PRESIDIO OF SAN FRANCISCO -- Twenty years in the making, the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center opened at Crissy Field on the Presidio of San Francisco on Veterans Day.

The Center's purpose is to commemorate and honor the legacy of Japanese American Soldiers who were trained military intelligence linguists serving within combat units during WWII in the Pacific.

"It is here at this center that the story of these veterans' courage, sacrifice and love of country will be told, so that our children, grandchildren and future generations will remember what happened here and will continue to honor that legacy," said Bryan Yagi, president of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

A secret Army Language School was formed Nov. 1, 1941, with 58 Japanese American, or Nisei meaning second generation, and two Caucasian Soldiers.

The language students were secretly trained as military interpreters in Building 640, an abandoned airplane hangar on Crissy Field. Under austere conditions, with few books, using orange crates as desks and chairs, some 6,000 linguists eventually graduated from the program.

"Their (Nisei) specialized knowledge of the Japanese language and culture helped gain a tactical and strategic advantage over their opponents. In post-war Japan, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, these 'grassroots' ambassadors helped lay the groundwork for Japan's transition to a democracy," Yagi said.

The school was moved to Camp Savage, Minn., in 1942 after Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, ironically, by the same government they supported.

"We began a long journey here to prove we are Americans. … In 1943 we were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army … and 33,000 of us volunteered in World War II. The Nisei fought all over, in eight major campaigns, received 18,000 decorations and 21 medals of honor," said Maj. Gen. Arthur Ishimoto. A native of Hawaii, Ishimoto joined the military right out of high school, just after Pearl Harbor and attended the Camp Savage language school that was renamed the Military Intelligence Service School, known as MISLS.

"We were taught (by elders) to 'not give up and hang in there,' and these values carried us through the war," he said, adding that the work of MIS Soldiers included not only translation of documents and interrogating prisoners of war, but also entailed "chasing enemies out of caves, parachuting behind enemy lines, and blowing up bridges."

Today, no veterans remain who graduated from the secret language school at the Presidio of San Francisco while a few hundred remain who graduated from the MISLS during World War II. Most of the veterans are in their 90s and are extremely proud of the new center which will keep history alive and their memories fresh.

"This has been a long time coming," said Koji Ozawa, who was deployed to the Philippines with a war crimes investigation unit, interpreted for prisoners of war, translated documents, and was later stationed in Japan.

"It has been 70 years since the war ended and I am lucky to be alive to see this. I was planning on coming with Tom Sakamoto," said Ozawa, speaking of retired Col. Tom Sakamoto, who passed away a week prior to the event. Sakamoto was a first class graduate of the school as well as an instructor whose monetary contributions included $100,000 and an unwavering commitment to the 20-year plan.

The building of the 10,000 square-foot center was initiated in 1993 by the National Japanese American Historical Society with support from the Military Intelligence Service Association of Northern California.

Through diligent work by the Golden Gate National Recreational Area/National Park Service; The Presidio Trust with Congressional support by Senators Daniel Akaka, Daniel Inouye, Dianne Feinstein, and Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi; and with grassroots political support from the National Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese American Veterans Association, led to the completion of this project.

The center includes interactive exhibits about Japanese American history, development of the MIS, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 (Internment), as well as the history of MIS in Minnesota.

Exhibits include a classroom mock-up in Building 640, a database of MIS students and graduates, members of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the MIS Honor Wall -- containing names of over 13,000 MIS Soldiers, instructors, support staff and others who served alongside the MIS.