1399th Engineer Construction Battalion
Moving to Oahu
At sixteen, Elbert moves to Aiea, Oahu and stays a year with his brother-in-law, a fish peddler.
He helps peddle fish in Wahiawa. He also works as a double-seamer and hand-truck operator at pineapple canneries in Honolulu.
Elbert attends Kalakaua Intermediate School, then McKinley High School, where he studies public speaking.
As a yardman for attorney William B. Pittman, he receives $3.50 a week, room and board.
He graduates in 1934.
My brother-in-law's father was a bus driver. He took people from Hakalau or Wailea all the way to Hilo. Commute all that time. My brother-in-law showed me how to drive. So I worked for him and the father, drive truck and all that.
That was a good experience for me. He had a nice sedan car to take special people who like to go short distances. The father lived in Wailea. But he was getting old so he needed help. So I used to help him out, drive the school bus. Then had one special occasion one man want to go to Honomu, I used to take him down to Honomu.
So when I came to Honolulu, I already knew how to drive. But I stayed with my brother-in-law for one year.
I didn’t feel anything [moving from Wailea to Aiea]. But it was a good experience. At that time, there was no airplane transportation. We were all on the boat. And the boat rocks. That was the worst part of moving from one place to another.
Peddling Fish in Wahiawa
I used to go peddling fish and other stuff to Wahiawa area, all the different camps. On summer months, I used to work in the cannery, Hawaiian Pine[apple Company]. I used to do both sides, two jobs, trying to make money.
I helped [my brother-in-law]. He worked for Fukumai fish peddlers. [Fish peddlers] go to all the fish markets, buy different things: fish, meat, whatever they have. Then they put ice on top so it won’t spoil. He went up to Wahiawa and he did a pretty good business.
He had a truck. That’s when in Aiea, we used to go Fukumai, that’s the boss’s house, take a bath, come back. So nothing much, yeah. We used to go see movies once in a while. We enjoyed. But the one year passed by pretty fast.
[Fukumai’s] wife or somebody was selling fish in the neighborhood, carrying it. But he doesn’t want to drive all the way down to the countryside, so he hired [my brother-in-law]. So he cover more ground and sell more fish. So [Fukumai] really liked him.
We go about five or six camps [in Wahiawa] before [my brother-in-law] come back. He was an amazing man. He doesn’t have no adding machine. Okay, a guy comes, “Oh, give me this.” Then that guy says, “Give me that.” All different persons buying. He knows how much each person owes him. No more adding machine now. Amazingly. You figure, how can he remember all that, certain person got so much, so many things he bought, yeah. I kind of admire his ability to remember. Anyway, his mind was really strong.
He liked to sing. See, when he listen to music, like that, he remembers already. He’s some kind of guy.
[We sold] akule [big-eyed scad], sashimi, all different kinds. Small fish, big fish. Ahi [Hawaiian tuna, especially the yellow-fin tuna]. Ahi, aku [bonito].
They don’t sell manini [reef surgeonfish]. They sell akule, opelu [mackerel scad], and things like that.
I just watched. [My brother-in-law] wanted company, that’s why. I just watched. He doesn’t pay me. But I stayed in his house. It was very nice of him, letting me stay for one year.
Hawaiian Pine[apple Company], I had midnight shift. Let’s see, what did I do? Double seamer. And then Libby’s [i.e., Libby, McNeill, & Libby], I used a hand truck. Gallon-can size, stacked up, push to the warehouse.
There was one incident, I can still remember, lunchtime, all rush out to go to lunch, yeah. I was just on the way already and this lady came duck inside, in front of me. So I hit her and the gallon can went on top of her head. She got a little bit of blood over here. We have to go dispensary. I feel very sorry for her but they were rushing down. I cannot stop one time, the gallon can. Oh, that experience, but only for one year. Then I was gone.
I was attending Kalakaua Middle School by train, every day, and so I finished that one year, Kalakaua.
Working for the Pittman Family
The next year was McKinley High School. I cannot depend on my brother-in-law to support me so I got to find some extra money. And it just happened that I knew a friend from Hakalau Camp. He was working for haole [Caucasian] people and he asked me, “Do you want to take my job?”
“Oh, sure. Okay.” So I went to visit the employer, was [an] attorney [named William B.] Pittman. I got along fine with them. So I stayed there for three years until I finished McKinley High School.
[The Pittmans lived in] Manoa. Hillside Avenue. I was a [live-in] yardman and I was doing all kinds of odds and ends for them. But he used to take me to school every day. Oh, he was a very nice man.
[I worked] as a yard boy and doing different odds and ends. I washed the dishes every day. They were nice. I enjoyed working for them. But it’s on the hillside, right there. When you cut the grass, you got to cut ’em sideways like this. You cannot push this way. But they were nice people. And the neighbors were nice.
Whatever they gave me, I eat. No choice. I forget already what kind. What they ate, I ate. No more [cook, maid]. The wife does all the cooking. Sometimes they had parties and the wife cooked. But so many dishes, I used to wash them all.
[Besides room and board] they paid me three dollar half [$3.50] a week. So my finance was very low. Sometimes I used to walk from Manoa to Waikiki Beach, walked down, can’t afford the bus ride. But it’s all right, good exercise. Three dollar half [$3.50] a week not much.
[Mr. Pittman] was running for [City and County of Honolulu] Board of Supervisors one time  and going all around the place, trying to get the votes. He wants me to go around with him. Sometimes he used to make practice in the living room. He want me to listen.
I was taking public speaking courses at that time, yeah. So I knew how to construct a speech. But I guess, I don’t know how but he kind of sensed that. He tell me to listen, that’s all. I don’t want to say anything more, you know, he’s my boss, cannot criticize him. But he was a very nice man. [W.B. Pittman served on the Board of Supervisors, City and County of Honolulu, January 1933 – April 1934.]
McKinley High School
McKinley was good. Although I was working my way through, I was doing pretty well. I was taking that course in public speaking. I remember one time the teacher asked the students, “Somebody can give me a long sentence?” I volunteered because I happened to remember one of the speeches, exercises, with the exercise paragraph. The teacher was so surprised. Mrs. Hornung.
In fact, I entered a speech contest at the YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association]. I took second place. Same speech I gave at the Okinawa Oratorical Contest, I came first place. About [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt. “Roosevelt the Progressive,” the title. But anyway, I constructed the speech according to what I learned, so it went pretty well. But now you tell me [to do it], I’m all blank up.
McKinley School was very interesting. In spite of my handicap [of having to work and go to school], I participated in a lot of the things. We go on the stage and perform in a play. I was at McKinley Citizenship Club, Torch Club, National Honor Society. So I think I did all right. Yeah, it was good.
[Dr.] Miles [E.] Cary, he was a good principal. He lived up Manoa, close to where I worked. Yeah, he was a nice man.
Nineteen thirty-four, I graduated. At least I finished high school.
Elbert Arakawa's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Elbert Arakawa, Office of War Information Collection, and Honolulu Star Bulletin, Hawaii War Records