Herbert Isonaga
VVV

Varsity Victory Volunteers

The war is sufficient motivation for Herbert to maintain his commitment to the Varsity Victory Volunteers.

VVV crews dig ditches, surface roads, quarry rocks, build barracks, and work in the kitchen.

The VVV’s demonstration of loyalty, together with the efforts of Hung Wai Ching, Robert Shivers, and Col. Kendall Fielder, are viewed as major influences on the War Department’s decision to approve the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Kitchen Crew

I volunteered to work in the kitchen because I had some experience working in the kitchen. As I told you earlier, my mother was very busy as we were growing up, sewing and running the store because my father was not a good shopkeeper. So when my sister went to Japan and my brother came to Honolulu — after high school he went to Honolulu to learn watchmaking — I did most of the cooking at home. Not the fancy stuff, but you know, the ordinary cooking, I did. So I was familiar with cooking, so I volunteered.

The military prepares your menu. By this, I mean they issue you your ration. So based on your ration, you prepare your meals. The only variation, or the major variation in our cooking, was rice. I mean, the army did not make a lot of rice available to the troops.

But we were able to arrange with the other kitchen in the engineering unit that we were associated with, that they would let us have their rice because they weren’t too crazy for it and they could have our potatoes. So in that respect, we managed.

But, of course, you know, if we had pork and some vegetables, we would prepare that in the local style, rather than having roast or boiled meat, or something like that. So we improved to a certain extent.

Other Work Crews

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I know the carpenter group, their effort was quite visible, because they made — they built this huge warehouse, and the minor things they were involved in was making flytraps. They had little flytraps.

And then, of course, the Quarry Gang, they were involved in building culverts along roadways. Their efforts were mostly physical in that we didn’t have these backhoes and forklifts that you see around today. It was pick and shovel.

And that group took great pride in displaying their physique and their strength in digging culverts and roadway shoulders. And they were really highly competitive among themselves to show that they were physically more fit than the others in swinging the pick or using the shovel.

VVV Mokuleia Road project, bridge repair

In my case, I volunteered to be in the kitchen. But I really don’t know how the other groups were organized. But aside from the group we called the Quarry Gang, I think it really didn’t matter. I think the units were organized among compatible — or friends. For example, if you take Yutaka Nakahata. Yutaka’s friends, close friends, would be in his group. I think that’s the way most of the units, working groups, were organized. You choose to go with your friends.

Recreational Activities

We participated in the Schofield, just like Schofield intramural athletic program. Boxing was one of the areas where we participated and did very well, I thought. Now, I don’t know what other areas we participated in, so far as Schofield is concerned.

I know we had a football team, but it wasn’t Schofield, it was a barefoot football team. It wasn’t Schofield, it was city league. So I think mainly it was boxing that we participated in. So far as I know.

Boxing, we had Richard Chinen, he coached. Football, we had Tommy Kaulukukui, yeah.

University Credit

Hung Wai arranged to have people come out and conduct classes. Stephen Mark, Rev. Stephen Mark came out to teach literature, American literature classes. The university recognized the credits. Shigeo Okubo, I recall, came out and gave math. I know several of the VVV boys, who ended up as engineers, were enrolled in his classes.

If some [were concerned about being away from their studies], it wasn’t expressed. I’m sure that the seniors would have that feeling. But like the lower classmen, I don’t think we were worried.

I took Stephen Mark’s class in literature. We spent [class] on one book. Grapes of Wrath or something like that, he concentrated on that book.

So we had an educational program. Of course, we had the athletic program and of course weekends, we used to go to town. (Chuckles)

Herbert Isonaga with VVV
Herbert Isonaga with VVV

Commitment

We didn’t sign anything to make us permanently bound to [the VVV].

Rev. [Yoshiaki] Fujitani left the VVV. When his father [Rev. Kodo Fujitani] got interned, he was so upset that he felt that he wanted to leave. It was purely voluntary.

Yoshiaki Fujitani and Reverend Kodo Fujitani

I recall Rev. Fujitani’s case and I recall it because he mentions it. But if you had asked me earlier, I wasn’t aware that this took place until he mentioned that recently. I mean, the last couple of years or so. But there could have been some other cases like his, that I’m not aware of. But I doubt it.

I’m not aware of any difficulty experienced by anyone, in terms of revolting against whatever we were doing or dissatisfaction of any kind that I am aware of.

I know we had a problem with Richard Chinen. Richard, at one point, said he’s going to quit because of some reason, which I am made to understand that he got upset about the distinction between university student and non-university student. You know, I can’t understand that, but that’s what I’m told.

I know Ralph Yempuku mentioned that he had a heck of a time trying to convince Richard to stay on. But, of course, he was finally successful in getting Richard to stay on. But that’s the only incident I can recall. I don’t know, maybe Ted [Tsukiyama] is more fully informed as to that situation because Ted was part of the office headquarters group. But that’s the only incident.

Relationship with 34th Combat Engineers Regiment

So far as I can recall, we were not asked to do anything more than to do our job. I don’t think they expected us to follow the military procedures in their activities. We pretty much had a free hand in what we did. I mean, we were assigned tasks by the engineering unit that we were attached to and all we had to do was do the job. In that respect, I don’t think we had any problem. They neither tried to impose their way of doing things on us. So our relationship with the engineers was very smooth and uninterrupted. No interference from them. They were there to support us, rather than we supporting them. I mean, they were a very pleasant group to work with. We had no problem with them. They were very willing supporters of that VVV.

The other units, we hardly had any interaction with the other military units on the base. Purely with the engineering unit that we were attached to. So I think the troops were made aware that we were there and I guess they were told, “Don’t bother these guys and they won’t bother you.” Things worked out pretty well.

I can’t recall any problems we’ve had. There may have been incidents on the buses to and from camp but nothing major, I don’t think. I mean people — a drunken soldier could have said something unpleasant. But I think at that time, the troops at Schofield had not faced Japanese soldiers yet. You know, it’s not like having troops — where the marines went and they came back from combat and they may have harbored some real strong feelings about Japanese. But I don’t think at that time we had any troops that had been, had experienced live combat.

Civilian Reaction to VVV

If you told somebody [a civilian], “I’m in the VVV,” they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about at that time. Now, my family knew I was in the VVV but they don’t know what it was all about. And I never told them.

Newsletter

Talking about the newsletter [The Volunteer], the entire publication is available, it’s in the archive. Ralph Yempuku’s wife kept them. Fortunately. And I think that’s the only complete [set] of Yutaka’s publication that’s in existence today.

I think it was a good morale builder, in the sense that — now, we have all these work groups. The work groups tend to get very isolated. They don’t know what the other guys are doing. So this newsletter keeps you informed and preserves the cohesiveness of the unit. It tries to motivate you to maintain your dedication and work hard for the cause. So I think it had a vital role, very important role. Hundred fifty guys, I mean you’re in three different barracks, so you tend to get isolated.

Motivation

I think the fact that a war was going on certainly is sufficient motivation to keep you going and very little extra coaxing is necessary. But, I guess guys like Hung Wai, they get their old YMCA spirit and feel that there’s little bit more to maintaining a unit’s effort, integrity, that work alone is not sufficient. That you have to have this extra activities available, which is fine. Of course, a lot of the guys said, “To hell with it,” and think, “Who the hell going to go to English literature classes at night?”

But I think we had, in the literature class, Rev. Mark came out once a week, in the blackout. You know what a task that is, driving in the blackout from Downtown. I don’t think we had a dozen people in that class. But he came out, faithful. I think Shigeo Okubo had six guys, I think, in his math class. We didn’t have too many engineers, half a dozen guys.

Impact of the VVV and Others

I say it was the right move [to join the VVV] because I am — I may be a little bit prejudiced — but I feel that the formation of the VVV was instrumental to a certain degree, in causing the creation of the 100th and subsequently the 442nd, which — and the war record of the 100th and the 442nd brought about this remarkable change in attitudes in Hawaii and the rest of the country.

But I feel strongly that the VVV and their efforts — and when I talk about the VVV, I’m also including the efforts of guys like Hung Wai and the people that he was able to develop, like Bob Shivers and Colonel [Kendall] Fielder, and I think they convinced General [Delos C.] Emmons that the niseis were to be trusted.

General Emmons meets with Ralph Yempuku

And we fall into that development which influenced the mentality of the powers that be, to make it possible, you know, for the creation of the 100th and 442nd.

Looking Back

I think we [VVV] have a common sense of having accomplished something significant and we’re only too glad to maintain that association [ties to each other] whenever (laughs) they find somebody to call the meeting.

Herbert Isonaga's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Herbert Isonaga, Yoshiaki Fujitani, Ted Tsukiyama, and Honolulu Star Bulletin.

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