Bury the Phonograph: Oral Histories Preserve Records of Life in Hawaii During World War II

By Shannon White

“That afternoon, when we came home, the troops were here, and this was martial law. Martial law was imposed on us, the soldiers just controlled everything.” 

The Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project is the result of a collaboration between the UC Berkeley Oral History Center and the National Park Service: a series of interviews chronicling the World War II American home front experience. The library’s digital collections hold over 200 interviews pertaining to the project, and the recorded stories cover a wide range of themes, including migration, women’s employment, race relations and civil rights, religion, and wartime life. 

Since the focus of this project is those individuals who were not on active military duty during the war, many of the interviewees are women and people from minority backgrounds for whom the war opened up career opportunities, like Elizabeth Lew and Betty Reid Soskin. Many other interviewees grew up during the 1930s and 1940s and recall the war years through the lens of childhood. What drew me to this project though, and what I would like to highlight in particular, is the subset of interviews from the Rosie the Riveter project that center around people who grew up in Hawaii and either witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor or lived through the aftermath, during which the state was placed under martial law. 

These interviews are breathtakingly vivid in their accounts of the islands before the war, and the descriptions of life in Hawaii during the war and in the decades following are both insightful and poignantly emotional. 

The majority of the interviewees discussed here are Nisei, the second-generation children of people who immigrated to Oahu, Kauai, or Maui to find work and start a family. Several, including Yoshie Seida Yamamoto and Champ Ono, grew up on plantations and recall the diverse environment of neighborhoods populated by Portuguese, Filipino, haole (white), Chinese, Korean, and Japanese families. “To this day, I proudly tell people I’m a plantation girl,” says Gladys Okada, who spent her childhood on the McBryde Sugar Company plantation in Eleele on the island of Kauai. 

“Exciting,” Jimmy Lee says of his childhood. “Very happy,” recalls Okada, referring to her home on the McBryde plantation. The narrators of these oral histories bring to life vibrant accounts of their homes in Hawaii prior to the imposition of martial law on the islands. 

At the same time, though, tensions between these different groups often ran high. Interracial relationships were frowned upon, if not strictly forbidden; narrators like Yoshie Seida Yamamoto and Fujiko Nonaka recall racial slurs hurled at them by American soldiers in the wake of Pearl Harbor; and several interviews note the segregation of Okinawan immigrants from other mainland Japanese families. Tomi Taba, for example, expresses in her interview frustration at being relegated to the position of second-class citizen on account of her Okinawan heritage, something that her family had always taken pride in. In his interview, Jimmy Lee describes the tumultuous and often violent environment that arose from locals, military, and undercover police living in close proximity in Oahu’s Chinatown. Here Lee discusses being questioned by police about undercover gambling rings as a child:

He says, “Don’t point.” I said, “Yes, up there, up there, up there, up there, all the gambling.” They had one of the biggest raids in Chinatown, for all the gambling joints because of—hopefully, all those guys are dead now, they can’t hear me. 

Montage of headshots of ten people
Top row left to right: Akiko Kurokawa, Jimmy Lee, Shizue Takaki, Fujiko Nonaka, Sadi Doi. Bottom row left to right: Taba Tomi, Yoshie Seida Yamamoto, Ono Champ, Robert Lee, Gladys Okawa.

Many children worked part-time on the plantations, harvesting crops like sugarcane and pineapple. In her joint interview with Akiko Kurokawa, Fujiko Nonaka describes how she and the other children on the McBryde plantation would pick kiawe beans and sell them for five cents a bag to earn lunch money. Tomi Taba worked on the pineapple field owned by her adoptive father, weeding and washing clothes for the Filipino workers her parents hired to tend to the land. Robert Lee recalls older workers making “pineapple swipes” while working in the California Packing Corporation’s pineapple fields:

But as soon as they got off the truck, each one would rush over to the pineapple field and pick the largest, ripest, prettiest pineapple they could find, break it off, cut the top off, and reach inside with their sharp knives, and make a soup out of the inside. Then they would put that same thing back on its own same plant; then they would go off and do the harvesting. At the end of the day, that pineapple had sat in the hot sun all day long, you see. So at six p.m., they come, and each of those men would take his pineapple, jump back on the truck, and drink his alcohol all the way back to the camp. Because it had been fermenting all day long. 

At the same time, most children attended school. A few, like Gladys Okada and Robert Lee, remained long enough to graduate high school and attend college. In Japanese families, it was common practice for children to attend an hour or two of Japanese school after the standard school day was over. Here Gladys Okada details her daily routine with a friend:

We would have a little snack, like soda crackers and dried shrimp; walk from Eleele to Port Allen; and we’d go to Japanese school, come home, walk all the [way] back, talk story, laughing. We had so much fun. 

In terms of recreational activities, interviewees describe a seemingly endless array of games and pastimes. Gladys Okada remembers swimming in the McBryde Sugar Company reservoir and catching medaka (Japanese rice fish) in mayonnaise jars to take home. Champ Ono fondly reminisces about pole fishing, a frequent weekend activity for kids in Puʻunene: 

When we were in high school, somebody asked us, “Weren’t you afraid of going in and out?” I said, “Afraid of what?” They said, “Oh, sharks.” We never even thought about those things.

Sadie Doi discusses in her interview the importance of the family’s Philco radio for bringing her community together—neighbors used to gather at her house at night to listen to boxing matches and radio programs like The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger. Others describe their love for the movies, recounting memories of cheap tickets and the variety of films. “I used to go to Japanese movies every Saturday night. I used to like Japanese movies,” Tomi Taba says of movie theaters before the war.

Christian churches or Buddhist temples were also often an important part of family life, and several narrators, including Shizue Takaki and Yoshie Seida Yamamoto, discuss their experiences with religion throughout their lives. Here, Yamamoto talks about converting to Christianity: “Yeah, I was born a Buddhist, so I was a Buddhist until—gee, until war broke out.”

Almost every interviewee remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Tomi Taba, living on Kauai with her in-laws at the time, discusses how she was pregnant with her second son when word first got around:

So I went to see the doctor that day. As we were coming back, I stopped at the service station, which my uncle owned. Then when we stopped over there, my brother-in-law, who was below my husband, came over to the car and said, “You know something? Something awful happened on Oahu.”

Jimmy Lee was around eleven years old at the start of the war, and witnessed the entirety of the attack while doing chores on the family farm.

Well, my chores on December 7 was to feed the pigs. Right over here, maybe about 200 yards from here, that’s where the pigpen was. Feeding the pigs that morning, and wow, all of a sudden, here comes the plane coming overhead really low. 

Aerial view of USS Oklahoma being righted.
The USS Oklahoma being salvaged after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo credit: US Navy.

Robert Lee, then twenty years old, was also living on Oahu at the time and was woken up by the explosions from the harbor. Lee recalls the morning of December 7, 1941:

The Oklahoma, for example, had already turned over. Because before I’d even taken my grandfather and grandmother up to the cave, I had watched the Oklahoma turn right over. That was the first part of it; when I was still looking out my bedroom window, that still was happening. Then even when I was still up there looking, at that same early time, the Arizona exploded in this huge ball of fire. 

Lee and his family members were later involved in the rescue efforts, helping the many boats of soldiers being carried to shore. Lee on assisting oil-covered soldiers:

So immediately, we knew what to do. We hooked up several hoses to the water supply there, and we started washing these fellows down. My mother came down with several cakes of what they called Fels-Naptha Soap. The naphtha soap cuts grease. 

After the United States declared war against Japan on December 8, 1941, life on the islands quickly changed. Waterfront access was swiftly restricted, blackout drills went into immediate effect, and Japanese schools and Buddhist temples were shut down as priests and teachers were transported to internment camps on the mainland. Jimmy Lee describes life on Oahu under martial law, saying, “That afternoon, when we came home, the troops were here, and this was martial law. Martial law was imposed on us, the soldiers just controlled everything.” 

Several interviewees discuss their families’ fear surrounding Japanese items they owned and how many of their parents quickly took action to hide or destroy their possessions. “By evening time, my mother took most of our Japanese things, and she burned it,” Gladys Okada says of December 7, 1941. Yoshie Seida Yamamoto remembers her parents entrusting a family heirloom, a sword, to a neighbor, only to have him refuse to return it after the war. Sadie Doi recalls digging underneath the house to bury her family’s Japanese books and records. “In fact, I think we even buried the phonograph,” she notes.

The Japanese films that Tomi Taba and several others look back on fondly stopped being shown at Hawaiian theaters, swiftly replaced by movies on the war and American patriotism. “We used to say, now, why did they make all the Japanese pilots look so ugly?” says Gladys Okada in reference to American war films.

In his interview, Champ Ono conveys the sense of panic and disorganization that pervaded the first few days of the war. A member of his school’s ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps), Ono was quickly drafted, along with many of his classmates, into the Hawaii Territorial Guard. Laughing, Ono recalls the lack of training he received in the Territorial Guard: “Well, they didn’t even tell us how to load the gun.” On his first night as part of the Territorial Guard, he was assigned to patrol the waterfront for invasion:

The first night, I was there on the waterfront. They were supposed to pick us up the next morning. They never came, till almost evening time. 

Ono was later dismissed from the Hawaii Territorial Guard on account of his Japanese heritage and went on to join the Varsity Victory Volunteers along with many other Japanese American students at the University of Hawaii.

Military presence on the Hawaiian islands was heightened. Individual families were ordered to build bomb shelters, the windows of houses and buildings were blacked out to prevent light from being visible, and air raid drills were frequently practiced in schools. Beaches were patrolled and monitored by troops in case of invasion, and access to the waterfront was restricted for civilians. Sadie Doi discusses military security measures along the beach on Waimea, stating that to access the water, she had to “crawl through the barbed wire fence, because they had strung barbed wire all over the place.”

Jimmy Lee’s childhood encounter with an armed soldier is a chilling reminder of the reality of martial law in Hawaii:

One morning before curfew time, I brought the cow out from the bushes, so I could take it to the pen so I could milk her. I was met by a soldier. A soldier with a long rifle and a long bayonet sticking at my throat. “What are you doing violating the curfew?” 

And yet, despite the omnipresent worry that war was just around the corner, many interviewees look back on this period fondly. Yoshie Seida Yamamoto remembers a local dance held for the members of her community and how, despite the inability for people to obtain good dancing shoes during the war, everyone still showed up and had fun together: 

It was a dance. It was during the day. It was on Sunday and it was from twelve to three, I think. The public is invited. So I saw the soldiers coming, all the camp people—everybody was there dancing, having a great time.

Gladys Okada’s memory of being scolded by a teacher for misbehaving during a drill — Just because you bought three twenty-five stamps doesn’t give you the right to not behave during an air raid” — highlights the reality that the people in these oral histories faced during the 1940s. This story is humorous but nevertheless still tinged by the very real threat of war on the Hawaiian islands. It really drives home the fact that many of the narrators of these oral histories were only children or young adults at the time of this globally tumultuous period and spent many of their formative years growing up in the shadow of a world war. 

I barely learned about World War II in school, and what I did learn was focused mainly on the European theater of the war. I’m not like my little sister, a history nut who could probably name every major player involved in the war and what their personal motivations were. I credit my knowledge of the war to one thing: my father loves war documentaries. Even more than that, he loves telling me what he learned from war documentaries. At this point, I’ve seen enough war documentaries to last a lifetime, and, while invaluable as a resource for education and preserving the past, I’ve come to realize that for me these documentaries sometimes seem impersonal. The rich cadence of a narrator’s voice plays over grainy, zoomed-out footage of planes and ships and explosions and smoke, while masterful editing weaves in music — the soundtrack of war. It’s easy to lose the human element of the story within the spectacle. 

I visited Pearl Harbor as a child, and what I remember most is the glaringly white color of the USS Arizona Memorial against the bright blue sky and the massive crush of people that seemed endless to a three-year-old. That visit unfortunately didn’t have as great an effect on me as it could have. The glaring white hurt my eyes, the bright blue of the sky meant sweltering heat, and the massive crowd of people so much bigger than me just made me nervous. Yet for some reason, the memory of that day has long remained in my mind.  

Working my way through this oral history project has in its own way helped my mind sharpen that indistinct memory of the white and the blue and the rainbow of Hawaiian-shirted tourists into something that fits solidly within my understanding of history. These interviews are the opposite of an impersonal documentary. They plainly capture the experiences and emotions of people who lived through a time in history so much earlier than my own. More than that, these interviews are comprehensive; they document entire lives, thus granting people like you and me intimate insight into how people lived through, and continued to live beyond, such devastating events. 

Shannon White
Shannon White

Find these interviews and all our oral histories from the search feature on the Oral History Center home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. You can also find projects, including the Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project through the menu on our home page from Oral Histories, then choose Projects.

Shannon White is currently a third-year student at UC Berkeley studying classical languages. They are an undergraduate research apprentice in the Nemea Center under Professor Kim Shelton and a member of the editing staff for the Berkeley Undergraduate Journal of Classics. Shannon works as a student editor for the Oral History Center. 

Related Resources at The Bancroft Library

In addition to these oral histories, The Bancroft Library has a wide range of source materials on Pearl Harbor including: Army reports, photos, fiction, personal accounts, films, and more. From the UC Library Search, click on Advanced Search, select “UC Berkeley special collections and archives” and enter your search terms.