—— What is your documentary “Calling Tokyo” based on?
“Calling Tokyo” tells the story of my father, Sam Masami Ono, and other Japanese-American’s who served as broadcasters for the U.S. and U.K. war efforts. When WWII broke out the government needed people who could speak both English and Japanese for purposes of translation and broadcasting, so the Japanese-Americans were a logical choice. Some started while they were still in San Francisco, but most of them were selected from the camp internees at Amache, Colorado. One of the things these broadcasters had in common was that most of them were “Kibei”, American born “Nisei” who were partly educated in Japan, so they could speak, read, and write Japanese. My father, for example, was sent to Japan when he was nine-years-old and returned to the U.S. when he was 16, fluent in Japanese. These very language skills and cultural familiarity, which made them so valuable to the government, also made them highly suspect regarding their allegiances.
—— Did your father ever talk much about his involvement in this unique program?
No, quite the opposite. My father, like most of the broadcasters, never mentioned anything about his World War II experiences to me or to any of my siblings. He never spoke of it and neither did the others... even some of their wives didn’t know what they were doing! It really wasn’t until after my dad passed away in 1981 that I knew anything at all... my mother remembered that he had worked for the “BBC,” but wasn’t exactly sure what the job entailed. One of my Uncles said basically the same. It turns out that many of the Issei grandparents and Nisei parents are still very reluctant to talk about their wartime experiences. Additionally, in the case of these radio broadcasters many were told not to speak of the work that they did in Denver. In fact, although I directly asked my mother about what went on in Camp Amache and Denver, she never revealed what I would only later discover about her or my father.
—— So what did lead you to discover the role your father and others played during the war?
Well it wasn’t until later when President Ronald Reagan signed the 1988 Civil Liberties Act into law, acknowledging the government wrongs of more than forty years before and providing for reparation payments to be made to each of the 60,000 surviving victims of the internment camps, that the real journey of discovery began. It turns out that there was a question as to whether my brother Victor, who was born outside of camp, was eligible for reparation as they didn’t find enough records on him. In November of 1992, though, through Victor’s investigation he found another person born outside the camps in Denver as well, Edward Wada. Only after Edward suggested that Victor speak with his mother, Chiyo Wada, did this fascinating story begin to unfold. You see Chiyo Wada had served as one of the broadcasters and that is when she revealed to us, for the very first time, that my father, along with a dozen or so other Japanese- Americans, was also involved. They all served translating and announcing for the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) and the British Political Warfare Mission (BPWM) as part of the Joint Anglo- American Plan for Radio Propaganda Broadcasting to Japan. We were only children at the time so until we met Chiyo Wada we never knew a thing about our father’s involvement. The members had all met us though, but of course we didn’t remember much from when we were 3-5 years old. Chiyo Wada on the other hand remembered everything and still had the names of everyone in her head, so through her I was able to uncover what we needed for Victor’s reparation and to embark on what eventually became “Calling Tokyo”.
—— When did you get the idea to tell this relatively unknown tale?
Basically, right after talking with Chiyo Wada and a couple of the other broadcasters, Robert Tetsuro Yamasaki and Frank Shozo Baba, that she had put me in touch with. I knew right then that I wanted to do a video piece about their and my father’s story, so I decided to start researching it further. My professional background is in still photography and my later education was in television production, so I thought I could produce the video on my own. I used part of my Civil Liberties reparation money to buy some video equipment such as a camera, video editing capability for my computer, tripod, lights and so on and began recording some of the veteran broadcasters’ stories.
—— How and where did you begin to go about piecing together this fascinating story?
I started to research everything in early 1993, going to various libraries and reading up on radio broadcasting and psychological warfare. At the same time I was speaking by telephone with the former broadcasters, who after 50-years had very sketchy memories of their experiences. I also began corresponding with the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Public Records Office and the Imperial War Museum in England. Additionally, Mr. Frank Shozo Baba gave me the names of people that I should talk to in Japan regarding Japan’s radio broadcasting activities during World War II. After Denver, he went to Japan along with the Occupation Forces to help reestablish their broadcasting industry and was instrumental in doing so, which was the basis for the book “The Man Who Helped Restart the Broadcasting Industry in Japan”.
By 1997, after having been to Washington, D.C., Denver, England, and Japan I had most of the story. In fact, when I talked with the Japanese American National Museum about it they eventually agreed to host a panel of the former broadcasters in an educational forum, which was held October 11, 1997. That came to be known as “The Other Side of Tokyo Rose”, which was really the first time all of the broadcasters had gotten together and openly discussed any of these things since the war. John Esaki, who is now the Director of Media Arts for the Japanese American National Museum where I volunteer, kindly videotaped the program for us, some of which was used in “Calling Tokyo”.
In 1999, I finally decided to retire from my full-time job and was ready to spend more time on this project. After working on and off on my own for nine years, someone suggested that I apply for grant funding and told me about the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program (CCLPEP), which was setup to fund projects that tell the story about the Japanese-American experience of the evacuation, relocation, and internment. I applied and was fortunate enough to be awarded a grant in May of 2001, but under its terms I was required to complete the project within a year, in June of 2002! Finally, with the grant money I was able to pay and start working with a video producer, who had the production experience and facilities necessary to do the production, but after a half-year of little progress we parted ways. Fortunately, John Esaki introduced me to Janice D. Tanaka (who also produced, “When You’re Smiling,” another CCLPEP funded video, addressing the after affects of the imprisonment experience on the children of Nisei internees) and Sreescanda Subramonian, who were able to take on my project and skillfully complete it within the time remaining.
—— What type of material did these Allied broadcasts consist of?
The content was a mix of news, entertainment, and information. At the Public Records Office in London I uncovered an original script in my father’s handwriting in Japanese of a British radio broadcast among others. They were given news and editorials selected by their supervisors there, Washington D.C., and London and then translated them into Japanese. Their broadcasts were transmitted over phone line to San Francisco where they were recorded on vinyl coated glass discs and then blended into 3-hours programs of music and voicing, which were transmitted via short wave radio signal to Japan. As a matter of fact, when we were kids we may have found some these original recordings. They had been stored in the closet along with some other old photos and keepsakes, but my brothers and I played catch with them and ended up breaking them....we had no idea.ington D.C., and London and then translated them into Japanese. Their broadcasts were transmitted over phone line to San Francisco where they were recorded on vinyl coated glass discs and then blended into 3-hours programs of music and voicing, which were transmitted via short wave radio signal to Japan. As a matter of fact, when we were kids we may have found some these original recordings. They had been stored in the closet along with some other old photos and keepsakes, but my brothers and I played catch with them and ended up breaking them....we had no idea.
—— Where did the government set up their “information” program?
Right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor there was a call for people who could communicate in both Japanese and English by what would later be called the OWI. People applied and were then tested by listening to radio programs in Japanese and then typing what they heard in English. Among the early broadcasters who made it were Chiyo Wada (the only woman), Robert Yamasaki, and Frank Shozo Baba all hired by the OWI. Initially they began working out of KGEI, in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, but that location didn’t last. Ironically, while KGEI continued to serve as headquarters for this “information” operation, the evacuation orders made it impossible for anybody of Japanese ancestry to remain on the west coast. As a result, these three Japanese American broadcasters were forced to move to Denver and continued their work at KFEL located in the Albany Hotel. In order to recruit more broadcasters there was an ad placed on the front page of the Camp Amache newspaper seeking bilingual internees and my father and others applied. Later when I discovered the British Mission Warfare letter hiring George Yasuo Dote and my father I realized why we were released and moved to living quarters above a movie theater in Denver and why Victor was born outside of Amache. Successful candidates received a letter telling them to go to Denver and were granted indefinite leave by the U.S. Relocation Authority. The British BPWM and U.S. OWI, which shared quarters in KFEL did basically the same work, except for a few minor differences. The information program itself continued throughout the war, but six-months before the end of the war they closed the Denver operation and moved back to the OWI facility in San Francisco, which was eventually closed in early 1946.
—— What was life like outside the camps for this group?
Besides the long and odd hours life was pretty good. We lived above a movie theater in Denver on Curtis Street, which in the early years used to be the theater row of the bustling city of the ‘30s. I was too young to remember much, but a couple of the other broadcasters told me that they used to visit with our family and remember watching movies for free. I imagine that we must have lived in the balcony space if we were able to watch movies. The group kept pretty much to themselves due in part to the nature of their work and the racism that became prevalent. Signs reading “No Japs Allowed!” were not unusual, but all that aside life was’nt bad, some even described it as somewhat pleasant. They were all in their twenties and had chances to go fishing and many learned to play golf from the resident golfer Frank Hattori, an avid golfer. Robert Yamasaki was the only one with a car so as he said “I became quite popular.” Suspicion however was not limited to our government or citizens outside the camps; many of the internees themselves viewed the broadcasters warily thinking them to be some kind of spies.
—— Were any of these broadcasters ever recognized formally or informally for their contributions by the government?
After some time I got a hold of the Voice of America Public Relations Officer and was able to talk him into getting the director of the Voice of America, which was an offshoot of the OWI, to write a letter to each of the broadcasters. Later they had the LA West Coast Bureau Chief Michael O’Sullivan make the presentation of letters to them during a special Voice of America tribute to the veteran broadcasters on May 3rd of this year. The program was held at the Japanese American National Museum and featured an interesting question and answer portion with some of the remaining principals.
Gary T. Ono was born and was living in San Francisco, CA before having to relocate to Camp Amache and later Denver as a 3-year old boy and is one of ten siblings. He holds degrees in Photography, from San Francisco City College, and Radio Television and Film, from California State University at Northridge. Although retired now, he has worked as a Media Production Supervisor for the Department of Veteran Affairs, and is presently pursuing various projects related to his family and Japanese-American history. Currently he volunteers at the Japanese American National Museum and has been vital in seeing that the broadcasters documented in his video “Calling Tokyo” receive the proper recognition for their contributions and service to the Allied war effort. Gary Ono has previously lived in San Diego, Waukegan, Illinois and now makes his home in Simi Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles.
If you would like to learn more about these broadcasters or would like to order a copy of “Calling Tokyo” please contact Gary Ono at (805) 522-6350 or
(09-01-2003 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)