Richard Okamoto

Age: 97
1399 Engineer Construction Battalion

“I think generally the AJA guys who were drafted with me. We all felt about the same. We were all told what we would do, and we did it.”

Richard Okamoto clearly remembers the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack. He was watering tomato plants in the backyard of his sister’s home in St. Louis Heights when he saw heavy black smoke left behind from a rush of aircraft. “I knew it was the real thing,” he says.

I think generally the AJA guys who were drafted with me. We all felt about the same. We were all told what we would do, and we did it.

After being drafted in February 1942, he reported to Schofield Barracks for duty. We quickly realized the Japanese-American recruits were being treated differently from others.

“We were segregated, and instead of being issued arms, we were issued work gloves,” he says. “(Other) guys drafted with us… were given weapons and they went through regular basic training. We were giving miscellaneous duties and the most demeaning was a whole company was assigned to collect garbage at
Schofield Barracks.”

The group did other menial work before being assigned construction projects. Eventually, they became part of the 370th Engineer Regiment. Around 1944, they became the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion.

As a member of the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion, Richard Okamoto acknowledges that unlike the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, his war experiences are not heroic battle stories. Yet like fellow Nisei, when his country called, he didn’t hesitate to rise up.

“I feel like I did what I was asked to do,” Okamoto says. “I didn’t endanger my life or anything like that because it wasn’t a combat situation, but those of us who served in 1399... we don’t have too much to boast about. We leave that to the 100 and 442 and Military Intelligence Service, who put their lives on the line… but we did our job.”

Barbara Okamoto, his daughter, however said all Nisei blazed a lot of trails for the next generations, not just during the war. “They obviously did bring about a whole revolution, politically, socially, economically,” she says. “That created tremendous opportunities for those of us that followed of all races.”

More Soldier Stories

100th: Takashi Kitaoka

Takeshi Kitaoka awoke on Dec. 7, 1941 to the sounds of an explosion, followed by another. Outside his Kaimuki home, there was chaos in the sky, with strike planes soaring toward Pearl Harbor.

442nd: Robert Kishinami

Robert Kishinami saw planes soaring above his Haleiwa neighborhood and realized it wasn’t a military maneuver with zeroes and tracers. They were real bullets, a declaration of war.

MIS: Herbert Yanamura

Herbert Yanamura was just a carefree high school kid in Kona — the son of a coffee farmer originally from Japan — when the call came for volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Nisei Veterans Legacy