1399th Engineer Construction Battalion
Military Service: Daily Life
Before the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion is activated, the 370th is known as the “Chowhounds.” The name is an allusion to their appetites satisfied through the cooking and resourcefulness of mess sergeant Elbert Arakawa.
Richard is quartered in Quadrangle J, Schofield Barracks.
Sports, gambling, furloughs to Honolulu or to rural Oahu, occupy the men’s spare time. In Kaaawa, Richard goes torch fishing; in Mokuleia, he serves as a "bag boy" for lobsters caught by other lobsters.
I think we ate a lot. [That’s how we got the name “Chowhounds.”] (Laughs)
By the time we became 1399th, we were already the Chowhounds. So. I don’t know who gave us that name, but obviously it was from eating a lot.
We had an advantage in having Elbert Arakawa as our mess sergeant. He had a bunch of professional cooks working under him. I mean, professional cooks in civilian life. He established contacts so that he could exchange foods with other units in Schofield.
A good example would be a Caucasian unit that wasn’t particularly keen about rice. Well, Elbert would get the rice from them and exchange things like butter and I don’t know what else he gave them, things that our boys didn’t really care too much about.
But one thing that very few of us liked was the mutton chops that was part of the military menu. I still remember looking at the two-inch [high] square pans that they used to cook the chops, mutton chops. These are not lamb chops now, mutton chops, and there’d be about one inch of fat over everything. If you wanted to eat that, it was dug out of the oil. Nothing fancy. No draining of the oil, either.
But from a local-boy standpoint, we had a good mess. We had the same rations as all other units in the area, so we had pretty good food, including a lot of eggs for breakfast.
Starting with the time right after being drafted, we were quartered in tents. I think it was eight of us to a tent; they were big tents.
Then we graduated to the huge barracks in Schofield Barracks. Most of the time we spent in Quadrangle J. The lower-ranking soldiers were in dormitory-type facilities but it’s all open. The bunks are just laid out in a larger area. There was no privacy. All you had was a locker.
But later on, I guess from sergeants on up, you had your own room with a couple of guys in the room. But I don’t recall any hardships or lack as far as our quarters were concerned. I don’t think we expected much, and then we were all in the same boat, so we were satisfied with what we had.
One guy, I remember, in the bathroom — this was a guy who liked to imbibe with hair lotion. You know, it has alcohol in it. So he would dress his hair and take a few drops and it finally got him. He was hospitalized for liver condition. I don’t know whatever happened to him. But he was a happy guy, as far as he went.
I didn’t get much involved in [sports]. From the time we became 370th — not 370th but the provisional battalion — they were already involved in baseball, boxing, basketball. We had a bunch of good athletes, I guess. You’ve heard of Toshiyuki Nakasone [former Waialua High School coach]. He was in that group.
There was a gambling network [while I was in the 370th Engineers] that was, as I understand it from hearsay, pretty active where they had runners to supply pupus [appetizers] and stuff like that.
Initially, we had an old-time artillery sergeant. I don’t know how we hooked up with him. I think his supply room was next to ours. Anyway, he ran a gambling network that he’d set up and he and his people would be taking a cut of the gambling earnings. Eventually, they moved off, presumably to the South Pacific. Then our own people took over. That was in J Quadrangle.
We played a lot of poker, but in our league, was penny-poker type. They did have real serious gambling going on. But we weren’t involved with that.
I don’t recall anything special [for recreation]. I don’t recall going to movies. I don’t drink; it’s not that I don’t drink, but I cannot drink. (Chuckles) So I didn’t hang out with that crowd. I didn’t participate in any organized athletic activities, like Bozo [Ikehara] and the others did.
I recall going to a number of boxing matches at Conroy Bowl in Schofield Barracks. Nothing too absorbing as far as personal activities are concerned.
[We went to Honolulu on furlough] just about every weekend. Oh, one good memory is when we [in the 370th Engineers] were quarantined. I don’t know what for, but we couldn’t go out on pass but we were allowed to roam the rural countryside for some reason. So we loaded up a two-and-a-half ton truck with guys who wanted to go skin diving. There were good divers in our company. One of them was Tamotsu Hamaguchi, he ended up a master sergeant.
The reason why I remember that, I volunteered to be a bag boy, and we went out to Mokuleia. I didn’t know but in relatively shallow water, which was the case, the bag boy takes a beating because he got to contend with all the waves hitting you and you’re hanging on to the game that the guys took. That day, they were going after lobsters. So the bag gets heavy after a while. But it was fun. We caught quite a few lobsters, brought it back for the company mess. But that occurred when we were quarantined.
Another time, even earlier than that, [while I was in the provisional battalion] because I remember some of the guys that went out with us were part of the February 1941 draft, before we became segregated. Harry Kamoku, the union leader from the Hilo area, he was in that group. I think he was a ranking NCO. We went out to the windward side, camped overnight at, I think it was Kaaawa Elementary School, or wherever the school was in that area, and we went out torching over the reef and we got quite a few fish. Because no fishing was allowed during the day. I don’t know how we got permission to go out. I think Lieutenant Keliinoe was with us. So we had a lot of fun. But it wasn’t a military activity.
Richard Okamoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Richard Okamoto and Library of Congress.