Al Zelver had recently graduated from Stanford University when the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor.

There was no doubt in Zelver’s mind that it was time to enlist. However, he never could have imagined where that enlistment would take him.

“I thought I’d be in the trenches in three months,” Zelver said about joining the United States Army.

He wasn’t.

In his service, Zelver didn’t fight in direct combat with the enemy. He talked to the enemy as an intelligence officer. He spent time in India, China, Japan and South Korea.

With a unique experience in the war comes a unique perspective on what happened. In a recent interview, Zelver talked about his memories and view of WWII, like why he thinks dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima was unnecessary.

“A lot of people don’t agree with me ... but not everyone had the same relationship with the Japanese that I had,” Zelver said.

The now 99-year-old lives in Bozeman, in an apartment adjacent to his son’s house. His walls are covered in art — some pieces that he brought back from Japan, some works he’s done himself. Books written by his late wife fill out a bookcase in the corner. A Japanese character meaning “luck” hangs above his bed.

He’ll turn 100 next July. He hopes to travel to Washington, D.C., on a friend’s private jet for the 75th Anniversary of V-J Day in September. He’s writing a memoir he hopes to finish by the end of the year.

For Zelver, life during World War II is hard to forget.

“I’m 99, so there are a lot of gaps in my memory from different periods when I did different kinds of work,” Zelver said. “But the five years that are most vivid are the five years I was in the military.”

It all began when he heard from a friend that the military was looking for Japanese language officers and conducting interviews at a nearby hotel.

Zelver had studied Latin, German, French and Hebrew throughout his life, although he could only speak German with any fluidity. His interest in languages, and having a degree in English from Stanford, made Zelver a prime candidate for the position.

“(The interviewer) said, ‘Well you meet every qualification to be a Japanese Language Officer, except for one thing,’ he said. ‘You don’t know a word of Japanese,” Zelver said.

In a September 1942 issue, Life magazine published an article titled, “The Japanese Language: A national secret code, it is perfect for hiding facts or saying what you don’t mean.” The article said that the Office of War Information was looking for American linguists who could speak Japanese and work in intelligence.

“One of the most troublesome war shortages faced by the U.S. since Pearl Harbor has been the acute lack of non-Japanese American citizens who understand the Japanese language,” the article said.

The key wording is “non-Japanese American citizens.”

By the end of the war, 6,000 second generation Japanese American citizens, or Nisei, would serve as interrogators and translators in the U.S. Military Intelligence Service. In total, 33,000 Japanese Americans served in various U.S. military branches during WWII, according to the American Veterans Center.

However, the Nisei were widely distrusted in the U.S. during WWII, especially after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. In 2006, the U.S. Army published a book, “Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service,” by Army historian James McNaughton. It describes American sentiment toward the Japanese during this time period:

“No amount of Nisei cooperation or fervent declarations of patriotism such as the ‘Japanese American Creed’ could allay white suspicions that at least some Nisei might prove disloyal.”

That distrust manifested in a number of ways, including the relocation and imprisonment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps between 1942 and 1946. It also led to Zelver’s job.

According to McNaughton, the military couldn’t ignore the need for Nisei soldiers and their ability to translate Japanese messages and interrogate informants or prisoners of war. So they enlisted white men to “serve as team leaders” over Nisei. And for that to work, the white officers needed to speak and understand Japanese.

“Well, catch-22, there were no Americans who spoke Japanese,” Zelver said.

When it was determined that Zelver qualified to serve as a Japanese language officer, he was sent back to school. He took Japanese 101 at Stanford, and then moved onto the Military Intelligence Language Schools at the University of Michigan and Fort Smelling. He also went to basic training so that he was prepared for both communication and combat.

Japanese is an incredibly difficult language to learn, Zelver said. There are thousands of characters, or kanji, that make up the language. To be fluent, a person needs to know roughly 2,000 kanji. Zelver learned about 500 over two years.

“You have to be really motivated (to learn). I had the option of digging a fox hole or learning Japanese,” Zelver said.

In the spring of 1945, Zelver boarded a warship that embarked for Asia. The ship arrived in Calcutta after circumnavigating Australia in a six-week journey. He was stationed for a short time at Camp Kanchrapara, where he got an orientation for living in the China-Burma-India Theater.

He learned the importance of a mosquito net for sleeping and taking Atabrine tablets to suppress the symptoms of malaria. Side effects included yellow tinted skin and possible psychosis.

Next, Zelver was sent to north to join the China offensive. He was tasked with escorting three Japanese prisoners of war to Kunming, China. And to get there, he had to fly to “the Hump.”

“The Hump” describes the flight over the Himalaya Mountains. Air Force Magazine wrote that the trip made by thousands of planes was “exceptionally dangerous.” Hundreds of planes crashed making the journey.

Zelver’s trip was successful. He made it to Camp Chabua on the other side.

“When I was in Camp Chabua, a little boy came up with a tray of aluminum watch bands, so I bought one. It occurred to me later that the aluminum had come from the planes that had crashed,” Zelver said.

This was now July 1945, which was one month before the war ended. But Zelver didn’t know that at the time, and said the war seemed “interminable.”

It was around this time Zelver was asked if he’d volunteer for a covert mission. The plan was to drop him behind enemy lines with a Nisei officer for reconnaissance. Apparently, Zelver said, Japanese military officers were careless with documents because they assumed there weren’t any Americans who could decode their meaning.

Zelver and the other officer were to go into Japanese occupied towns, collect these documents, translate them and relay the message back to the Allies.

“I assumed that when they asked you to volunteer for a mission, it’s not something you’d volunteer for. But they ask so they can tell your family that you had volunteered,” Zelver said.

In reality, he had no choice.

The mission was scheduled to begin at the end of August, when the next full moon would allow the team to travel at night into Japanese-held territory.

But then, on Aug. 6, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On Aug. 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. And on Aug. 15, the Japanese accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered.

Zelver was spared from the perilous mission he’d been assigned, although his military service was far from over.

He flew over Hiroshima on his way to Tokyo to be part of the U.S. occupation of Japan after victory had been declared. The pilot flew low over the city that had been decimated by that single bomb. Zelver saw the rubble and ash of what was left.

It’s the most important memory he has from the war, Zelver said. Since the war ended, he’s done his own research and read declassified documents that have led him to believe the bombing was unnecessary. He read that the Japanese were open to peace earlier in the year and about miscommunication during negotiations due to the language barrier that proved detrimental.

He describes the invention of the atomic bomb as a natural disaster.

“With the atomic bomb, there was never any hesitancy. Winston Churchill said we would drop the bomb if we could develop it, so I think there was a desire to see what it could do,” Zelver said.

He said he knows this is a controversial opinion, that some people believe it was the only way for the U.S. to end the war.

Nearly 60 years later, Zelver met a survivor of the bombing when she spoke in Bozeman. Her name was Shigeko Sasamori and she was touring with the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation. The foundation later asked Zelver to speak about his experience in the war at a peace conference in Hiroshima. It was one of four trips Zelver took back to Japan after the war ended.

On another trip after the war, he visited a family he had lived with during the American occupation of Japan.

He lived in Japan for more than a year after V-J Day, and became immersed in the culture. He knocked on the door of a random house and asked if the person knew of any rooms in the neighborhood for rent. That Japanese man who answered said it would be an honor for an American soldier to live in his home with his family.

After Zelver repatriated to the U.S., he went back to Stanford for a third time to get a graduate degree in art. There he met his wife, Patricia, and they later had two children. He worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, then Sunset Magazine and eventually became a city planning consultant.

Although his time in Japan was short, it was impactful. For years after he left, Zelver exchanged Christmas cards with the family he lived with during the occupation. He no longer viewed them as “the enemy.”

“I found that the dinner table talk was about the same as here,” Zelver said. “They want their daughters to marry well, they want their kids to get into good schools — it wasn’t all that different.”

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at or at 582-2607.

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