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News | July 6, 2021

The Making of a Military Linguist: Col. Alva Lasswell, USMC

Language analysts have always been an important part of intelligence work. After World War I (WW I), as the U.S. Navy saw an ever-increasing threat from the Empire of Japan, the leadership decided to set up a language program to train naval personnel as skilled language analysts. However, one of the participants, NSA Hall of Honor member Col Alva Lasswell, may never have studied the Japanese language if not for a serendipitous meeting.

In the early 20th century, Japan was becoming a major naval power. After WWI, Japan was seen not only as a potential threat to other countries in the region, but to American economic and military interests. It became apparent to the U.S. Navy that it might have to fight Japan at some point (though Japan had been on the U.S. side in WW I) and that the country would need Japanese language analysts in that fight.

In the interwar period, finding American students who had studied German, Italian, or other European languages wasn't particularly difficult. Finding students who had studied Japanese was nearly impossible though. The majority of the people who understood Japanese were either Japanese heritage speakers or missionaries. However, the U.S. Navy leadership wanted experienced naval personnel who also understood Japanese. They decided that immersion training was the best way to achieve that goal.

In 1918, the Navy started sending small groups of sailors for a three-year, full immersion program in Japan. Participants were attached to the U.S. Embassy as military liaisons, but their sole purpose was to learn the language. For several hours a day, native Japanese speakers came to their homes to teach the language. The participants were also frequently tested, either with written tests or on field trips to various places of cultural interest.

One of the people sent to this language training was 2nd Lt. Alva B. Lasswell, USMC, who would go on to translate critical messages concerning the Battle of the Coral Sea, Battle of Midway, and the shootdown of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, among others. Before that, in the mid-1930s, he was working in the base supply, when he was told to report to his commanding officer. He had no idea why he was wanted for the meeting, but he wanted to make sure he had something to talk about if conservation lagged.

He took with him a copy of the Marine Bulletin that had an interesting ad about language immersion training in Japan and Russia. While he didn't think he was a good fit because of his lack of educational background, he thought it was an amazing opportunity for someone else. He remembered years later that he was surprised at his commander’s reaction when he brought it up at the end of the meeting. He said:

“… I was just trying to keep the conversation going so that it didn’t sound as though I had all my feet in my mouth, you know. So, when we had finished and there was a little loll in the conversation I said, “Well, it looks like somebody’s going to get a soft job.” And he says, “I saw that, Lasswell … you write a request. I’ll see you get it.” Just like that. I hadn’t even thought about it.

“… So I went back to my little cubicle … company office there, and … I thought about this thing and I said, ‘This is silly.’ So I wrote — and it’s still in my file here — a little … I typed it up myself ‘cause I didn’t want to make a big thing out of it. And I said, ‘From Second Lieutenant Alva B. Lasswell …’ I think I was still a second lieutenant … I may have been a first at that point. ‘To the Commandant Marine Corps, via chain-of-command and so forth …’ And in paragraph one, ‘It is requested I be assigned to the study of the Japanese language.’ Paragraph two, ‘I am not married.’ And I signed it. That’s all that’s in it. And it got into the colonel’s office. He wrote a two-page endorsement on the thing. He got in his car, went to Washington D.C., and delivered it. Two weeks later I was under orders. I don’t know how … It happened so damn fast that I was dizzy over the thing. And I still didn’t think that I was the right choice. Although I guess I’ve made more use of it than anyone they’ve ever sent out there in all the years they have.”

Lasswell would spend three years studying the Japanese language in country from 1935 to 1938. While he was there, he fell in love and married the daughter of an American businessman. She spoke fluent Japanese and taught him slang that wasn't in the traditional classroom study. He would later go off to other assignments, including a covert signals collection unit in China in the 1930s. He was at the Combat Intelligence Unit in Hawaii, working on the Japanese naval code, JN-25, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He would be part of the legendary group of analysts at the station in Hawaii under the leadership of CDR Joseph Rochefort that provided essential intelligence during the war, including Japanese plans before the Battle of Midway. Later in the war, Lasswell would translate messages about Admiral Yamamoto’s flight path that led to the shootdown of Yamamoto’s plane.

Lasswell was just one of dozens of students who went through the Navy’s Japanese immersion study program in the interwar period. The program ended up as an invaluable part of U.S. intelligence’s direct support to military operations in the Pacific. Yet, if not for an off-handed comment and a supportive commanding officer, Col Lasswell may never have gone down the career path that would define him — and shape history.

Col. Alva Lasswell, USMC, and Capt., Joseph Rochefort, USN are members of the NSA Hall of Honor.