Richard Okamoto
1399th Engineer Construction Battalion

Military Service: 1399th Engineer Battalion

With the 370th Engineers as its nucleus, the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion is activated in April 1944.

By that time, weapons are issued to the unit. But, except at firing range practice, there are no occasions to use guns.

To be close to work, the 1399th Engineer Battalion camps at Kahuku Air Base and Mokuleia Airfield. At Mokuleia, there are two accidental fatalities.

After April 1944, new draftees are assigned to supply work with Richard.

Weapons

I think we had weapons before [the 1399th was formed]. I don’t know exactly when we got our training. It was after about a year being in the army. So we entered February 1942 and 1399th was established in April of 1944. So by that time [prior to April 1944], we had been issued weapons.

Richard Okamoto, Firing Range, 1943

I remember one stupid thing I did. When we were issued .45 pistols, automatic pistols, we took our pick of the weapons first before letting the officers in on it. And (groans) afterwards I said to myself, boy that was a stupid thing for us to do, taking our pick of the weapons. I remember picking out the .45 with a beautiful bluish finish. Captain Baldwin, the West Point graduate was then our commanding officer, and he liked that pistol. And I was rash enough to tell him that, “Oh, I took that for myself.” (Chuckles) If he had been a stinker, he would have chewed me off right there. But he picked another weapon. And we never used it.

No occasion to use it, except on the firing range. I’m afraid I don’t have too much of interest to tell you. Supply activity is pretty much a humdrum activity if it’s confined within a particular unit. Nothing much happened.

1399th Engineer Battalion Encampments

[We had encampments] to be close to the work site. Because at Kahuku [Air Base], there was a lot of activity going on for a fighter landing strip there. Those were emergency-type of construction. Kahuku had these metal landing strips with a series of holes in ’em. They had the same type of landing strips on the bridge of Wahiawa. The bridge entering Wahiawa.

When you went over the tires went (makes noise). “Airplane Bridge.” We [in the 1399th Engineers] were laying those.

[Kahuku airstrip wasn’t concrete,] not unless somebody went in afterwards and poured concrete. But I think that those were emergency-type airstrips. So I don’t think they developed it much further. There was very little need for it after that. We were never attacked or anything like that. So the use was limited, too.

We also put up revetments out at Kahuku to protect the planes, for planes to park and with berms — around three sides of the plane. Then at Haleiwa, I am not sure exactly what we were doing but I know we were involved with another airstrip there, also an emergency-type. That airstrip was dismantled before the war was over. Or it was never developed into anything significant.

[While in the 1399th Engineers] we did have work in the Dillingham airfield area [Mokuleia Airfield]. That’s where two of our men [Susumu Motonaga and Jack E. Miura] died. They were riding in their truck and some kind of missile hit ’em. [A radio-controlled target plane crashed into their truck.] Those were two that died from what you might consider — well, it wasn’t combat, it was our own people that fired the missile [i.e., target plane].

And then there was another death [involving a bulldozer operator].

One accident that Company A boys [in the 370th] went through, it was a work party on a [government] truck and the driver was not, the boys say he wasn’t a fully qualified driver. Went down a hill and quite a few of them got injured. I don’t think anybody died, but we had accidents that happened.

Supply Clerk

[As the supply clerk, I procured equipment] for company maintenance. We were not involved in procurement of the construction materials, for example. A friend of mine, we were in college together, he became a procurement sergeant for our construction projects.

He was not involved at all with company maintenance type of supply work. Purely construction. Vice versa, we didn’t get involved with construction, supplies.

[Maintenance involved] delivering the laundry of individuals to the military army laundry in Schofield Barracks, picking it up and reissuing individual clothing to guys who had their clothing washed. Getting supplies and equipment. Real mundane kind of thing. The type of supply activity that any other military supply unit would be doing.

I think everything went along fine [procuring things]. This friend of mine who was a procurement sergeant for our construction projects, he never mentioned any difficulty getting supplies. As far as I know, he drew his supplies from military sources, so I can’t see it where a military source would discriminate against us when we were putting construction things up for the good of the army as a whole.

[It was a nine-to-five kind of job.] Humdrum, nothing to get excited about.

New Draftees

As far as the operations were concerned, we probably had more people per unit because . . . Well, I think was in April of 1944 that we became 1399th Engineer Battalion. Right after that, the new draftees started coming in. We must have expanded numerically and gotten new people.

Richard Okamoto, Schofield, 1943

Right off, I recall getting a couple of the new draftees assigned to my supply room activity. These were much younger people than we were. A lot of them were about five years younger than we were. I recall, athletically, they were much better than our age group. We didn’t engage in intramural-type activities like softball and they played much better than we did.

But by that time, my group, the older group were very much experienced in construction work. So they must have absorbed the new guys without any difficulty. I don’t recall any special problems.

I think the newer ones kind of respected us, too, because by that time we had been in service a couple of years, yeah? But, as I said, I kind of led a cloistered life in the supply activity. We, our supply crew, almost never went out to the projects in the field. So we were only indirectly affected.

442nd RCT and MIS

The 442nd was organized about a year and three months after I was drafted. By that time, we had been in the army long enough to know better than to volunteer for anything like that.

I volunteered for MIS [Military Intelligence Service], though, language service. Howard Hiroki, Edwin Kawahara, and I don’t know how many guys came down from Camp Savage, Minnesota, to recruit us guys. There were boys in our company, in our battalion, that were really good in Japanese and quite a few of them went away for language training.

I was interviewed by Edwin Kawahara and he and I had been roommates at Atherton House at the University of Hawaii. At that time, I think he was a tech sergeant on the staff of the Camp Savage language school. He took about a one-minute interview with me and he said, “You’re a hopeless case.” (Laughs)

Ah, he just wanted to know what background I had in Japanese, which was almost nothing. [The interview was in] English. [He asked], did I know kanji [Chinese characters used in Japanese writing], for one thing? No. Hiragana [cursive characters used in Japanese writing], katakana [square form of characters used in Japanese writing], I knew a little.

I had a slight recollection of those things, but I don’t think they were willing to train somebody from the ground level up. You had to be pretty good at it. But on the other hand, after the recruitment for language, Japanese language, we still had a lot of guys in the company who possibly were raised up in Japan, had difficulty speaking English. I guess they didn’t want to volunteer because it was all voluntary thing. But that was it. I had a very short interview.

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

All rights to the reproduction or use of content in the Hawaii Nisei web site are retained by the individual holding institutions or individuals.

Please view the Hawaii Nisei Rights Management page for more information.