Elbert Arakawa
1399th Engineer Construction Battalion

Early Adulthood

College hopes are dashed when Elbert’s brother becomes ill. The brothers stay with their parents, who rent a home in Honolulu.

It is the middle of the Great Depression. To help his family, Elbert works in turn at a service station, Aflague’s Machine Works, and then Japanese Bazaar.

S.H. Kress & Company hires him as a soda fountain waiter. Promoted to assistant steward, Elbert makes menus, orders and prepares food, and deals with customers.


Yeah, I kind of regret that I couldn’t stay until I finished college. My brother got sick. I told [William Pittman] the story that my brother is sick so I cannot go, he said, “You want to go to college? I’ll send you out.” I thought, gee, good opportunity but my mother said, “No, you better go work. No more money.” So I decided to go [to work].

I wanted to go college but I couldn’t go, yeah? So I was just doing anything that come along.

At that time, [my brother] was on his own but my parents came from Wailea to Honolulu. And we lived in a house. [Father] rented one house, I think, bought one house, I forgot, in Dillingham Boulevard. So [my brother] used to stay with them.

Then, he got married and he became better. The wife get a lunch wagon business. The wife did the cooking and he did all the hot frying. So he came good. He bought a house over here, made enough money.

Elbert Arakawa on a motorcycle, Kress Store, 1936

[I worked at a] service station. Corner of Beretania and Bishop [streets], I think it was. Used to have a service station over there, on the corner. I worked over there and I lost money. The lunch cost me so much money and they only paid me so much. I figured out, “Hey, I’m losing money. I got to look for another job.”

I worked Aflague’s Machine [Works, Ltd. on Ala Moana Road], something like that. They paid me a little better so I worked over there for a little while. And after that, I went to Japanese Bazaar [on Fort Street]. I worked there for a couple of months. Then there was an opening at Kress store so I jumped in Kress store.

I think my parents were back. They were in Honolulu already. That’s why my mother was here. Then they couldn’t make ends meet, so time to go work. Yeah, they were in Dillingham Boulevard. I stayed with them.

S.H. Kress & Company Store

When I finally left to go home, [Mr. Pittman] said, “Oh, I can inquire at the post office, see if you can get a job there.” You know, he was willing to vouch for me. But I went on my own. So I worked different types of jobs. After McKinley High School, 1934, it was depression, yeah.

Hard to get jobs, you know. So I used to do all kinds of odds and ends. Then finally, landed at Kress store [i.e., S.H. Kress & Company]. When I reached Kress store, started from the bottom and then became a waiter, then became assistant steward.

[I worked at the] soda fountain. It has a bay, one bay, two bay, and three bay. We had about ten or fifteen chairs around each bay. Then we had microphone system when you order. You call in the order. You go pick it up [at the kitchen]. We were doing pretty good business, at a rate of about four persons per stool. That’s how fast we used to work, you know. But soon they promoted me to become assistant steward, so no waiter anymore.

We had an office downstairs. [As assistant steward] I used to order, make menu.

Elbert Arakawa, Kress Store

Once they picked me to become assistant steward, I didn’t do no waiter. I went through training; how to make ice cream, how to make coffee, how to make salad, how to bake, how to cook. I learned all that. So they say okay, you assistant steward. I used to make menu, order food. I was doing all that work.

That kind of helped me when I went the army. [After I was drafted in 1941] I volunteered to go in to cook, to be a cook. So all the experience that I had, came to me. But I tell you, it’s a tough struggle.

Anyone complained, the complaints all come to us because we were kind of managers. And this lady, nice lady, but the waiter brought the egg to her and she said, “Hey, this is too soft. I want a bit more harder.” The poor waitress come see me. I say, “Okay, put ’em on three then,” three-minute boiling. [Customer] satisfied.

[I worked at Kress for] Five years.

Elbert Arakawa, Kress Store

Everything came as you went along. It was quite a great experience for me to have worked at Kress store because all the experience I gained helped me when I went to the army and worked in the kitchen. So, it was like a stepping-stone.

Elbert Arakawa's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Elbert Arakawa.

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