1399th Engineer Construction Battalion
All-Japanese American construction battalion based on O'ahu, Hawai'i. The 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion was activated on April 26, 1944, and consisted mainly of draftees from April through August of 1944. The group was nicknamed the "Chowhounds" because of their large appetites. The 1399th completed 54 defense related construction projects on O'ahu and was awarded the Meritorious Service Award in October 1945.
The 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion was a unit comprised of draftees as well as primarily Japanese American members of the 395th Prewar Quartermaster Battalion, 370th Engineer Battalion, 1536th Dump Truck Company, and 1525th Base Equipment Company. The total size peaked at just under 1,000 men at the end of 1944, and though their service was requested in the Philippines by General Douglas MacArthur himself, they remained in Hawai'i where they were a vital part of the homefront effort.
After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, many U.S. military leaders believed that an additional strike against the United States was probable and would most likely begin where the first attack occurred—Hawai'i. In light of this fear, the service of the Chowhounds on the Islands was considered critical to the defense of the United States more broadly. In addition, there were fears about sending the men of Japanese ancestry into Japan where they could be easily confused with the enemy. As a result, the men of the 1399th stayed in Hawaii where they performed such work as building a million-gallon water tank, which is still in use near Wahiawa by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. They created realistic jungle training locations, even featuring roads and equipment for simulation purposes, and they built artillery and ammunition storage depots. They were involved with such innovative technology as building airfields for the new flying fortresses, while also assisting with day-to-day operations such as road and bridge repair and mining in quarries. According to Toshiyuki Nakasone, "We would do all kinds of labor work that needed to be done to clean up the area. And I know we dug all the trenches all over the place."
Even in the postwar years, the accomplishments of the 1399th were remembered by government authorities. Gardner Hyer, an officer who served with the 370th Engineer Battalion and then the 1399th through the duration of the war, recalled receiving a phone call from the Pentagon during the Vietnam War to determine whether construction techniques used during WWII on Oahu would be successful in Vietnam. According to Hyer, the 1399th had used bamboo in place of steel for reinforcing concrete and had employed running streams under latrines to essentially 'flush' the waste. Both ideas were successfully put into effect in the tropics of Vietnam thanks to the earlier experiments of the Chowhounds.
In recognition of their service during the war years, the unit received a Meritorious Service Award on October 29, 1945. There were no individual awards or recognition such as Medals of Honor or Purple Hearts because they were not in combat, but three members of the unit died in service-related accidents on the homefront. After the war was over, the 1399th was deactivated on May 31, 1946. Unfortunately, despite their important role and public recognition, the role of the 1399th is often far overshadowed by the exploits of the MIS, 100th Infantry, and 442nd RCT. They have since been referred to as the "unsung heroes" of the Hawai'i front and "the Kilauea [volcano] of the AJA military units, obscured by the giants [Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea Volcanos] but possessing a proud record of its own."
For More Information
Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board. Japanese Eyes . . . American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii's World War II Nisei Soldiers. Honolulu: Tendai Educational Foundation, 1998. The Hawaii Nisei Story: Americans of Japanese Ancestry During World War II.http://nisei.hawaii.edu/page/home. Kotani, Roland. The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle. Honolulu: Hochi, Ltd., 1985. "1399th Engineer Construction Battalion" on 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Education Center website, http://www.100thbattalion.org/history/japanese-american-units/1399th-engineer-construction-battalion/. "1399th Engineer Construction Battalion" on Go For Broke National Education Center website, http://www.goforbroke.org/history/history_historical_veterans_232nd_1399th.asp.
- Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board, Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii's World War II Nisei Soldiers (Honolulu: Tendai Education Foundation, 1998), 229, 10.
- Japanese Eyes, American Heart, 9.
- Toshiyuki Nakasone, The Hawaii Nisei Story: Americans of Japanese Ancestry During World War II. http://nisei.hawaii.edu/page/home.
- Japanese Eyes, American Heart, 230.
- "1399th Engineer Construction Battalion" on Go For Broke National Education Center website, http://www.goforbroke.org/history/history_historical_veterans_232nd_1399th.asp.
- Japanese Eyes, American Heart, 10, 229.