F Company, 442nd RCT
Ronald enlists with 52 other men from Aiea.
At Schofield Barracks, a fellow enlistee, Charlie Higuchi, asks Ronald to teach him how to cook – even though Ronald’s only experience in the kitchen is as a busboy.
The soldiers travel by train to the Oahu Railway depot in Iwilei. Carrying rifles and duffle bags weighing 70-80 lbs., they march to Pier 2 and board the Lurline.
Ronald is assigned KP (kitchen police) duty.
Working for Hawaiian Steel
Before December 7th, Kenneth Imamura was a co-owner of Hawaiian Steel. That’s the reinforcing steel company. They put this rib bars between forms, to strengthen, they pour concrete. This was reinforcing steel company. I worked for them for a year and a half. My father got me a job while he was cutting Kenneth Imamura’s head and he offered us the job. I was still in high school. No, the war started, yeah. Yeah, the war started.
And before we volunteered [for military service], I worked for a year and a half at Lualualei in Waianae, building huge concrete magazines, where they stored torpedoes and artillery shells. Till today, I still believe they probably have the nuclear warhead there. Because those magazines were this thick. The walls were this thick. It took us three months to build the first one. By the time I left that job to volunteer for the 442nd, we were building one a week. We would build one a week. There are thousands of these magazines in that valley. But if you look in the valley, it’s lush and green.
Nobody would know that that there was . . . And we would also build these kamaboko houses [Quonset huts]. They’re all covered and they plant grass over it. The only thing that might give it away is, if you look from the air, the train tracks that go toward the entrance. So they brought very heavy ammunition on trains. And above that is Kolekole Pass.
[Kamaboko houses were made with] concrete and reinforcing steel. They made the plywood forms and we would put the reinforcing steel, they’ll cover it with plywood and they would pour concrete. Those kamaboko houses were solid. Reinforcing steel with concrete. They probably put smaller kinds of ammunition in there for the U.S. government. Hawaiian Reinforcing Steel Company was one of the contractors doing the reinforcing steel part. And the entire project was run by E.E. Black. He became a multi-millionaire by doing a lot of these military projects. Some of the boys went on to build buildings in downtown: Bank of Hawaii buildings and all the big buildings with reinforcing steel, they made it.
Decision to Volunteer
Captain [John] Burns of the police department came to Aiea and he sat on the stage at Aiea gym. We were about a hundred of us over there and he pointed at us and he said, “You are on the spot. You must volunteer to prove your loyalty.”
I was born an American, was educated as an American. I went to American school, I spoke American. As an American, I [felt], loyalty is a given. So why should I be put on the spot to prove my loyalty? I have always been a loyal citizen.
I refused to volunteer. But 10,000 Hawaii boys volunteered. All four islands. Anyway, since 10,000 volunteered, I said, “My country needs me, I’m going to volunteer for patriotism’s sake. Like Patrick Henry said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ I will volunteer.”
I volunteered and they take the oldest of the family first. So I got taken.
My friends were mostly my classmates and people living in Aiea, so-called Honolulu Plantation Village. I have a photo of the [fifty-three] Aiea people who volunteered and quite a few of them died so they never came back. Some of my classmates were Henry Chagami, Kakuto Higuchi, Blackie Tanaka, Savage Tanaka, oh, Robert Kuroda who got his Congressional Medal of Honor, Haruyoshi Kaya. People like that, people in our community.
Most of them, I don’t know, for loss of a real good reason, said that we went to prove our loyalty. And I think that’s just a saying because when we went into the army and I take you forward into Italy, when you’re fighting and shooting at the enemy, you’re thinking I’m an American soldier. I’m just as good as any other American outfit and I can fight just as well. And you’re trying to prove that you’re a brave American soldier, you’re not afraid to be killed. But it never entered our mind, “I’m fighting for my country to prove my loyalty,” nobody.
But when we volunteered, they were all asked by this, “Why do you want to?” “Oh, to prove my loyalty.” And I think that’s a facade to me, yeah.
Reaction of Parents
Japanese families are so funny. My father didn’t say anything, my mother didn’t say anything. You’re the oldest boy, you do what you want. And in those days, when you’re the oldest son, you can do [no] wrong. Honest. So whatever I did, I never got scolded but my younger brothers always got scolded, yeah.
When I volunteered, they didn’t say anything like, “Don’t bring shame to the family,” or “Fight ’till you die” or things like that, that Senator [Daniel] Inouye talks about.
We just went and we went to Schofield Barracks. We were outfitted with our khaki uniforms. And I had a cousin in Wahiawa, she was working in a tailor shop. When I went to Schofield Barracks, my shirt sleeves were this long [i.e. too long] and my pants was this long and whatnot. Of course, we make it so that the waist fits but it was made for haole soldiers. So she came to my house and said, “Masami-san,” my name is Masami, “give me all your clothes, I’ll alter it for you. It’ll fit you.”
I had a well-fitted uniform, everything and she did it for me.
We were in Tent City. The floor was plywood. Eight to a tent with cots. And we stayed there for two weeks and we didn’t have anything to do, just waiting to be outfitted, proper clothing. We were given an old-fashioned Springfield rifle that you had to cock. But by the time we went, they changed it to the M1 Garand, which is the brand-new rifle. So we waited to be outfitted and when we finally got outfitted, the army decided we’re ready to move.
While we were in Schofield Barracks for two weeks, Charlie Higuchi, since he’s the oldest in the family, was accepted. You volunteered because everybody volunteered but he was accepted. He had three kids, all young children, one set was twins.
The second day I was there, he came running over to my tent and he said, “Hey, Ronald, help me out.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You know, I have my wife and kids and I’ve got to come back home, so I volunteered in the kitchen. Teach me how to cook.” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “But you work at Red Hill.” I said, “I was only a busboy, I cleared out all the tables, coffee cups and whatnot.” He said, “But you know a little bit, so come help me.”
Four-thirty in the morning, he come get me, I go to his company and then we open the book. It said, put milk and butter and sugar and whatnot, the flour and mix it up with the stirrer. If the batter comes down slowly like that, it’s ready. So we put the baking powder in it and I helped him make pancakes in the morning, see. That was my start with my experiences in cooking.
Two weeks later, we were told we were going to the Mainland. We went by train from Schofield Barracks all the way to Oahu Railway depot, Iwilei, and we had these great big duffle bags that weigh about, seventy, eighty pounds and with our rifles. And we had to walk all the way to Pier 2, almost a mile away. Was so heavy and hard to walk that, finally, we were dragging it on the road.
As we march four abreast, all the way and carried the bags, there were soldiers with rifles in between our families and they would not let the families come and give leis or omimai, the money, as a going-away gift. The soldiers kept the families away, so none of the families, parents, could even talk to their son. So we went all the way unable to shake hands or anything. We finally got into the Lurline.
My parents were still busy cutting hair. They didn’t come. I don’t know, that was their style. Whatever happens, happens.
[The trip to the Mainland] took us about six or seven days. The Lurline was very fast so it didn’t have any escort. And in the Pacific, it’s not like the Atlantic where there were a lot of submarines, so we had a very uneventful trip.
The boys had so much money. Everybody gave them envelopes and we were filthy rich. And we played craps and poker and the crewmember told us, “You know, I’ve never seen this much money going in a crap game.”
There were piles of money, five, ten, twenty dollars. Hoo! He said he’d never seen that much money being bet on a Lurline deck.
While I was on the Lurline, first thing they called me, they said, “Mr. Oba, they want you in the galley.”
I said, “What for? I’m not a cook.”
"No, you don’t have to be a cook, you have KP [kitchen police] duty, just pass out the oranges and apple and a sandwich.”
So I had to pass out orange, apples and sandwich all the way through.
Arrival in Oakland
When we arrived in Oakland, oh, it started to get real cold and we were in flimsy clothes and everybody said, “Wow, it’s getting cold.” And just before Golden Gate, the waves get tall, rough, you know. And then we finally got to Oakland and everybody said, “Hey Ron, come, come, come, look.” I said, “What?” “Look, the haole guys, they’re digging ditches, they get pick and shovel.” In those days [in Hawaii], as long as you’re haole, you never did menial labor.
I had a haole guy, my classmate. His father was assigned one of these so-called irrigation ditches [to supervise]. They had a home and whatnot, and they were never assigned to work in the plantation per se. They were either in the office or they were supervisors. So we reach Oakland and the wharf, everybody said, “Look, look, look, all those blonde guys, they’re digging ditches and they have pick and shovels and they’re carrying heavy stuff.” We were really surprised, first time we see haoles working like that.
From Oakland, we were put into Pullman cars and immediately, it was all blacked out, we couldn’t see out. And from there, we went to Wyoming; Utah; Omaha, Nebraska, Chicago — the northern route — and then we came down to Chicago; St. Louis; Birmingham, Alabama; Camp Shelby.
More KP Duty
On the train, again, they said, “Where’s Private Oba?” They were playing, we were in a corner, everybody playing poker and whatnot. And I was in the corner, lieutenant comes in, “Private Oba, Private Oba.”
I said, “Don’t tell him I’m here.”
Somebody, “Oh, he’s sitting down over there.”
The lieutenant said, “They want you in the diner.”
I said, “What for?”
He said, “They want you to help pass out food and cook something.”
I said, “Sir, I’m not a cook.”
He said, “Well, do you know how to boil potatoes?”
I said, “No, that’s too hard for me.”
“You know how to boil eggs?”
I said, “Everybody knows how.”
“Get in the galley, in the diner.”
The whole trip, that took about another five six days, I had to pass out oranges and sandwiches for the troops, again. I said, “What am I getting into?”
Ronald Oba's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Ronald Oba, Library of Congress, and Hawaii State Archives.