Richard Okamoto
1399th Engineer Construction Battalion

December 7, 1941

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Richard sees black bursts of anti-aircraft fire. But, until told about the radio reports, he does not realize that Pearl Harbor has been attacked.

After the attack, with no students to instruct, there are no PE classes to teach at the University of Hawaii.

Richard and other teachers are recruited to fingerprint residents for identification purposes.

Under martial law, curfew is observed, activities are limited.

On December 7, [1941] when we were attacked, I remember I was watering [my sister’s] tomato plants. I saw these black bursts of anti-aircraft fire, without realizing what was going on until my sister said that on the radio they were announcing that war had started. The radio reported that this was not practice, it was the real thing.

Japanese aircraft attack on Pearl Harbor

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[It] was a nice Sunday morning, beautiful day like this here. What would we be doing with a war? I couldn’t believe it was happening to us.

Then after that, everything for us, as for everybody else, everything was turned topsy-turvy.

Frankly, I don’t know exactly what I did after that. I wasn’t staying with my sister. I think I hightailed it for Atherton House.

At that point, I was staying at Atherton House. Because I remember we were playing poker one night and some of our light must have been, or somebody’s light, must have been peeking out because one of the guards outside fired a shot. We were told later that some of our light was leaking out.

Fingerprinting

I don’t have much of a recollection as to what I did day to day. But there was nobody left at the University of Hawaii to teach in my classes, in my phys ed [physical education] classes.

Eventually, we — a whole bunch of teachers — were recruited to go around the islands, especially into the rural areas, to do fingerprinting [for IDs]. And I suppose that was a program administered by the provost marshal.

We were under martial law at that time.

[The program entailed] getting all the people out to where we were doing the fingerprinting. Just, either inside or outside of the buses that we were using to get around the island. Eventually, that program ended, too, because there was the whole bunch of us doing that.

I would assume [everyone was required to be fingerprinted], yeah. Although we never did any fingerprinting in the city. We covered the rural areas, all the boondocks.

I don’t think [we were paid]. I don’t recall any money exchanging hands. No, I think it was all volunteer.

Really, for us, who were not in the appropriate type of employment to produce goods, we had nothing to do, otherwise. So, one of the things I did was wait for the next draft.

Impact of War with Japan

I don’t recall [my feelings about being at war with Japan]. I know I didn’t feel that I was discriminated against because our activities and movement from one place to another, just like everybody else, was very limited. So, we had to abide by curfew, of course and movement at night was down to zero.

Police stopping civilians after curfew, Hawaii

My mother was gone [deceased] by then. I don’t recall talking to my father about it. Because after the Pearl Harbor attack, I didn’t go back to Kauai, I stayed in Honolulu.

Back then, we didn’t know what was happening, I think which was true for the civilian populace as a whole.

Richard Okamoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Richard Okamoto, National Archives, and University of Hawaii Archives, Hawaii War Records.

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