Lily Terao: From Internment Camp to Military Intelligence

Lily Terao with twins Donald (my husband) and David
Lily with twins David and Donald (my husband) in Chicago, 1949

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law, Lily (or Yuriko) Terao. She was mugged by a purse-snatcher near her home in Los Angeles and died from her injuries November 8, 2005. As a nisei (second-generation) Japanese-American, Lily was born in Seattle in 1920 and returned to Japan many times in her life. In fact, she went to high school in Japan, then returned to the United States to work.

Due to the events of World War II, Lily was sent to the desolate Gila River internment camp in Arizona in 1942. She was imprisoned there merely for being Japanese and had to destroy her Japanese items, including her high school diploma. Anything Japanese was suspect at that time.  Fluent in both Japanese and English, Lily was soon recruited to go to the University of Michigan and teach Japanese to intelligence officers and others. She saw her chance to get out of the crowded, makeshift camp and she took it.

Gila River barracks 1942
Gila River barracks 1942

“I took a loyalty test to get out of camp,” she said in an interview transcribed by our daughter, Stephanie. “Then I was sent to Michigan to help teach soldiers Japanese. The student soldiers would come [for one year] and we would speak nothing but Japanese to them. I mostly taught military intelligence.”

I once went to the University of Michigan and got a copy of a document written in 1943 by Marine Major Sherwood Moran, Intelligence Division. It revealed what Lily was working on back then at the University, along with revealing a stark contrast between Moran’s approach and our recent treatment of prisoners, such as at Guantanamo Bay.  Moran’s attitude toward interrogation, or “interviewing” as he called it, was more about befriending than brutality.

A June 2005 Atlantic Monthly article, “Truth Extraction,” by Stephen Budiansky explained the impact of Moran’s work, revealing that “abusing prisoners is not simply illegal and immoral; it is also remarkably ineffective.” For instance, James Corum, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare, noted that the cruelty of Abu Ghraib personnel was not a case of the ends justifying the means. “The torture of suspects did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted.”

Moran’s attitude was, “I am a human being talking to a human being.” And, he noticed time and again, that human being wants to tell his story. He believed that “those interrogators who tried the hardest to break down the morale of POWs were actually revealing their own fear.” Such “hard-boiled” tactics rarely yielded results.

What was effective during WWII was following Sherwood Moran’s suggestions, recruiting second-generation Japanese Americans, including Lily, and having them teach both language and culture to interrogators. The interrogators could then get to know the prisoners and help them open up to the point where they’d share important information.

Lily made friends with the other nisei women in Ann Arbor and enjoyed teaching the young men how to speak a new language. According to James Corum, “the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945.” For instance, it only took Marine interrogators 48 hours to obtain the complete Japanese battle plans in the Marianas in June of 1944. Perhaps some of them were Lily’s students.

Medal honoring Lily (Kobayashi) Terao's service to Military Intelligence, received by her sons, David and Donald.
Medal honoring Lily (Kobayashi) Terao’s service to Military Intelligence, received by her sons, David and Donald.
Mom in our backyard in Evanston, IL
Mom in our backyard in Evanston, IL
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6 thoughts on “Lily Terao: From Internment Camp to Military Intelligence

  1. Thank you so much, Barb, for including me in the distribution of this article. Your mother-in-law sounded like a truly wonderful woman. I am very sorry she and all those other “American” men and women were subjected to the unbelievable treatment for which America will forever be ashamed. She became a real hero, something for which your family can be so proud. As I look at her picture, I see a kind and happy woman.

    Sarah Hudgens was asking about you on Friday. You are missed.

  2. Barbara,
    Your beautiful and profound article remembering our mother-in-law deeply touched my heart. Thank you so much for using your gifted writing ability to memorialize this wonderful lady, my best friend whom I miss daily. Thank you.
    Love,
    Sherry

  3. Wonderful story Barbara and so many lessons in this story, about learning and life, taking opportunities, the Japanese internment and the strength of person to person connections. Your mother in law with her students, imagine them learning Japanese and culture, such a difficult subject – she must have been a wonderful teacher and person. And the interrogators who were able to meet with the Japanese prisoners of war, and get to know they as people. Thank you, Betsy

    1. I appreciate your feedback! Donald’s mom was a stellar human being and her story helps me understand history a little better. May we learn from the past and not repeat our mistakes that have hurt and oppressed people and the environment.

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