Tinian’s School for Japanese Children, 1944-1945

Tinian’s School for Japanese Children, 1944-1945

Reverend Mook has now joined his many US Navy and US Marine Japanese Language Officers who have gone before. Please accept my deepest condolences on your loss.

Respectfully, David M. Hays, Archivist
University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries

Telfer Mook has been an active member of the US Navy Japanese/Oriental Language School Archival Project since 2001 <http://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/archives/collections/jlsp/index.htm>. A number of years ago, he came to Boulder to give a talk on his Tinian School and the reunion that resulted 50 years later. We will post his obituary in a future issue of our newsletter, THE INTERPRETER. He was an admired and well known graduate of the USN JLS/OLS and he will be missed. Here is the story we posted in the newsletter on his Tinian School:

Tinian’s School for Japanese Children, 1944-1945

In July 1944, when Lt., j.g. Telfer Mook, JLO (JLS 1944), went ashore on Tinian, he was confronted with several thousand surviving captured children. Since the saying went, “Golden Gate in ’48”, Lt. Mook wondered what would become of the children. Then he remembered a semi-burned Japanese math book he had stepped on as he had come ashore. He discussed the matter with his commander and received a perfunctory go-ahead.

So he asked through the POW camp if there were any Japanese teachers. A handful came forward, fearful and curious. They wondered how they could be of use since they knew very little English and they assumed the classes would be held in English (as the Japanese conquest had imposed Japanese on schools in the “Greater Prosperity Sphere”). Mook replied with the comments, “Do you speak English? Do the children speak English? No? So why would we try to teach in English? No, the classes will be taught in Japanese,” much to the surprise of the teachers.

Lt. j.g. Mook then asked if they knew where any texts would be. The teachers knew that many texts may have been preserved in the basement of the school that had been destroyed by the naval shelling and aerial bombardment. Indeed a later search revealed the texts, but Mook found them rife with Imperial Japanese propaganda, even the math and science books. The Lt. j.g. asked the teachers to write texts stripped of such propaganda. When the first came back with a new text, Mook found that the teacher had kept most of the propaganda, not expecting Mook to be able to read Japanese. Mook fired him. The others got the message and brought back proper texts.

He was able to convince the senior teacher, Nobuji Ikeda, to help lead the effort for the sake of the children. The next step was to request material for school buildings. His commander directed the Seabees to build a number of quonset huts. He was also was able to scrounge plywood and lumber on the beaches left from offloading military equipment. The plywood was painted black to served as giant blackboards, so that the handful of texts could be transcribed, as time went by, on the “blackboards”.

One of his biggest challenges resulted from his insistence (over the Japanese teachers’ resistance) that the genders be taught together. The teachers believed the girls, after 4th grade, could not compete with the boys. Mook, making it up as he went, insisted that such a contention flew in the face of the findings of American education. The teachers held out on strike and Mook had to occupy the children until the teachers relented. He received scouting uniforms from the US and a variety of sports equipment from the Army Air Force units on Tinian. So Mook had the children marching around in Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops or playing baseball and other sports. The Army fliers and air crews brought footballs, bats and gloves, and coached the children. Mook was touched by the irony that the bombing crews, fresh from raids on cities on the Japanese home islands would adopt Japanese children and play games with them. The teachers knew when they were whipped and soon gave in.

Later Lt.j.g. Mook and his teachers concocted a college prep course, but with not enough teachers or texts, they had to hold anonymous qualifying exams. Girls and boys qualified in roughly equal numbers. The Japanese teachers, who had graded the exams were forced to admit that Mook had been right.

Lt.j.g. Mook’s school caught the attention of the Navy and Washington. So impressed were they that they offered to let him set up an educational system for the Occupation. But, as Reverend Mook later said, “They made a mistake, they offered me a choice. They made the offer, or, they said, I could go home. So I went home, instead.” He left his school to his assistant, Lt. j.g. Warren Johnston (JLS 1944), two months his junior. Forty-six years after Tefler Mook (JLS 1944) left the Tinian Islands in the South Pacific, he was reunited with 86 year-old, Nobuji Ikeda, his Japanese deputy at the Tinian school. Ikeda finally came into contact with Reverend Mook, when, after 35 years of asking every American he met in Tokyo, “do you know Tefler Mook?”, someone finally did.

The missionary for the United Church of Christ sent word to Mook in India. Mook had been performing missionary work with a major emphasis on education. Finally in February, 1990, Ikeda sent for Mook from his hospital confinement, saying he wished very much to see him before he died.

Mook traveled to Tokyo for the long awaited reunion, which was broadcast on TV in a five-minute news segment. After the coverage, many phone calls were received from former students. The broadcast was arranged by a former neighbor of the Mooks, Shigeko Yukawa, who was now a 27 year-old producer for a Japanese television network. Yukawa moved to New Jersey when she was six, and moved back to Japan when she was twelve, keeping in touch with the Mooks.

When Yukawa learned of the upcoming reunion, she convinced her network to cover it. The TV Station had been considering how to commemorate Pearl Harbor. The overwhelming response from the brief news segment, led Yukawa to promote the filming of a documentary, which would serve as a centerpiece for the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. They were amazed by the remarkable story of a school for Japanese children that the US Navy ran on Tinian, while the war was still underway.

The documentary’s four-person crew began filming in July 1991. Several segments included Mook’s war-time mementoes found in his garage, and Mook visiting with a WWII colleague. Yukawa even enlisted the help of the grandson of Michigan Shores’ residents, Howard and Ruth Pearsall. Their grandson, Tim Kirkwood, played the part of a young Mook during his Navy service.

Also pictured in the film was the Mooks’ return trip to Tinian after 46 long years. On his trip, Tefler Mook could not find a thing on the island that reminded him of his days on Tinian. Before the Army Air Force returned home at the end of the War, they had sown seed on the island to prevent erosion. This had created a dense jungle which was hardly recognizable to Mook. All the Japanese residents had been repatriated in 1946, and the school had been closed forever. The school buildings had probably been dismantled by islanders looking for material to build their houses. After almost half a century, the only thing Mook found that reminded him of his days on the island was a trace of the coral walks built as an airstrip right next to both the school and the prison camp.

The documentary observing the anniversary of Pearl Harbor was aired in Japan on November 30, 1991, although the Mooks did not get to see the final product until they received a copy of the video.

At the reunion, Reverend Mook met with a large number of those who had attended the Tinian School. Most of them were descendents of multi-generational Okinawan sugar cane workers. As children of agricultural laborers, they would have had only a future of work in the fields. The Tinian school, however, had opened their horizons and altered their opportunities. Mook found himself surrounded by grateful professionals, educators, lawyers, and administrators who owed their careers to the Tinian school.

All were also aware of the incredible paradox that the school that had so benefited several thousand Japanese children had been located right next to the same coral airstrip that Tefler Mook rediscovered on his return trip to Tinian, the same coral airstrip from which the Enola Gay had flown its atomic missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nicole Bilbro, Student Assistant
David M. Hays, Archivist & Editor
THE INTERPRETER, Issue #82A, #83,

Drawn from Tom Northway, Benzie County Record-Patriot