The Exploitation of Captured Japanese Records

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In January 2002, I met Duval A. Edwards, an Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) veteran of World War II in the Pacific and learned that he had been involved in the capture of Japanese records, beginning in Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea, with the 41st CIC during the spring of 1944. Because of my interest in the disposition of the captured Japanese records I asked him what he did with the captured records. The answer was that they were turned over to ATIS, Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (SWPA), under General Douglas MacArthur. With this information I began a search of the National Archives’ holdings of ATIS records to learn more about the capture and exploitation of Japanese records.

Quickly I learned that during World War II, the United States and its Allies established numerous organizations throughout the Pacific Theater to translate captured records and to conduct interrogations. There was, among others, the Southeast Asia Translation and Interrogation Center (SEATIC), the Sino Translation and Interrogation Center (SINTIC), and the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Area (JICPOA). Perhaps most important in terms of organizational size and quantity of captured records was ATIS. The records of these organizations are located at the National Archives and Records Administration, in various Record Groups, and provide a wealth of information to researchers about Japanese activities and Allied knowledge of these activities.

Established on September 19, 1942, and headquartered in a suburb of Brisbane, Australia, ATIS eventually would grow to include more than 2,500 personnel. ATIS worked closely with the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and Allied military forces in obtaining documents and interrogating prisoners of war.

There were two major components of the work of ATIS. Interrogation was one. ATIS produced 779 interrogation reports, based upon information elicited from more than 10,000 Prisoners of War. The other major component was translation and publication. Documents flowed from military operations to Brisbane, where a document conference was held to discuss the importance of every document in terms of priority and degree of translation. Based on these discussions the form of dissemination of the newly gained intelligence was determined.

ATIS produced numerous types of publications and these were widely distributed to Allied military and intelligence organizations. There were ATIS bulletins, more than 2,000 of them, issued two or three times a week. They highlighted newly acquired documents, often with a brief translation, and what ATIS planned to do with the information. Detailed translations followed weekly in the form of “current translation and enemy” publications. ATIS also produced research reports, based on documents related to a single subject. Among them: Report No. 84, dealing with The Japanese and Bacterial Warfare; Report No. 117, Infringement of the Laws of War and Ethics by the Japanese Medical Corps; Report No. 119, on the Japanese Military Police Service; Report 133, The Palawan Massacre; and Research Report No. 72, Japanese Violations of the Laws of War.

In the United States there were also several units translating captured Japanese documents. The Washington Document Center (WDC), jointly run by the Navy and War Departments, began in 1943 and became a major center of translation. Work also took place at the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, the Far Eastern Unit of the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, DC, and at the Pacific Area Command Military Intelligence Research Service (or PACMIRS) at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.

Because of the multitude of translation agencies, the increasing quantity of captured Japanese documents, and the high demand for translators in the Pacific Theater, a Japanese Document Conference was held at the Pentagon from December 1944 to January 1945 to sort out the division of labor. Based on conference recommendations the WDC became, on February 14, 1945, the central agency for initially handling the lower priority captured Japanese documents and it was tasked with passing on material to PACMIRS and Navy Intelligence as necessary. Although a joint-service operation, the WDC ultimately reported to the Director of Naval Intelligence. Higher priority documents, those of often-immediate tactical or strategic purposes, continued to be translated and exploited in the Pacific Theater.

In early 1945, the floodgates opened with thousands of documents being sent to the WDC. During the period March 4, 1945 through October 21, 1945, the WDC received, processed, and disseminated 146,324 Japanese documents ranging from military records to encyclopedia sets. By the time of the Japanese surrender, ATIS itself had processed more than 350,000 captured documents, or an estimated 4.2 million pages or about 1,500 cubic feet.

The surrender of the Japanese did not bring about the end to the work of WDC, ATIS, or PACMIRS. One major focus was war crimes prosecution assistance. On August 29, 1945, a second Japanese Document Conference was convened in Washington, D.C., where it was agreed that an advanced echelon of WDC be established in Japan to assist in the scanning, screening, and transferring of selected Japanese documents to the United States. Full-scale operations for the WDC Advanced Echelon began on December 24, 1945. The Echelon processed documents from various ministries, shipping some to the United States. The documents or reproductions of them were available to theater agencies, with priority given to the urgent work of the International Prosecution Section and the Army Counter Intelligence Corps.

Around the same time, ATIS War Crimes Echelons were established in both Manila and Tokyo to supply information needed in the prosecution of Japanese war criminals. And in the United States PACMIRS was also quite busy. During the spring of 1946, the unit produced some 20 PACMIRS War Crimes Information Series publications.

By the end of March 1946, the main work of the WDC Advance Echelon was completed and it returned to Washington. A newly organized ATIS Document Section continued its work. By November 1946, 477,894 documents (some 2,000 cubic feet of records) and numerous books and periodicals were shipped from Japan to the Washington Document Center (WDC). 

When the records got to WDC, detailed accessioning lists were prepared and widely distributed. Some of the documents were translated and published. By mid-1947 the work of the WDC, then operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, was completed, and in 1948 the records were transferred to the National Archives. The WDC also sent the Library of Congress a substantial quantity of books, newspapers, and periodicals, some of which were subsequently sent to the National Archives. The records the National Archives acquired were returned to Japan a decade later, with the approval of Congress and the military and intelligence agencies that had either captured them and/or might have further need to exploit them.

During the wartime and postwar periods the U.S. Government certainly knew what captured or seized Japanese records its agencies had and that these records were exploited for a variety of purposes. There is also no doubt that these records were available and exploited at the time for war crimes prosecution efforts. Many of the captured documents were used in the trials and these records, which were not introduced into evidence, now reside at the National Archives.

Although the National Archives does not have the original Japanese documents received from the WDC, the agency does have microfilm of some of the records and copies of the WDC accessioning lists. The Library of Congress has microfilm of that portion of the WDC/National Archives collection that was filmed by the historians before the records were returned to Japan.

Another substantial and significant body of records held by the National Archives is the thousands of boxes containing the documentation created by ATIS, the WDC, and the other agencies. These records are based on information from the Japanese documents as well as translations of all or part of many of the important files.

The vast majority of the National Archives holdings relating to the exploitation of captured Japanese records were declassified long ago but were not fully utilized by researchers. This can be explained in part because many of the records are scattered throughout many Record Groups and are frequently difficult to locate.

To help researchers better locate records relating to the capture/seizure and exploitation of Japanese records during and after World War II, as well as to records relating to Japanese war crimes and war criminals, I prepared a 1,700 page special finding aid for the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG). It can be located online at the IWG web page on the National Archives and Records Administration web site.

Related Text Message Blog posts:

From Rabaul to Stack 190: The Travels of a Famous Japanese Army Publication

The National Archives’ Arthur Evarts Kimberly and the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section’s Document Restoration Sub-Section, 1944-1945

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

Researchers may find interesting Mr. Edwards’ book Spy Catchers of the U.S. Army in the War with Japan (The Unfinished Story of the Counter Intelligence Corps). Gig Harbor, Washington: Red Apple Publishing, 1994.