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Historical Events

An Era of Change: Oral Histories of Civilians in World War II Hawai‘i

Five men in uniforms behind a stretcher piled with blankets and other supplies

Interviewee Hisao Kimura, second from left, and other first aid squad members, stand in front of the Waimea First Aid Station, ca. 1942. (Photo courtesy Kimura family.)

Perhaps nowhere else on American soil were the war years more acutely felt and the federal government’s influence more pervasive than in Hawai‘i. The changes due to wartime policies and conditions were particularly pronounced given the Islands’ geographic isolation, multiethnic population, plantation-based economy, and highly stratified social order.

“Before the war came . . . we’d be working at Hickam Field. That was with all local boys, but when I went to (Fort) Shafter, then I was in sort of a Haole (Caucasian) environment, so to speak. . . . Because civil service is you take the test and they grade you and all that. They don’t discriminate (against) you for color line, see. That was the big difference. . . . Not like before the war when we were on separate strata, so to speak.” —Etsuo Sayama

Martial law with its seemingly endless string of rules and regulations dictated minute details of daily life. Rationing, curfews, blackouts, and censorship set limits on what were once routine activities.

“In business, a law was passed that you couldn’t keep raising your prices. In implementing this law, they (government) couldn’t decide how to carry it out since it was something new. . . . I went to the government office for price control many times. He (local administrator) finally set it for me. He praised me saying it was very good, but we couldn’t make much money under those conditions. That was no good.” (Laughs.) —Toso Haseyama

“Oh, the liquor. Liquor and rice. Rice is not rationed, but you had to go and get it fast because the shipment doesn’t come in so often. And then the people (who have) money, they buy bags and bags of rice. And that’s how get shortage, eh.” —Helen Lau

The forced relocation and/or internment of certain aliens of Japanese ancestry, the movement of workers from neighbor islands to O‘ahu, the arrival of thousands of soldiers and civilian war workers, and the departure of thousands of locally recruited servicemen affected demographics.

“Our staff dropped by a third. Some were drafted, some volunteered. . . . And all during the war we had problems retaining enough to keep surviving under the changing conditions.” —Frederick Lowrey

This oral history project, sponsored in part by the National Park Service, focused on individual responses to the war. The interviews with thirty-three longtime residents provide us with primary source documentation on the war as a catalyst for social change.

 

Link to audioAgnes Chun recalls what she saw from her Palama home on the morning of December 7, 1941 (.au sound file, 72K) and Frederick Lowrey describes what he saw that morning through his telescope from Maunalani Heights (.au sound file, 528K).

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