Seventy Years Ago: Colonel Sidney F. Mashbir and the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS), September-October 1942

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

Seventy years ago, on September 19, 1942, one of the most important intelligence organizations in the Southwest Pacific Area was created and not long afterwards its commander, Sidney F. Mashbir, arrived in the theater to take command of it.  This was the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, commonly referred to as ATIS.

After the Allied Forces seized the offensive in the Southwest Pacific Area, the increasing number of prisoners and documents captured necessitated the consolidation and expansion of such Allied linguistic units as already existed.  As a result, General Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area, issued on September 19, 1942, a directive establishing the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS) as a centralized intelligence organization composed primarily of language personnel and designed to systematize the exploitation of captured documents and the interrogation of prisoners of war. Before the directive was issued Maj. Gen. Richard K. Sutherland, the Chief of Staff, had instructions sent to Col. Karl Ferguson Baldwin, who had spent World War I as military attaché in Tokyo, and then the United States Military Attaché to Australia, on September 18 that he come to Brisbane to undertaken the coordination of ATIS at Indooroopilly, a Brisbane suburb.  He was informed that it would be a temporary assignment until a suitable replacement came from the United States.

Baldwin, arriving at Indooroopilly on September 24, found the translators of the GHQ, SWPA and Allied Land Forces Units working together, translating about 800 documents captured in the Milne Bay operation.  The chief need Baldwin quickly realized was for a head coordinator to insure prompt selection of important material and speedy delivery of “live intelligence” to the proper headquarters, and a setup which would properly tie in the Allied Naval and Allied Air Units so as to form the four units into an efficient and smoothly run section as contemplated in the September 19 directive.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., on September 21, General H. V. Strong, the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, ordered Lt. Col. Sidney F. Mashbir, to report to GHQ SWPA, to serve on MacArthur’s staff and head up an Inter-Allied staff dealing with language work at GHQ, SWPA.

Mashbir, an officer in the US Army, from the Arizona National Guard, had operated across the Mexican border and during World War I engaged in counter-intelligence work.  In 1916, while in Mexico, Mashbir discovered Japanese military documents.  He vowed to learn Japanese.  After the war as a ROTC instructor at Syracuse University, Mashbir attempted to read everything he could about Japan. In 1920 he requested a detail to Japan to learn Japanese. This was approved and in August 1920 he sailed to Japan.  Because of business interests Mashbir submitted his resignation in April 1923. His business concerns were in Tokyo, where he became one of the directors of the Pan-Pacific Association and developed relationships with many powerful men in Japan.  In December 1923 he returned to the United States to further his business career.

Back in the United States, Mashbir successfully applied to return to active duty for a limited period.  In the summer of 1927 he began an eight-month term of service with the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2.  There, among other Japanese-related activities, he rewrote what was then known as the “Order of Battle Manual” on Japan.  Ellis M. Zacharias, with Naval Intelligence, who met Mashbir in the 1920s, wrote in his book Secret Missions, “I have always thought of him as my counterpart in the Army, where officers with an interest in intelligence could be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

Despite his interest in intelligence and his belief in 1928 that the United States and Japan would be at war within fifteen years, he left the military to be an American company’s representative in Japan.  Before leaving the military he was promoted to Lt. Col.  But Mashbir was not totally out of the intelligence loop.  He undertook an intelligence mission on behalf of Naval Intelligence to Japan in 1937.

Mashbir was reinstated in the Army on January 24, 1942, and was immediately placed in charge of the Military Intelligence Branch of the Signal Corps. In late June 1942, Mashbir’s friend Capt. Zacharias reported to Washington to serve with the Office of Naval Intelligence, as the deputy director of Naval Intelligence.  During the summer he often turned to Mashbir for advice and aid and invited Mashbir to join him in drawing up the plan for a joint intelligence organization for Admiral Ernest King. Before leaving for the Pacific, Zacharias took Mashbir to see King.  They discussed the preparation of the plan for the Joint Intelligence Committee.  King asked Zacharias if there was anything Mashbir needed that the Navy could give him.  Zacharias told him he needed two men, one temporary and one permanently—one was the expert on prisoner of war interrogations and the other was the very best linguist the Navy had.  King agreed. Before leaving, King and Zacharias provided him with letters of introduction to the naval liaison officers at any point he might touch, giving him carte blanche, and directing them to cooperate with him in every necessary way.

On September 28 Mashbir left Washington, D.C.  After a change of planes in San Francisco he flew to Australia on a B-24 Liberator, arriving at Brisbane on October 6.  Very quickly upon arriving Mashbir met up with Col. Baldwin.  Mashbir knew Baldwin, because it was he who had selected him for his assignment to Japan in 1920. He also met Brig. Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, the SWPA’s G-2 and Sutherland, the Chief of Staff.  The next day Mashbir drove 8 miles from Brisbane to Indoroopilly, where ATIS had been established. There he met the American and Australian linguistic personnel, including eight Nisei, and not long afterwards was turning ATIS into a valuable resource for General MacArthur.  After the war Willoughby wrote that ATIS was “possibly the most single important intelligence agency of the war.”

Mashbir, c. 1951