Secret history of Building 640 revealed


A warehouse across from Crissy Field sits empty and neglected. However, Building 640 has a secret history that's about to be told. In 1941, before Pearl Harbor, it housed the first class of the U.S. Army's secret Military Intelligence Service Language School. Training 60 linguists in anticipation of war with Japan, 58 of them were second generation, or Nisei, born here.

"The U.S. Army knew that Japan's war was coming, so they collected the few Niseis they could find that were bilingual," said Ken Kaji from the Japanese American Historical Society.

Among those Niseis was 93-year-old Tom Sakamoto, who was a 23-year-old private then. Born in San Jose, he had been drafted and found himself in desert anti-tank maneuvers when he was approached by the head of the school.

"He said, 'Sakamoto, I would make you a commissioned officer should you attend this secret school at the Presidio of San Francisco. And that looked a hell of a lot better than being in that desert," said Col. (Ret.) Thomas Sakamoto.

The school was moved to Minnesota after Pearl Harbor and while Sakamoto graduated and went on to become Gen. Douglas MacArthur's interpreter in the Pacific. His family was ordered to leave their San Jose farm and sent to an Arkansas internment camp.

Now Building 640 will become a learning center, telling the story of Japanese Americans like Sakamoto, his story of patriotism, and the pain of prejudice.

"Some of us wanted to prove ourselves in combat of our loyalty to our country, and that, I think, is a big lesson for future generations to see," said Sakamoto.

A model of the future Building 640 is at the National Japanese American Historical Society, which has helped make the learning center dream a reality. The Presidio Trust also played a role.

"This incredible piece of property that you're looking at is a very important piece of history that is not only important to the National Japanese American Historical Society, but important to the country," said Craig Middleton, the Presidio Trust executive director.

Sakamoto ended up staying in the Army with a long and distinguished career that included serving as President Dwight Eisenhower's interpreter.

The boy from San Jose now relishes the memories and is hopeful Building 640 will help keep them alive for future generations.

The groundbreaking for the learning center is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011.

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