1399th Engineer Construction Battalion
Richard Kunio Okamoto
Richard Kunio Okamoto, youngest of seven children, is born in 1918, in Waimea, Kauai.
His parents, Taka and Sozaburo Okamoto, are issei.
Taka is mainly a mother and homemaker. Sozaburo, an independent farmer, cultivates sugarcane to be processed at Waimea Mill. He also raises bananas, rice and pineapples; the latter in Kapaia, Kauai.
In the sugarcane fields, Richard helps with weeding, watering and "liliko" (harvesting pieces of cane); in the rice fields, he chases away hungry ricebirds.
[I was born] 1918. Waimea, Kauai. [I was the youngest of seven children.]
I think my sisters [named me “Richard”]. I wasn’t initially named “Richard” because I have a birth certificate that just says Kunio Okamoto. I remember when I got the name “Richard,” Richard Dix was popular, Richard Arlen. [Both were actors.]
My friends all called me “Kunio” because that’s how we grew up from little kid days. But then when I came out to Honolulu to attend Mid-Pacific [Institute], by that time, I was “Richard.”
Mother: Taka Okamoto
I don’t have too much of a recollection of my mother [Taka Okamoto], although she took good care of us.
My major recollection of her is that she had a stroke and she was bedridden for three years. [She died in 1937.] Primarily, it was my father who took care of her. I know in that three years, he aged like ten years, changed overnight because of all the pressure he had.
But my mom took good care of us. She had a brood to look after because there was seven of us. But primarily, she was a housewife. Didn’t have time to help too much with my father’s farming activities.
[They were originally from] Japan. I don’t know where in Japan. I used to hear the name Okayama but I’m not sure whether that’s a reference to where my mom came from. My father, I don’t know where he came from.
I think mostly it was my mother [who kept us in line]. My father was really busy working. [He] was a kind of genial type of person, too. I must have been a disciplinary problem but I don’t recall too much being disciplined when I was a kid.
Father: Sozaburo Okamoto
My father [Sozaburo Okamoto] was an independent farmer. As I recalled, he raised vegetables. We had banana acreage but mostly he raised sugarcane on leased land. The cane that he grew went to Waimea Sugar Mill.
After that type of work — oh, he also ventured into raising pineapples on the other side of the island of Kauai, in Kapaia, above Kapaa, when the pineapple industry was flourishing.
We used to go work on the pineapple farm during the summers. But unfortunately, just about the time my dad’s pineapples matured, the industry went down. I guess, it had these fluctuations in price. They even had a small cooperative cannery up in that area ’cause the area is good for pineapples. But that went down, too. I guess I must have been in intermediate school when this happened.
Then he went back to raising sugarcane. All along, I worked for my father during the summers.
My first memory of working was helping with what we called the liliko, the sugarcane harvest. Guys would bundle sugarcane, carry it onto railroad cars. They weren’t railroads because I think they were hauled by mules. The workers would gather the cane, carry it onto the vehicle — they were like train cars with the arms up on the side — and [in the cars] pile things up. After they did that, we, little people, would go around picking up the small pieces of cane that were overlooked. That was liliko [gathering pieces of sugarcane].
[The sugarcane carriers] went onto the paved government roads.
There was no railroad track in Waimea. Not unless they were short[-haul] tracks around the sugar mill, but not up in our valley where we lived. And possibly, the train of loaded sugarcane carriers were pulled by tractors, too. But I remember horses and mules pulling them. They had to go in the field where the ground was uneven with furrows. But on the roadway, I think the tractors took over.
My outstanding memory is getting sick and having to go home because that’s when I first tried tobacco. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember but the Filipinos have what we called “rope tobacco.” It was a loop of tobacco, twisted into a — it was more like an oversized screw. So we were taking a break under those sugarcane carriers and I tried my hand at smoking rope tobacco. I got sick. (Chuckles) Had to go home.
I have no idea [how old I was], probably around ten.
So other than that, I remember working in the sugarcane fields weeding the young cane. We were a whole bunch of kids, I don’t think we did much good.
[We weeded with] hoes. Of course, after the cane grows to a certain height, there’s no weeding necessary. So it was only when the cane was still small.
The only thing I remember about [my father’s] vegetable growing was that the rice patch that he had in back of our home probably was about five acres in size. During the season when the [rice] grain was maturing and the birds wanted to eat it, I was one of those that had to chase the birds away.
We had these towers. [The tower was] probably about ten feet. Not too high. Just enough to hold one or two people up on top. We sit on the towers, hit kerosene cans and there were cords [with cans attached] strung to different areas of the rice patch. We would pull those to scare the birds away.
And then fluttering pieces of rag. We also, for emergencies, we had Chinese shotguns. No bullets, just a blast of powder. When the birds got too abundant, we’d fire that. I was too small to put it [shotgun] on my shoulder anyway. Braced it on something behind me, fired away.
My recollection is that we called it “Chinese shotgun.” We never killed anything with it, just made a lot of noise.
[We sat for] probably an hour or two, after school. That was one of my jobs. That, plus firing up the furo [bath]. We had to heat up the furo water every night. Wood fire.
I think we brought [the wood] in from the different farm areas ’cause I don’t remember gathering wood, just making the fire.
[Our house had] three bedrooms, a large parlor, a patio-like opening connected to a kitchen. Then later on, when my second oldest brother got married, he moved into a wing that was built for them.
The oldest one, he was my half-brother, fathered by Taguma. Mr. Taguma passed away. My mother then married my father. [My half-brother] was much older than I was and I recall he got married when I was a really little boy. He lived next door for a while, rented a large house next door. Then he moved to Camp 10, Robinson Camp 10, tending the sugarcane fields for Robinson. So I don’t think he ever lived in our immediate household.
My oldest sister was much, much older than I am. After attending Kauai High School in Lihue, she came out to Honolulu and attended Queen’s nursing school [Queen’s Hospital Training School for Nurses]. So, I have almost no recollection of her. Only thing [I remember] — my oldest sister is coming home from Honolulu for vacation periods. So she comes home and I don’t recall doing anything with her. Then she goes back to school. Then after she graduated, she took off to the Mainland [U.S.], too, so I don’t have much recollection of her.
But the others, five kids, two parents. Seven of us lived in that house. I remember my brothers fighting each other but I was too little and puny to fight with anybody. (Laughs)
My sister — between me and my [next] sister, four years. That’s because between us, there was a set of twins but they were stillbirth or something. Anyway, they didn’t survive. Then after that, it was about two-year span.
The bath [furo] was in a separate building. I still dream about that. Going down the kitchen steps, hitting the ground, mango tree and go to the bathhouse.
The house was, fortunately, elevated, maybe about five, six feet. Because the floodwaters would come almost to the floor. Maybe not six feet. I know we went under the house where a lot of things were stored. We couldn’t stand up straight so it wasn’t six feet.
As a friend of mine says, “Size of things gets exaggerated when you start thinking of childhood days.” (Laughs) This friend of mine lives in Berkeley. He had the same kind of job with the Veterans Administration that I did. He said his dad served in the army in Schofield [Barracks] and he remembers, as a kid, running up and sliding down the mound outside one of the Schofield facilities. It’s an arena-like place [Conroy Bowl] up there.
As a kid, he remembered that thing as quite a slope. Sliding down. But on one of his vacation trips, he visited Schofield, then he said, “Hmm.” Just a little slope. A little drop. But his memory of it was, “Ooh, big slope.”
Richard Okamoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Richard Okamoto and Library of Congress.