By Kat Bergeron
BILOXI, Miss. _ A cryptic letter discovered by a Kansas City World War II collector has lured a crew of PBS's popular "History Detectives" to the Mississippi Coast in search of answers about secretive war-dog training on Cat Island.
The letter, written by a World War II soldier, made reference to a plan to train dogs to attack Japanese.
Raymond Nosaka, Hawaii, is a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese. He has come to the Coast to describe for the PBS program the failed experiment to teach dogs to hate Japanese soldiers. The spry 92-year-old openly talks about the challenging five months when, as a loyal American soldier, he was ordered to taunt dogs and allow them to assault him.
Nosaka remembers clinging to trees in the swamps, facing the possibility of falling into the mouths of vicious dogs and alligators.
"This was so top secret that for 10 years we were not allowed to talk about it," said Nosaka, a retired IRS agent.
Nosaka and 26 others from Company B of the 100th Infantry Battalion Separate ("separate" indicates Japanese descent) were hand-picked in 1942, flown to Mississippi under cover and whisked to mosquito-infested Ship Island to live. The Coast Guard daily ferried them to a dog-training camp on Cat Island, where they progressed from making the dogs track them to attack them.
"The trainers didn't say, 'Go get them,' they say, 'kill,'" said Nosaka, who was on territorial guard duty at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed; he then was in the first Army draft.
Nosaka will be an eyewitness for "History Detectives," co-produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and expected to air in June. Other experts will be included, but on a recent Friday morning Nosaka was in the camera's spotlight when Tukufu Zuberi, the show's host, interviewed him at VFW Post 4526 in Gulfport, Miss. Today, Zuberi heads to the island, now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore chain.
"What sets this one apart is Cat Island, and hanging out with dogs," said Zuberi. "A swampy island is definitely a different dimension."
The mystery for this segment's detectives swirls around the name "Pestre" found in the soldier's letter. He may be the "Swiss man" who convinced President Roosevelt dogs could be trained to hate Japanese soldiers. You must wait until the show airs to find out.
The Nisei were picked because they were loyal U.S. soldiers but Japanese in appearance and, so the theory went, in smell. After the experiment failed and was closed down in five months, an intelligence investigation followed.
The 400 island dogs continued to be trained as sentries, scouts, suicide dogs and to locate wounded soldiers. Americans had donated 18,000 pets to be trained in the country's four war canine centers.
Amazingly, the vicious attacks did not change Nosaka's lifelong love of dogs.
The Nisei arrived in Mississippi on Nov. 6, 1942. Two years later on that same date, Nosaka was fighting the Germans in Italy when he and several others were injured by a bomb blast. When they took shelter in a cave, what showed up to comfort them? A mystery dog.
The hound shared its affection and much-needed body warmth but disappeared just before rescuers arrived.