Richard Okamoto
1399th Engineer Construction Battalion

Military Service: 370th Engineer Regiment

In October 1942, the provisional battalion is re-designated 1st Battalion of the 370th Engineer (Special Services) Regiment.

From the 370th Engineer Regiment, Richard and three others are assigned to the 47th Regimental Supply Office.

When the 47th Combat Engineers are sent to the South Pacific, Richard assumes supply clerk duties within the 370th Engineer Regiment.

My so-called military career, three years and eleven months in the service, that’s very unexciting, uneventful, because I was in supply activity all through. I [was at Schofield] — except for a couple of occasions when the whole company moved out, outside of Schofield Barracks and camped in areas close to where the company was doing work. One was Kahuku airfield [Air Base], one was in Haleiwa. The rest of the time I was in Schofield, in one of those — you see those huge World War I-type barracks, we were in those barracks.

Schofield Barracks, Wahiawa, Hawaii

Although some of them, like Ken Hagino, he says his group was attached to the 34th Engineers and they lived in wooden barracks. Our company, Company A, we moved from here to there but we were pretty much in those huge cement barracks.

370th Engineer Regiment

In October of 1942, the provisional battalion was re-designated as the 370th Engineer Battalion [1st Battalion of the 370th Engineer (Special Services) Regiment]. The officers were all local guys, mostly from the National Guard.

Our company commander initially was Lieutenant [William Y.] Keliinoe. Very nice, friendly, you know, he’s local boy. He got along well with us and vice versa.

Then eventually, Captain David Kahanamoku became our company commander. Then, I don’t know why but eventually, the local cadre of officers were all transferred out of our battalion and we got officers from the Mainland United States. Why that change occurred, I don’t know, but I know that some of the new officers, the Mainland officers, were engineer-qualified so maybe that’s why.

Several of [the officers were engineers]. On the other hand, among the local officers that preceded them, there was only one Chinese guy [Albert Kong] that I know was an engineer. But when the changeover of officers occurred, he went out with the other local guys.

I think the 370th Engineers had about six hundred AJA [Americans of Japanese Ancestry] soldiers. I have papers that indicate the number, military papers, but my guess, without looking at those orders, is about six hundred. That would include our draft and the cadre people who were with us.

For example, our mess sergeant Elbert Arakawa, he had entered the service much earlier [1941]. Our eventual sergeant major, [Mitsuo] Hoota, was just about the first draft. He was a real old-timer. So, we all became part of 370th Engineers.

Our eventual company commander, Captain Baldwin, he was a West Point graduate. I would say he was pretty much spit-and-polish. But on the other hand, he wasn’t overbearing, the stiff-back military type. He was a nice man, too.

So generally, our officers were nice. They did not indicate racial discrimination as far as I could see. None of them looked down on us, as far as I could see. But officers are officers and they keep apart from the enlisted people.

Oh, one interesting experience we had was the Battle of Midway. We — all the units at Schofield — were put on alert. Okay, at that point — this was [June 4 – June 7, 1942.] It was only a few months after the beginning of the war. We were unarmed. At that time, we must have been provisional battalion. And we had about four of five weapons for the whole company all stored in the supply room.

The weapons were all for our officers only. Not for any of the enlisted men because the enlisted guys were all Japanese ancestry. And when the alert was issued, the officers came in to pick up their weapons. One first lieutenant was assigned a BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] and I recall his asking me, “Hey, does this weapon shoot tracer ammunition?” I felt like telling him, “I don’t know, it’s your weapon. We don’t have any weapons.” Anyway, the alert was over very shortly and the weapons came back into the supply room.

I don’t know if we had the key. Probably not. Physically, the weapons were in the supply room, under lock and key but I would suspect that the company commander had the key. ’Cause it wouldn’t make sense to give us the key, we were all under suspicion. Although, as far as our officers were concerned, they were local boys. At that time, they were still local boys. I think Captain David Kahanamoku was [a] company commander. I don’t think they [local officers] mistrusted us at all.

47th Regimental Supply Office

I don’t know exactly when I was assigned to regimental supply activity, but the 47th Combat Engineer Regiment, a Mainland National Guard [unit], from the Midwest, they had been to the Aleutian Islands and got involved in combat with the Japanese there.

Then after that was over, they were shipped down to Hawaii. Then, we were detailed to work with [the 47th Engineer Regiment].

[While in the 370th Engineers] we were just assigned. Of course, they couldn’t afford to ask us what we wanted to do. One day we got up and we were told to go report to the 47th Regimental Supply Office. And we had Elton Sakamoto, Paul Tanaka, David Takahashi, and myself. Four of us, we were all college graduates. There might have been somebody else, I’m not sure.

[My duties were] strictly paperwork. All of us. We never had to do any manual work. I wasn’t assigned to do work away from the regimental supply office. I was in the office all the time. I suspect some of the others might have been sent out to do regimental supply work, like picking up certain supplies and stuff. But, I stayed in the office all the time.

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I typed. We all typed. I think it’s simply because we were college graduates that we were assigned there. We couldn’t be assigned to any operational work, like anything to do with combat planning and stuff like that. After all, we were under suspicion. We were pretty much pencil pushers.

The guys, the enlisted guys that we worked with in the supply office, they were really nice guys, nice haole [Caucasian] boys. So, we got along well with them, except for the NCO [noncommissioned officer] in charge. I remember — I don’t remember his name anymore but he was a real stiff-back GI type. In the beginning he said, “I don’t know how to handle you boys,” because we were college graduates. But before long, he was chewing us out. (Laughs)

He was very strict. Oh, Mosley, Sergeant Mosley. I would suspect he was a regular army guy that got attached to the 47th Engineer Regiment.

But we did paperwork, behaved ourselves, and we were with that 47th Engineers Regiment until they pulled out. They went to the South Pacific for more combat.

Then, we were assigned within the 370th Engineer Battalion. I became a supply clerk. The supply sergeant was then Arita, Edwin [N.] Arita. He was from an early draft, like Elbert Arakawa. He eventually became the first sergeant of H & S [Headquarters and Service] company of 1399th Engineer Battalion, at which point I was promoted to the supply sergeant position.

Discrimination

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I don’t personally agree [that we were subject to more suspicion and discrimination than the 100th and 442nd] because we [who were in the 370th] were exposed on a relatively long-term basis, as military assignments go, to the supply staff, regimental supply staff of 47th Engineers.

We were buck privates and everybody else was senior to us. We took orders and did our work. But I didn’t sense a hostility that comes with any racial feeling. It must have been there because the 47th Engineers were all Caucasians.

I suppose there must have been some degree of racial discrimination because, eventually, they put in for us college graduates to go away for officer training and we were all turned down. From our group that worked with the 47th Engineers regimental supply office, only one eventually became an officer. David Takahashi. He became a warrant officer. But that, I believe, was after we got back to our own battalion [1399th Engineer Construction Battalion].

Oh, I remember too, going on guard duty before we were given training. So we were on guard duty without any weapon. Eerie feeling, to challenge people without any arms to back you up. But we never got into any difficulty because of that. [Guard duty] at night in the quarters area. Every night, guards would be set up to check people going in and out.

Oh, and at one point, too, we used to ride into Downtown Honolulu for weekend passes. Then get back on the same truck to be hauled back to Schofield Barracks. Yeah, I overheard one remark, I think it was a Puerto Rican couple, young couple, just happened to be walking by. I don’t know who made the remark but I think it was the gal that said it. She didn’t realize that there were still AJA soldiers on Oahu. The reply was, “Oh, there’s quite a few of them still on the island.” Obviously, they wanted us out of the way. But it didn’t have anything to do with operation because we were, at that time, by that time, 1399th Engineers, and pretty well established.

The only discrimination that sticks in my craw is trying to get booking with Hawaiian Airlines to take a flight to Kauai to visit my family. The clerical personnel were local people but the discriminatory factor was real obvious. I couldn’t get anybody to serve, wait on me, so I could get a ticket. I still remember that. Because of that, I didn’t fly Hawaiian Airlines for a long time after the war was over. I’ve forgiven them now.

But I really, in the service, I didn’t feel much discrimination. But again, I wasn’t involved in those situations where discrimination would be a factor. I generally was moving around among our own people.

Richard Okamoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Richard Okamoto.

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