F Company, 442nd RCT
Ronald, a seventh-grader at Aiea Elementary School, works in the plantation fields on Fridays. It is a requirement of the Future Farmers of America program. By cutting grass, he earns thirty cents a day.
At Aiea Independent Japanese-language School, he does not learn much of the language, but is influenced by shushin (ethics).
Ronald works at canneries to pay tuition at college preparatory Iolani School. But, he has no plans or means to go to college.
Future Farmers of America
In those days, when I went to Aiea Elementary, by the time we were seventh, eighth grade, we were called Future Farmers of America. They somehow created the slogan or program called Future Farmers of America. And every Friday, we had to go to the plantation yard, get on the truck and they would take us to different fields to cut grass. They would give us like one cent a line. A line is twelve feet. You know how many lines you have to cut grass? Sometimes the grass is this tall, we would make only thirty cents a day and my mother used to get so mad.
She said, “You know, the lunch that you get and the clothes I have to wash is more than what you make in a day.” I say, “Well, cannot help, that’s part of our five-day class, every Friday.”
As young as we were, one time, we hardly could make money, the grass was so tall and then the supervisor would come, you know, overseer would come, and he would say, “Okay, give the boys two cents a line.” Ho, we couldn’t make money. So some of the boys and us, we said, “We’re going to strike.” “We’re going to strike. We refuse to work.”
We went home. So the next day, he would raise it to three cents a line. That’s the way it was.
Then I remember the worst job I had was we had to go to Stable Camp and get on the mules. The mules were this high, you know. I don’t know how we got on, I guess we got on the fence and then got on the mule. And we drove the mule up to the fields where there were big plows. The cane would be there. So we had to plow it with the cane in the middle. Every now and then, the plow would hit the stump of the cane and we would go flying about ten feet down the road. We were less than a hundred pounds, those days. And here, we were using these great big plows and plowing the field. Today, I think to myself, chee, did we really do those things? Yeah, we did. We did.
When they decided there’s no field to hoe or irrigate, then you go and cultivate. That was the worst job I ever had. I went flying how many times. And then the plow would go dragging on, you had to catch it and you had to grab the handles. What an adventure.
Aiea Elementary School
Aiea [Elementary School]. Aiea went all the way to ninth grade. And the first principal [that I remember] was Mrs. Sisson, a female principal, tall lady. And we had Mrs. Forbes, O’Dowda, Mrs. Wise and Mr. Onishi, Mrs. Robello. But most of the teachers were part Hawaiian. I don’t know why.
Mrs. Pauole, Mrs. Forbes, Mrs. Dawson, they’re all Hawaiians. Mrs. Wise, Mrs. — not Ornelles, Ornelles was Portuguese. A lot of Hawaiian teachers in those days. But, sadly, they didn’t teach us anything. Honest. They sat down, and they threw homework at us. But one thing they liked to do was teach us multiplication tables. So we learned multiplication by rote.
But at least Mrs. Robello made sure that we had vocabulary every day, and had to make sentences, and then we had tests, defining it. Mrs. Forbes was a good math teacher. That’s when we became sixth, seventh grade.
And I, for some reason, I excelled in algebra. I used to like math. One time, I solved a difficult problem and Mr. [Katsumi] Onishi said, “Ronald, how did you do it, I can’t understand it. You spent a whole page and a half to get at the answer.” I said, “I went by step by step.” He said, “You didn’t use the formula?” I said, “The formula’s too easy (chuckles).” So I went step by step, by step by step, by step and I got it correct.
Earning Money for Private School
After the ninth grade, we were supposed to go to Farrington [High School]. My older sister's time, they went to McKinley [High School]. And Bill Pregill time, he went to Farrington. The Aiea people had to go to a certain school. [In] our time, we’re supposed to go to Waipahu High School. The legislature in those days, appropriated money to build a school. But they didn’t appropriate money for the library, the books and some of the teachers. So my mother said, “You know, Masami” — my name is Masami — “you’re not going to Waipahu and spend a whole year fooling around. So we found out that you can go to Iolani School for $100 tuition per year.”
Every summer I worked. I tell my brothers, my sisters, “You know, you think I went to private school but I work. Every summer I made $150. Hundred dollars for tuition and $50 for books. And just about that amount I made in three months of working at CPC [California Packing Corporation] and Hawaiian Pine[apple Company]. I went to Iolani. I almost didn’t enroll because they said I have to repeat ninth grade. But that’s the policy, you cannot go directly to high school. You got to repeat the freshman year.
[My parents] were the boss. We hardly spoke to each other. Very little conversation, you know. Except lunchtime, I mean dinnertime. We all sat at the round table, and we didn’t eat until everybody sat down. Every meal was like that. And every Sunday morning, we had hotcakes. That was the treat for the week. Yeah, hotcakes.
At first I was a tray boy [at the canneries], pick the trays up, stack them up. Then I got promoted to carry those [hand]trucks, pick up the whole truck and gee whiz, I was only — well, right now I’m 5'5'' but I must have been about a hundred twenty pounds. The first time I had to truck that out, before the end of the day I’d spilled the whole thing. Pineapple and cans all over the floor. Somehow it was common, when you work in the cannery you spill a whole crate of pineapples or whole stack of cans. But I got proficient. So I learned.
Then went I went to Hawaiian Pine, ho, they give me the hardest job. Two of us would have to grab the crate, empty the pineapple and throw the crate in a pile. All day long. It was really, really, hard work. I don’t know how I survived the whole summer doing that. But at the end of the summer, you got strong enough to do it. But that’s the kind of work I did at the cannery. I didn’t get the easy job like tap, tap, tap, tap and test all the cans. I didn’t have the pull. Because a lot of these people from Aiea, Pearl City, wherever, the ladies all work at the cannery. The children went to work and the children got better jobs.
My older sister worked at CPC, I think. She’d always complain about her job. But below that, I don’t think they worked at a cannery.
I was an A student. I always made headmaster’s list the whole four years. I took algebra, geometry, solid geometry, trigonometry, biology, all of those courses. And Iolani was college preparatory school. So you had a lot of science. I even took Latin. Made A in Latin. I played baseball. I caught the bus from Aiea. The bus stopped at Iwilei. Those days, we didn’t have backpacks, see. I had books, ho, so heavy.
I walked all the way from Iwilei, all the way to Nuuanu, and walk all the way up Nuuanu, to Judd Street every day. Then when I played baseball, we would go to Crane Park or Lanakila Park or Puunui Park and we would practice till about six, seven o’clock. Then I would have to catch the bus, come home about nine, eat dinner. And I remember I always studied till one A.M. every night. The next day I go to school, everybody asking me for the homework. I used to do all my work myself. And I used to enjoy it.
When I first went, three-fourths of the student body were haoles. It was a boarding school, so, like Harry Irwin, his father was a judge on Kauai. Oh, who’s that minister, they come from Molokai. All the prominent families sent their children to Iolani as boarders. We had a boardinghouse and the boarders were all haoles. None of the Japanese. I don’t remember a single Japanese who was a boarder. And the rest of the student body was people like Yamane, who lived down the road; Albert Nomura, his father ran a sake factory on Booth Road, Star Road, over there; and Jimmy Yamashiro and Takei, the Takei fabric store. A lot of children whose parents had stores. And I was the only country jack went over there.
But the war, I landed on my head, injured my head, so I’m still dumb now. Yeah, I used to be good in math, you know.
But after the war, I went to the VA [Veterans Administration] for rehabilitation test. The lady said, “Oh, we’re going to give you a test to see what you’re good in.” I said, “I should do good in math, and I’m pretty good in English.” I did well in English, composition, vocabulary, but math, I was down. I said, “I can’t believe this, how come?” I said I used to excel in math. And I was so poor in math. I said, ah, the war caused that. (Chuckles)
Father Kenneth Bray
Father [Kenneth] Bray, well, I didn’t know he was going to be a famous coach but I went to Iolani at 1938, graduated in ’42. Although the war started in ’41, we went back for accelerated courses to graduate. I got my diploma. I was in one of his religious classes. Because I worked, studied hard late at night, when I go to his class (yawns), he never said anything. Yeah. But when the football players yawned, bang, he hit their head. Yeah. But he never scolded me one time.
That’s for being on the headmaster’s honor list. Well, the main thing was you studied, you work hard, so when you go school you get chance to rest and sleep. And I played baseball and that’s about all.
I was going to become a swimmer, too. I went with Tom Ogata and Taniguchi, oh, I forget what his name now, they’re all classmates. We said, “Hey, let’s go out for swimming and compete against Punahou.” We always want to beat Punahou, you know. I went swimming. And he [the coach] told us swim as fast as you can, back and forth, about two times I think, the length of the pool. I did and I was one of the early guys to reach the end, but ho, I was so exhausted and given all my all without training, without preparation to build up your stamina. I wanted to puke, I tried so hard. And I told myself, “Eh, if this is the kind of coach that’s going to train me and just to find out how good we were, put us through this kind of stress,” I said, “forget it, I’m not going to train under this stupid coach.” I didn’t. But Tommy and Taniguchi went. And they came in good. They competed against Farrington, McKinley, Punahou. But I refused to. I’m hardhead. Just like when the 442nd was formed, I refused to volunteer but that comes later. I had my own reasons so I told myself, “Ah, this is no coach, I’m not going to train under him.”
Parents' View on Education
They really want, like every family, education was foremost for Japanese children. You got to be educated. And if you cannot go to high school or college, you go to [Margaret] Dietz [Commercial School], or like the Honolulu Business College. You became a secretary, legal secretary, school secretary. My sister became a secretary. She went to — I forget which one she went to. So they all went to school, high school.
My parents were very strict about education. They realized that’s the only way you’re going to get ahead. That’s true even till today. Even today, I said, “Without education . . .” You know, in those days, Japanese people were the clerks. Bank clerks, store clerks, et cetera, et cetera. We became affluent, and we became professionals. Now we work for the government as engineers, lawyers, and other professionals like registered nurses, and whatnot.
Goals and Aspirations
[Iolani is] a college preparatory school and although I went there and took all those courses, I had no hope of going to college because our parents didn’t have money to. And we didn’t have cars and all that. This all happened after the war, when GI Bill. But after high school — well, the war started when we were in high school — but there were no plans for me to go college.
I went [to Aiea Dokuritsu Nihongo Gakko] up to sixth grade, I think. I hardly learned any words, any kanji [Chinese character used in Japanese writing] or whatnot. Half the time I was sleeping in class. Because we would finish English class [public school classes] at 1:30 [P.M.] and then we would play football, baseball, in the yard until our class started at 3:30. We were exhausted by that time. Then the teacher would say, “Okay, Oba, you read this page.”
I would put all the kana [Japanese alphabet] on the side, so the teacher would think, well, I’m doing fine. But I would put kana on all—you know what kana, yeah? Hiragana [cursive Japanese writing].
After sixth grade, I realized I didn’t learn anything except to write a few katakana [square form of the Japanese alphabet] and whatnot. And now, I watch Japanese programs, I tell my wife — she was born in Japan. She came to Hawaii at one year old, but her parents [Rev. Hakuai and Usako Oda] are ministers so she’s very fluent in Japanese. I said, “What did they say? What did they say?” (Laughs) So unless they have captions, I cannot watch the Oriental movies. But Korean ones have captions, yeah. I turn to the Korean movie and I watch them.
I think the shushin [ethics] really influenced us. The reason is, shushin tells not about tradition and customs, but courage, bravery, valor; samurai stories, like Chushingura [The Treasury of Loyal Retainers]; and the war with China [Sino-Japanese War], how they sacrificed, how they fought. And Mr. Okada, Stanley Okada, who was [with the] Hongwanji, I used to listen to his story because I was taking kendo from him.
Instead of judo, I took kendo, so I went to Hongwanji to learn kendo. And he would tell stories. Boy, he would tell it so well that we were spellbound, listening to him. He would tell all these beautiful samurai stories, stories about courage. When people ask me, “How come the 442nd boys were so brave? They were not afraid.”
I said, “Because we had shushin in school. They taught us how to fight and die if we have to.” And you never get captured. If you get captured and become a POW [prisoner of war], you commit suicide.
But do you know in America today, the POWs are heroes. They get 100% service disability, they’re put on a pedestal. But that’s America, see. Because, and I agree with them, you got captured so that’s not your fault. You were fighting they captured you. You could have been killed but then you ran out of ammunition or whatever so you got captured for three years in prison. When you came out, in America they treat you like heroes.
In my book, Men of Company F, I write about this friend of mine, Inukai [conscripted by Japanese military], he was captured. He was going to commit suicide. But, like [Sakamaki], who was the first Japanese captured guy, they said as days went by, they waited to be executed instead of committing suicide. But they never got executed. The American soldiers came talk to them, gave them cigarettes, fed them well. And, like the first Japanese POW, [Mr. Sakamaki], Mr. Inukai, he said, “They’re not going to kill us.”
He was sent to Tripler [Army Medical Center], where he worked as a POW. But when he went back to Japan, he didn’t want to be ashamed so he changed his name and went to a different city until one of his brothers discovered that he was still alive. He went to get him and when he went back to his family, everybody said, “Oh, he’s going to die, he’s too fat, he’s bloated.” Because all the Russian prisoners, Japanese prisoners from Russia, were bloated and fat because of malnutrition and they all died. But Ken Inukai, he said, “No, I got fat eating good food.” (Chuckles)
Ronald Oba's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Ronald Oba and Library of Congress.