When CU taught the language of the enemy

by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, January 19, 1999)

One of Boulder’s best-kept secrets during World War II was the U. S. Navy’s Japanese language school at the University of Colorado. In the spring of 1942, shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, students and instructors slipped in unnoticed from their former location in Berkeley to study the language of the enemy.

The Navy reasoned that if their personnel knew the language, the U.S. would be in a better position to interrogate prisoners, translate documents, and break codes.

“What we didn’t know about the Japanese was tremendous,” said Dr. Ross Ingersoll, a graduate of the school. Now 84 years old, he lives in a Denver apartment decorated with Japanese art. Recently he shared with me his recollections of the clandestine wartime operation.

Although Ingersoll had graduated from CU in 1937 with a major in French and a minor in Italian and received masters and doctoral degrees in Romance languages from Northwestern University, the Navy’s Japanese class clearly became the most intensive course of study of his life.

Ingersoll had wanted to serve his country but had been classified 4-F by his draft board because of an ulcer and an elusive heart murmur. He had returned to CU and was teaching Spanish when the Japanese language school was implemented. Its goal was to provide a practical working knowledge of Japanese in one year.

At its peak there were 600 students as well as 125 teachers who were mostly women born in the U. S. of Japanese parents. Classes were staggered. Ingersoll’s began in March, 1943, and consisted of five or six men. They met four hours a day five days a week in the “old” Memorial Building, now Economics. Unlike a conventional language approach, there was no discussion of grammar, just a gradual unfolding of the language during the first two hours spent with texts called “Naganuma Readers.”

After the reading period there was a hour of conversation with a final hour of dictation including a drill in Japanese calligraphy. After classes there were 10 or more hours of individual concentrated study.

Every Saturday the students took a three-hour exam covering the week’s work. Immediately following the weekday classes and the Saturday exams was an hour of “undoo,” or physical exercise, a combination of military drill and calisthenics.

“This murderous schedule continued without noticeable variation week after week,” said Ingersoll. The only break he and his friends got was when they “slipped around behind the Field House, sat on the banks above Boulder Creek, and smoked, drilled each other in vocabulary, or just philosophized on the state of the world.”

The more Ingersoll learned of the Japanese language, the more he faced a conflict. “Generally the study of a foreign language serves to develop an interest in and empathy with the people who speak the language under study,” he said. “It was hard not to become interested in and sympathetic with the people, their customs, literature, and so on. But we were not there to learn to like the Japanese, and occasionally we were reminded of that fact.”

By mid-summer, Ingersoll had been commissioned as an ensign. By then, a small number of women had also joined the program as WAVES, the Navy women’s reserve.

Most of the single students lived in dormitories but many attended Saturday night parties at married students’ apartments. Even then, the language school was on everyone’s minds. Then men gathered in the kitchens, drank rum, and “talked about the day’s exam, the past week’s work, the coming week’s work, grammatical problems, teachers, and anything and everything language school.”

Ingersoll felt fortunate that he could serve his country within the safety and comfort of the CU campus. While others were being shot at in the Pacific, the language students were told that they couldn’t travel more than 50 miles from Boulder. Said Ingersoll, “Life wasn’t as bad as we sometimes pretended it was.”

After he graduated from the language school in May, 1944, Ingersoll reported to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D. C. Some of the other graduates became Japanese scholars. The Japanese language school evolved into CU’s Oriental language department. Eventually Ingersoll became a humanities professor at Woodbury University in California, but he never lost his interest in Japanese language and culture.

He likes to reflect on a recent comment by classmate Howard Boorman who said, “The essential point is not so much the quality or the scale of the professional contribution made by alumni/alumnae of the Navy language program, but rather the intensity of the original experience which not even a half-century of time can erase.”

Added Ingersoll, “That’s so true.”

[Note: Ross Ingersoll died in 2002.]

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