442nd Antitank Company
Shiroku "Whitey" Yamamoto
Shiroku "Whitey" Yamamoto is born in 1923 in Ninole, Hawaii. His father, 46 years old when Whitey is born, names him Shiroku - shi for four, roku for six.
Whitey is the only son of immigrants Asaemon and Kimiko Yamamoto. His mother leaves the family, and his father, Asaemon, an independent sugar cane cultivator, raises Whitey on his own.
His father dies in 1941. Orphaned at age 17, Whitey is cared for by foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. Elvis Rhoads.
Whitey came about when I was going to Stout Institute in Wisconsin. And the poor professor, she’s from Tennessee, she cannot pronounce my name, Yamamoto and Shiroku. So I got together with her, “Let’s settle this thing once and for all.” And I explained to her, “Shiro is ‘white’ in Japanese so why don’t we call me ‘Whitey’,” because Whitey is so common. So that’s the way it started. So it started up in Wisconsin. And the people on the mainland refer to me as “Whitey,” they all know me by “Whitey.” And when I came back here to Hawaii, I tried to tell my friends or anybody that I know to call me “Whitey” from here on, it’s easy.
[I]f anybody called me “Shiro” or “Shiroku” and I have to stop and think, “Gosh, I wonder who could that be.” But the only people who would know would be when I was growing up, going to school, when I was in the lower grades going to school. They’re the only ones who used to call me “Shiro” for short or call me “Shiroku.” So here on it’s always been “Whitey.” Even my wife calls me “Whitey.”
I was born in 1923. . .in Ninole, Hawaii, on the Big Island, out in the Hamakua Coast.
My parents’ name is Yamamoto. And my mother, which I’m not acquainted, I don’t remember how she looked like because I was only three months old before she left me. And my dad brought me up until he passed away.
[W]hen I was born, my dad [Asaemon Yamamoto] was in the forties already so my guess, from what I know, is that he named me “Shiroku” when he was I think forty-six years old so that he can remember, Shiroku. . .Yes, so for a number of years, all my life my dad was alive, he took care of me and raised me up until I was able to return that favor before he passed away to take care of him. And he passed on in 1941.
[M]y dad was a cane planter. He had an individual cane field next to our house, which was about four, five acres of land. And he had another piece of land that he leased up on the forest line on the Big Island. So he raised the sugar cane alternately so that he can take care of the sugar cane on one property. When that is fully grown and ready to be harvested, he was concentrating on the other cane field up on the forest line. So he sort of alternate his crops. So he was occupied throughout the year.
My dad worked on the land. So if he was working right next to our house, well, it’s no problem for him. But since he has his property on the forest line, that’s about, oh, almost two miles or so to get up to the forest line, so he had a horse, a mule, that he had. And then when I was growing up as a young boy and Dad would be working out in the field, I would cut grass to feed the horse. So that’s the only transportation.
And I can remember he used to carry me on his back, to go up to the forest line, and as he was working out in the field, he would find some dry sugar cane leaves, lay it down on the ground, and put the raincoat, which was a homemade raincoat, on top of the pile of dry sugar cane leaves to make it comfortable for me to sleep or play. And then I always had a bottle of milk so that I can drink milk if I want to drink milk on it, you know. And that’s how he worked and constantly keeping an eye on me so that I don’t get lost in the cane field or out in the forest (chuckles) if I crawled. But I wasn’t able to walk anyway or go too far, yeah. So that’s the way he used to do his sugar cane business. . .
When the cane was ready to be harvested, he hired the plantation, like, next to our house was Laupahoehoe Sugar Company so he would ask the plantation to harvest the cane and that’s how he got his income after the harvest. Now the one up on the forest line, that is with Hakalau Plantation Company, so he made arrangements with them. So that’s how it’s done.
I guess we had no choice [economically]. That’s the only way they can make a livelihood is to raise the sugar cane and then survive that way. And the only time they can get payments would be after the harvesting of the sugar cane. And the plantation would take up all the expenses and the food that he was charging from the plantation stores and then they would take all that expenses of accumulation of the expenses, then he would get his portion of it and that’s the way he survived, we survived actually, between he and I, yeah.
We had a few chickens running around. . .I don’t remember eating any meat. But Dad used to buy fish. And of course those peddlers would come around. But it’s so, you know, inexpensive compared to what it is today. Well, those days you could buy a whole tuna for ten cents or fifteen cents, like that. So he made use of the whole fish. So that’s the most I can think of. No meat, but a fish, vegetables, and that’s about it that I can think of.
[W]e raised our own vegetables. Dad used to have a little garden so he raised. When the sugar cane is caught up and he has nothing to do, that’s what he used to enjoy, raising sugar cane. And then being down next to the gulch, he had a fairly good-sized patch of watercress. And that watercress was really good because you have a constant flow of natural cold water, spring water. So the watercress is really wonderful. All his watercress was big and long. And it’s so soft. The ones that you find in the market today (chuckles) those we don’t consider good watercress. They get a lot of roots on that. But no, this watercress, you can just break it off, almost about a foot long, and so soft, with your finger you can break it off.
[My father's illness] was a desperate moment for me already. And I didn’t know what to do, how to go about it. So I went down to Laupahoehoe School and talked with Mr. Rhoads being the only person that I was able to get in touch with to help me out. Because Laupahoehoe had a hospital, plantation hospital, and Mr. Rhoads was a good friend of the manager, which is Mr. Hutchinson, and he made arrangements to move my dad from my house, our house, down to Laupahoehoe Hospital. And within a week period of time, he passed on.
So the fields were, I just let it go, I didn’t know what to do with it. So Mr. Rhoads made arrangements with the plantation to harvest the crops when it’s fully matured. And then that was the final thing. So both the farm, sugar cane farm next to our house and up on the forest line, after the harvesting of the crop, that’s finalized, that was the end of that venture.
Mr. Rhoads, his name is Elvis Rhoads — was school principal at Laupahoehoe to start with. And when the war came, he was transferred over to Hilo Intermediate. And before the summer was up, they transferred him to Hilo High School. And we had a house on Haili Street.
I called [the Rhoads] “Mom” and “Dad.” Yeah, I was very comfortable. And they accepted me calling that. So anything, oh, I spent a lot of time with the family. So it’s just like one big family. They made feel as if I’m part of their family.
So they were very much concerned about me being the only child at the age of sixteen or seventeen by that time already. And [Mr. Rhoads] was very sympathetic and tried to help me out and he helped. Of course, we don’t have - my dad didn’t have hardly anything anyway, so not much of an assets or anything like that. But he felt very pitiful to help me out and, well, he did a lot of help, how shall I say, and went make arrangement with Judge McLaughlin over at Third Circuit Court. And that’s how the judge appointed him to be my administrator. So that’s how I got involved with that wonderful family, the Rhoads family.
I was kind of concerned about myself. So after joining the CCC, I started to work with Moses Stationery Company instead of going back to school. And worked over there. Then before too long, the following year, the war came by in 1941. So I still continued until the time they asked us to form the 442 by volunteering and then be in the service that way. But all the time I was on the Big Island, the Rhoads family always kept close in touch with me, they helped me out that way, whatever I wanted to get advice, they were always there.
Oh, yes [it was an adjustment]. In fact, it was, to me, it’s more luxury like, yeah. Because white people they have a better living arrangement. And their food is different, of course, but still no problem for me as far as food intake. So I felt very comfortable with them. So I was very fortunate that way. I can have good food. And they were concerned about my welfare, see to it that I could be adjusted to live among a family group because prior to that it was just my dad and I. So it’s a different arrangement. And to call somebody “Mom” is really nice. I was very fortunate that way.
Whitey Yamamoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Whitey Yamamoto.