The 1399 Engineer Construction Battalion was an all-Japanese American non-combat unit stationed in Oahu, Hawaii, during World War II. When the ranks of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service were filled, Japanese Americans eager to answer the call to duty were honored to serve with the non-combat 1399 Battalion.
The 1399 was activated on April 26, 1944, at Schofield Barracks on Oahu. The core of the unit consisted of about 350 members of the 370th Engineer Battalion, a Nisei unit that had remained in Hawaii after the (soon-to-be) 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) left for the mainland in June 1942.1 The rest of the battalion was made up of draftees from the April-August 1944 drafts and men from three smaller non-combat battalions: 395th pre-war Quartermaster Battalion, 1536th Dump Truck and 1525th Base Equipment Companies.2 By November 1944, the 1399 peaked at nearly 1,000 men.
During the campaigns in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur felt it was necessary to use the 1399 for combat on the frontlines, and requested their service during the Pacific War. Concerned that the Japanese American soldiers would be mistaken for the Japanese enemy, the War Department refused his request, stating that the 1399 was essential for the defense of the Hawaiian archipelago.3
The 1399 fulfilled their duties constructing 54 defense projects in and around Oahu. Their work involved hard labor, and they earned the nickname “Chowhounds,” because of the ravenous appetites they would build up after a hard day’s work. Their projects included a half-million-gallon concrete water tank in Wahiawa, which is still used today to supply water to the Helemano Military Reservation.4 Other projects were a hibernation depot, a Flying Fortress airfield in Kahuku, artillery emplacements, ammunition storage pits, jungle training areas, auxiliary mountain roads, recreation camps, waterways, and bridge repairs.5 Each construction project completed by the 1399 was built efficiently and on time or ahead of schedule.
For fulfilling its duties in the Hawaiian defensive, the 1399 Engineer Construction Battalion was presented with the Meritorious Service Award in October 1945. Unlike the 100th and the 442nd, the 1399 received very little public recognition, and were often assumed to be “just a labor battalion”6 responsible for menial labor, or a unit “taking it easy” and sometimes dismissed as the “pineapple soldiers.”7 But the work they performed was integral to the security of the Hawaiian Islands, and to the success of the war in the Pacific. On May 31, 1946, the 1399 Engineer Construction Battalion was deactivated.
Thomas Takemoto, a Kauai native who volunteered to join the Army, served with the 1399 for two years, volunteering again after a medical discharge. He describes the importance of the battalion’s contribution to the war effort. “It’s not only the men in the front [that] win the war,” Takemoto explained. “It takes everybody to win the war.” Takemoto continued, “For every man in the front there were seven guys in the back, working the supply, whatever else… and we [were] one of them! It takes all of us to win the war.”8
- 1Gwen Battad Ishikawa, “Built to Last: Wahiawa Water Tank Built by 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion Still in Use Today,” Hawaii Herald, November 4, 2011, reprinted by Sons and Daughters of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, accessed on February 10, 2015
- 2Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board, Japanese Eyes, American Hearts: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), p. 9.
- 3Ibid, p. 10.
- 4Although several sources state that the water tank had a million-gallon capacity, Dean Miyamoto, Engineering Branch, Directorate of Public Works, USAG-HI, confirms that the tank has a 500,000-gallon capacity (February 20, 2015), as Ishikawa has noted in her article. See, for example, “1399th Combat Engineer Battalion,” The Hawaii Nisei Story: Americans of Japanese Descent During World War II, University of Hawaii, accessed on February 18, 2015, http://nisei.hawaii.edu/page/1399; “1399th Combat Engineer Battalion,” 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center, accessed on February 18, 2015, http://www.100thbattalion.org/history/japanese-american-units/1399th-engineer-construction-battalion/.
- 5Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board, p. 9.
- 6Oral History interview with Thomas Takemoto, January 19, 2002, Hawaii, Tape #5, Hanashi Oral History Program, Go For Broke National Education Center, accessed on February 9, 2015
- 7Kenneth Hagino, “1399th Engineer Construction Battalion, Pineapple Soldiers,” The Hawaii Nisei Story: Americans of Japanese Ancestry During WWII, University of Hawaii, accessed February 9, 2015
- 8Thomas Takemoto