Japanese Americans on Cat Island

During World War II, anti-Japanese sentiment spread across the United States. For Japanese Americans, the war meant internment, segregation, and unjust treatment. 33,000 second-generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei (NEE-say), volunteered to serve in the armed forces despite the prejudice they faced. Of those, 19,000 served in three segregated units: 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service. The men of the 100th were Japanese Americans from Hawaii. These units became some of the most decorated during WWII, with the 100th earning the nickname “the Purple Heart Battalion.”

In late 1942, the US Army selected Nisei from the 100th to take part in a top-secret training mission. Whisked away under secrecy, the soldiers traveled to Ship Island, Mississippi. Ray Nosaka, one of the selected Nisei, noted that the group did whatever they wanted for the first two weeks until “Major Lovell came and told us that we are going to train dogs and it’s located on Cat Island.”

The Japanese American soldiers boated six miles every day from Ship Island to Cat Island. Rather than teach the dogs, however, the Nisei participated in a complex game of hide-and-seek. Swiss dog trainer William A. Prestre believed that Japanese people smell different than Americans. To test his theory, Prestre had the Nisei men run drills with the dogs. The soldiers hid in the marshy lands of Cat Island while the dogs tracked them.

Dogs can differentiate between people, but it is due to diet and not a natural scent stemming from ancestry. Japanese Americans did not eat the same diet as Japanese soldiers, so the training failed. Some of these dogs, coming from civilian homes, also lacked the nature to attack on command. As the dogs became familiar with the Nisei, tracking skills improved but attacks decreased.

Prestre ordered the Nisei to hurt the dogs to create aggression, against the desires of the men. Injuries were common for the Nisei, though the protective gear they wore prevented serious harm. The top-secret mission ended after four months.

The Japanese Americans training on Cat Island took part in a brutal mission under the idea of helping protect all American soldiers. Though Nosaka joked “the gang was getting fat, what with all the eating they did and the beer they drank,” these American soldiers forcibly sacrificed their safety for a misguided attempt at improving jungle warfare. Their mission was so secret, it remained hidden for years following the end of WWII.

Today, the legacy of Japanese Americans’ bravery during WWII is honored. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a bill presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to the 19,000 Nisei who fought for the United States during the 1940s. While the sounds of barking dogs are long gone from Cat Island, the whispers of its past serve as a lesson in recognizing injustice and reminds us of the valor of the Japanese American soldiers.

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Cuevas, John. Cat Island: The History of a Mississippi Gulf Coast Barrier Island. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2011.

Golden, Kathleen. “Dogs for Defense: How Skip, Spot, and Rover Went Off To Fight World War II.” National Museum of American History.

Japanese American Veterans Association.

Lange, Katie. “Japanese-Americans Were Vital to the WWII War Effort.” DoD News.

Lemish, Michael G. War Dogs: A History of Loyalty and Heroism. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1999.

Nosaka, Ray. “Secret Mission: Dog Training.”

Paltzer, Seth. “The Dogs of War: The U.S. Army’s Use of Canines in WWII.” National Museum of the United States Army.

Smithsonian Institution, “American Heroes: Japanese American WWII Nisei Soldiers and the Congressional Gold Medal,”

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Last updated: April 14, 2020