristow, Marvin Oyama, a son of a Japanese instructor, was killed when the pickup in which he was riding, along with six others from Stillwater High School, overturned near Stroud. Of the six who survived, three others were children of sensei. Apparently the community responded with large numbers of sympathizers, and again Mr. Featherly looked back at the incident eloquently: “The loss of a fellow student was mourned by all of us. In retrospect, I felt that the experience went a long way toward shaping my attitudes toward racial discrimination.” In addition to Mr. Oyama, records show that three sensei died in Stillwater; after delays and difficulties handling the situation according to cultural wishes, their remains were returned to their former homes.

• • •

Somehow the momentum of the JLS in Stillwater continued even after war’s end, just a few months after the program’s beginning. There remained documents to be studied and translated in places like Washington, D.C. A few students drifted off to perform such jobs, and the future lives of the naval participants were, of course, subject to speculation, so on they went unless they were dismissed to civilian status. Edwin B. Lee reported on this circumstance succinctly: “But most of us simply kept on doing what we had been doing. In retrospect, I realize that the Navy simply didn’t know what to do with us, so we just kept on studying Japanese.” Because the Army program would dominate the occupation (General Douglas MacArthur still being, at least for a few more years, a dominant political force and national figure), the naval participants would look elsewhere for post-war careers and interests.

All of this culminated with a memorable cultural exchange, as the war receded into history and those studying and teaching the Japanese language began to prepare for the future. Working with the local churches and university staff, the sensei decided that a display of Japanese art, literature, and theater was an appropriate way to signal the end only the war and to commemorate their stay in the Stillwater, primarily for the students but also the local population. Invitations finished with fine calligraphy and signaling the enchantments of Japanese fashion, writing, dance, and culture, all to be performed at the OSU gym, were distributed. Remaining pictures illustrate the ornate set that had been produced, and the elegant poses struck by the sensei and artistic materials presented suggest the assimilation that had taken place in a few short months, and would continue so on a much wider level during the lifetimes of the ensigns, sensei, and their children.

During the next few months, the program slowed. In June of 1946, it closed for good and left the students to begin their new post-war lives and the sensei to return to their homes or begin anew. President Henry Bennett died soon after in a plane crash on his way to Iran as part of his Point Four duties.

In the 1990s, OSU established a branch campus in Kyoto, which lasted a few short years — during which time the Japanese constructed a building for the school that is a replica of historic Old Central, the first building constructed on the A&M campus. Currently the city of Stillwater maintains its ties with Japan as sister city to Kameoka, and over the years many Japanese young people have come to Stillwater to study English, both at the English Language Institute for immersive language instruction and for a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees at OSU. Few of them would be aware of the JLS program’s global implications in the realms of academe, business, and politics, or its relation to the emergence of Asian studies. The work of the sensei and their students remains a testament to all their talents and patriotism, now 70 years ago as the war raged on, and finally stopped.

Many of the JLS students, it turned out, had fallen in love with Asian language and culture, and eventually profited from the dearth of Asian-related enterprise (academic and otherwise) in this country. They went on to find success in many ways — filling an academic, cultural, and financial vacuum that would carry all things Japanese to unanticipated relevance as the globe “shrunk” throughout the last half of the 20th century, and the Japanese economy reached unforeseen heights.

A former provost at OSU, Dr. J. Boggs, once announced in a meeting during the 1980s that he had found a dusty stack of cards on which the names of the A&M naval students were listed, and he reported, “I doubt there has ever been such a distinguished and successful group of young men in Stillwater at the same time — I recognize their names from all manner of academic institutions, businesses, and politics.”

An informative production on all these matters took place at a remarkable Sheerar Museum retrospective in Stillwater in December of 1991, titled “From Tokyo to Theta Pond: Stillwater’s Chapter in the World War II Saga.” By then, over 125 books on all subjects, 24 of them just on Japan, were already held in OSU’s Edmon Low Library, written by authors who had studied in Stillwater during the JLS program. More stories are regularly released by the University of Colorado-Boulder, where outstanding archivists circulate records of these individuals and their teachers as their generation gradually disappears. Their lifelong achievements as war heroes, citizens, scholars, entrepreneurs, and patriots are significant. Rare it is to find a reputable program in Asian language, history, and culture that hasn’t somehow been influenced by graduates of the Japanese language schools.

• • •

When he learned that the Sheerar Museum would host an exhibit on the Japanese language school in Stillwater, my father scoffed that he probably wouldn’t attend and didn’t understand why everyone was so interested in it all of a sudden. But he did attend, and he enjoyed the keynote speech by Dr. Sidney Brown, who was then a history professor at the University of Oklahoma and had also been a JLS student.

When Dad was asked to comment, he mentioned briefly the surprise and pleasure he had felt to come home for the end of the long war, and pointed out he really “hadn’t done much” with Japanese afterwards, but he had enjoyed his small-town life, his family, and his books. Then, apparently inspired, he remarked with uncharacteristic emotion, “One thing I’ve always thought about is our teachers, our sensei. They had been taken from their homes twice — first when the war began and then to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to teach officers in the United States Navy. Imagine that.” And he shook his head and sat down.


1. This document is currently held in the Sheerar Museum, Stillwater, Oklahoma.

2. In her master’s thesis, Journey to Boulder: The Japanese American Instructors of the Navy Japanese Language Schools (1942–1946).

3. Precise counts of students and sensei are difficult to obtain. The U.S. Navy did not archive records and many have never been found and are now presumed destroyed. For this article, best estimates from various sources will be supplied.

The author would like to express his sincere thanks to the following for information, clarification, quotations, photos, support, and inspiration: David Hays, University of Colorado-Boulder; Barbara Dunn and Charles Barraclough, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater; Yumi Binegar, Stillwater; and Ensign Robert E. Graalman, 1922–2013, buried with naval honors in a cemetery at the edge of a pasture, Okeene, Oklahoma, near the road to Stillwater.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 4, February 15, 2015.