Stealth technology pioneer to get honorary MU doctorate

Thursday, December 18, 2008 | 9:25 p.m. CST; updated 11:53 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 18, 2008

COLUMBIA — Today, F. Robert Naka is a respected engineer. He worked on the U-2 spy plane and stealth technology for the SR-71 Blackbird, served as the U.S. Air Force’s chief scientist and ran a covert government reconnaissance office.

The government even gave him a cover during the 1960s and '70s because his work with spy satellites was top-secret.

Commencement information


School of Nursing 

1 p.m., in Jesse Auditorium, followed by a reception in the Jesse Hall Rotunda

College of Education

3:30 p.m., in Jesse Auditorium

College of Business

4:30 p.m., Hearnes Center

School of Journalism

6 p.m., Jesse Auditorium

Graduate School

8 p.m., Hearnes Center


Honors Ceremony

8:30 a.m., Jesse Auditorium

School of Natural Resources

11:30 a.m., Jesse Auditorium

College of Arts and Science

12:30 p.m., Hearnes Center

College of Engineering

2 p.m., Jesse Auditorium

College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

3 p.m., Hearnes Center, note that the School of Natural Resources ceremony will be held separately. Reception in Hearnes Fieldhouse.

College of Human Environmental Sciences

4:30 p.m., Jesse Auditorium


School of Social Work

Graduating students in this discipline participate in the College of Human Environmental Sciences ceremony.


The ROTC commissioning of officers will begin at 1:30 p.m in the Stotler Lounge

Columbia College

Noon, Saturday, Dec. 20, Southwell Complex Gymnasium. Students may also participate at other campus locations nationwide.

Sources: MU's Web site, Columbia College's Web site

But before all that, he was simply a pre-engineering student at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1942, looking for a greater challenge.

“I’d wanted to be a mechanical engineer,” he said. “I decided somewhere along the line that mechanical was too easy and thought electrical would be more challenging.”

“It’s kind of a dumb statement to make, I suppose, but it’s the truth,” he said.

Dumb is not a word many would use to describe Naka, who will receive an honorary doctorate from the MU College of Engineering on Friday for his work in the field of electrical engineering.

From Manzanar to MU

Naka's return to MU comes 65 years after he walked the campus as a student. In 1943, Naka came to MU from Manzanar War Relocation Center near Independence, Calif.

Like 120,000 other Japanese Americans, the government moved Naka to an internment camp during World War II, forcing him to leave his home and budding academic career at UCLA behind.

“These camps were rudimentary,” Naka said. “In the barracks, the roof beams showed. The outside of the roof and outside walls were covered with tar paper, which adds a rather grotesque appearance."

"It was peaceful in the interior, but with watchtowers and armed soldiers. It was pretty evident that we were prisoners,” he said.

Naka had spent nine months in the camp when the Japanese American Student Relocation Council and the American Friends Service Committee found a way for him to resume his education.

“My understanding is that many university presidents met and concluded that to interrupt college educations would be detrimental to the (interned) students and society as a whole,” Naka said. "I was surprised when, in 1942, they told me to prepare to attend Ohio State.”

Naka was ready to leave the camp when news of an anti-Japanese student uprising at Ohio State prompted the council to send him to MU instead. When Naka arrived in Columbia, he found no such prejudice.

“I was just like any other student,” he said, “both welcomed and ignored.” While at MU, he developed a close relationship with engineering professor Milo Myrum Bolstadt.

Bolstadt later found Naka a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, where he met his wife, Patricia Neilon Naka. The two married in 1949 while Naka pursued his doctorate at Harvard University.

Under the radar

Throughout his career, Naka has worked on many projects of great importance to the United States. In the early '50s, he worked to invent an electronic backup that helped reduce early-warning radar crews from 250 people to 10 people. In 1956, he worked with other engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory on the famous U-2 Program, which led to further research on how to reduce an aircraft’s radar cross-section, though exactly how he did it is still classified.

Some call him the “Father of Stealth Technology” for this research, Naka said, but he doesn't agree. “Call me a pioneer, maybe, but no, no, not ‘the father,’” he said.

In 1969, Naka’s former boss asked him to serve as the National Reconnaissance Office deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space systems — a position created as a cover for his real job.

In truth, Naka was the deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, an office that didn’t officially exist. “My covert job description was to direct and manage the reconnaissance office and oversee research, acquisitions and operations,” he said.

He held that position for 3 1/2 years, and continued his research at several companies. He served as chief scientist for the Air Force from 1975-78 and eventually retired as the vice president of engineering for GTE Government Systems.

The secrecy of Naka's work made it a bit difficult for MU to award him the degree.

Susan Wampler, the director of external relations for the College of Engineering, said, "Much of his work will be unclassified in the near future, but that was the biggest obstacle for us. We had all these people telling us, 'He's fabulous, but we can't tell you why.'"

Retired, but involved

Now retired, Naka still sits on two government advisory committees and concentrates on his philanthropy. He's been generous to MU, having started two scholarship funds, one with money from government reparations he received for his internment. The Nakas also established a professorship for electrical engineering. His wife has since died.

Wampler said that the department was happy to recognize Naka's professional accomplishments and service to the school.

"For us, it was kind of a no-brainer," she said. "We have many impressive graduates, but Naka really stands out. His career successes have been not only at the national level, but the international as well."

Naka said his journey from a distrusted American to one trusted with some of the government’s most guarded secrets shows the opportunities available to academics in the United States. “Only in America could such a transition of trust take place,” Naka said. “I think the academic community is totally without prejudice.”

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