232nd Combat Engineer Company
For several years, Hichiro works on the family farm.
Later, he goes into carpentry. While learning the trade on the job, he earns $2 a day - 9 hours a day, 6 days a week.
Beginning at 80 cents per hour, defense jobs are higher paying and more attractive to workers. Seeking a job in defense, Hichiro finds one with Pacific Naval Air Bases. He helps build the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility and Waipahu Tunnel.
I worked in the farm for several years, the family farm, yeah. And then, I think after two years, I went out work as a carpenter. Those days, you want to be a carpenter, always had openings. Majority of the carpenters was Japanese then.
Well, you got to do something, yeah. And I tag along with another brother. I went with him.
Well, you be a helper. The journeyman carpenter tell you do this, do that, bring this, and all that. Mostly what they did was labor jobs, carrying lumber, dig hole, and all that.
[T]he first company I worked for was Otsuki. And then I worked for Murata. I worked for Kimura. And them days, the bosses were mostly Japanese people. And they on the older side and most of them used a lot of [spoken] Japanese.
So, in a way, I had advantage on that. At least I can understand. I couldn’t speak too well but at least I can understand what they say. So it was a big help.
[U]sually [on-the-job training]. They tell you do this. Naturally, pounding a hammer just comes natural to you, right? Anybody. At home, you do that as a kid. When you saw something, you know how to do it. But as you go work for somebody, you gotta cut ’em to certain length and this and that. Then, you gotta tape it off with that rule or whatever. And it’s a lot of common sense.
It’s not that you do something wrong so you go break the lumber, whatever. And the bosses, they koraeru [patient], eh. Yeah, yeah. So not too bad. No problem [if you make mistake]. (Laughter)
I was lucky. I started with two dollars a day. That was good. I know my older brother that I followed, when he started, it was dollar a day. And that was nine hours, plus Saturday, all day.
Imagine, was it Dale or Lara [grandchild], a couple summers ago, she came back — oh, was Dale, I think. She said she’s getting, how much? Ten dollars an hour? No, more than that an hour. I tell ’em, “What?” I tell ’em one-month pay.
As far as leaving the farm, I can leave anytime I wanted because I was on the low man on the totem pole. They can do well without me. Somehow you just get in line and you follow your older brother. You do this, do that, eh. That’s how I went into carpentry. Not because I liked it. I had to do something.
No [pay working on the farm], nothing. You eat. Shee. Well, my mom used to give us spending money, yeah. Kozukai [allowance]. But not steady. Like today, oh, the kids get so much a day.
When you need ’em, you ask ’em. The good part was we used to get whatever we asked for. That’s why we used to go to a lot of, you know like the district used to get this theater, Kalihi Theater. Weekends, oh, we used to like go there. Get plenty the cartoons, comedy, all that.
Well, the early days was nickel. And then later came ten cents, huh?
Yeah, at least we went there. You know, talk about money, not too long ago, Lara [grandchild], she bought something. She had to buy something so, I gave her some money. Afterward, she had a loose change, I tell her, “Keep it.” Had only about fifty cents or seventy-five cents.
She said, “What can you do with this much?” So she returned the money to me. Them days even a quarter or something, big for us.
We used to get nickel, used to buy plenty things. Yeah, crackseed, ice cream, or whatever, shave ice. Now whatever change, they think it’s nothing.
Pacific Naval [Air] Bases, Defense Job
[Y]ou go to the job site and you apply for work. Because those days was, you want to work, get plenty work for you.
Everywhere you go they talk about defense job. And the pay was so good compared with the private contractors. Chee, usually when you work for a private contractor, they pay you by the hour, too, yeah.
But this, well, we worked for the first Pacific Naval [Air] Bases, the cheapest pay was, they start you off with eighty cents an hour. And that was more than double our outside pay. So anybody can see, why not go work for the navy?
Well, usually them days was big jobs because you building, usually it was concrete jobs, barracks, things like that. We did some woodwork but not too much. We did woodwork for make the forms for concrete, yeah. But mostly it was for the navy so whatever the navy they do is big scale.
Oh, usually [did work] about Red Hill. They have the underground fuel storage there [i.e., Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility].
In fact, when we were working the Waipahu tunnel, that’s the same thing, storage. From then I went into the army. That was March of ’43.
[W]ar was all over, oh yeah. That’s why there’s a lot of, the tunnel job, day and night, continuous. Until then, the fuel was, this was an open area, all tanks here and there. So because of war, they put it underground.
It was just a matter of time [for something to happen].
[There were] plenty [workers]. And plenty came from the Mainland. [T]he ways are different [working with haoles]. How you work, too, is, for us it was different because we were so used to working with local people. Even local people, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, whatever, their ways are almost same in Hawaii. Yeah, that’s a big difference.
Hichiro Matsumoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Creative Commons.