A Passion for History

By Dave Hilkert on October 21, 2009 8:05am

Fort Shafter is now more than a century old. It has played a huge role in our national defense and has many stories of Soldiers and civilians serving our Nation across those 100 years. Set in a beautiful paradise, those of us who have the honor to serve at Fort Shafter have had a close relationship with our community from the earliest days of our history, and there are many stories about our ties here in the Pacific.

As the historian for USARPAC, it is a great thrill to learn of so many of these wonderful stories of the Army’s past at Fort Shafter. With so many deployments in today’s Army, we sometimes wonder what Soldier’s life was life like long ago. From the many stories of Fort Shafter, we catch a glimpse of that life across the years. Technology is different now, the uniforms of Soldiers are different, the unit names and missions are changed (although with some similarities) and many buildings from our history are gone with new ones in their place. The Soldiers who served long ago, however, are no different from those who serve at Fort Shafter today.

In this blog, I want to share some stories of our Soldiers and civilians. If you ever served at Fort Shafter, or know of someone who was here, please share your stories, too!

One of the earliest Fort Shafter personal accounts comes from Private John C. Ewing, who was a Soldier stationed in Hawaii between 1905 and 1908—first at Camp McKinley and then at Fort Shafter. He returned to Fort Shafter in December 1976 and he recalled what it was like in the beginning:

“I was in the quartermaster section of Company K, 10th Infantry. The food wasn’t as bad as it was boring, the same thing day in and day out. The main dish was what we called ‘slum,’1 which closely resembled beef stew. We got this almost every meal. Another thing that was difficult to take was the coffee. It appeared that fresh coffee was made only once a week and the rest of the time they just added water to it.”

Ewing involved himself in the community and played the organ for an off-post church, read devotionals at the YMCA, and visited local jails to distribute inspirational literature. He eventually married a local girl, the daughter of the first principal of Kamehameha Schools.

---From an article about John C. Ewing, written on the occasion of Mr. Ewing’s return to Hawaii in December 1976. Ewing, then 92, shared his recollections with the Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Support Command, Hawaii.

One 2nd Battalion, 20th Infantry Corporal told a Pacific Commercial Advertiser [now the Honolulu Advertiser] reporter in 1911 that “when we came here there was quite a bit of company fatigue and we were all kept properly busy, or as busy as we cared to be. We weren’t working as hard as we would at the end of a pick in a section gang, but the work wasn’t inspiring, and the recruities that’d enlisted for the pomp and circumstance of war feel it a sort of come down when they are digging post holes around a garden plot when they don’t know anything and care less about the flowers that bloom in the spring.”

From the battalion of four companies, only one company per day received fatigue duty and the unit performed its work in the afternoon. This meant that each company was liable for fatigue duty a couple of times each week. Each company had just over 60 men. An entire company never had guard duty, but a Soldier typically came up on the roster every 15 days. The company going on for the day went through the usual inspection, whereupon the guard detail for the day was announced. At the inspection, the sharpest Soldier was selected to serve as an orderly for the commanding officer. The duties of an orderly were similar to those of a modern C.Q. (charge of quarters).

The guard mount went on duty at 11 a.m. and remained on the detail until 11 a.m. the next morning. The Corporal mentioned above found guard duty had its advantages, “You just try the springs in the beds down there at the guard house [Building T-128] and you won’t find any holes in the mosquito netting either.” In terms of duty, he explained that, “there’s always some prisoners down below, on an average of three a day. They’re usually in for trifling matters like getting a little tight [drunk] or something of that sort and they’re real useful to us sober fellows because they’re put to the dirtiest work of the camp so long as they happen to be in duress vile. There is not much guarding of the post in the day time but at night the guard has got to break its peaceful slumber and go patrolling around every twenty minutes. One patrol travels the whole length of the post on one side and the other hikes around the post on the other, trying the locks and the doors and the windows and things every twenty minutes, under command of a non-commissioned officer.” The official duty day for Fort Shafter Soldiers was over at 4:30 p.m., whereupon they received four and a half hours of general leisure.

Although some Soldiers complained about their Army life at Fort Shafter, one Sergeant who served with the 20th Infantry in 1911 remarked that, “I never lived as respectable as I’ve done here. The grub here was good and fair to middlin’ in quantity and there’s the military work in the morning to help digest it. Besides the company fatigue, that’s about all there’s to it in the forenoon and while I suppose it wouldn’t be surprising to see some part of the battalion drilling all the time up to eleven, anyway, you can see for yourself that there hasn’t been a whisper of work outside since 1 [11?] a.m. We does our own housekeepin’, as you might call it, and what with makin’ our beds, and sweepin’ our own floors and scrubbing our own porches every morning in the year.” He described the mess situation, an important part of a Soldier’s life: “We get plenty to eat and the officers draw up a menu for the day which they turn over to the cook and they don’t get it out of a cook book either. They make pretty good chefs from the quartermaster’s department’s standpoint.”

Soldiers occasionally received R&R (rest and relaxation) time and two companies at a time could go to the Big Island (Hawaii) for hiking at the Kilauea Volcano. The officers and men paid their own fares over. Hiking was an important part of the Soldiers’ physical fitness training program and the 2nd Battalion normally conducted one battalion hike each month. Company hikes were common and some camping excursions took Soldiers away from Fort Shafter for up to six days.

--From an article on Fort Shafter in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, September 10, 1911.

It seems boredom was a major enemy of Soldiers at Fort Shafter in the earliest days. I certainly think our modern dining facilities do a much better job in providing a variety of meals and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) provides a lot of great activities for Soldiers. Creativity and realism in training seems worlds ahead of where we were in 1907 to 1911, too.


Dave Hilkert

Command Historian

1. Fort Shafter Post Flag located at Pam Circle (ca. July 1908 - July 1912 -- note the 46-star flag.)
  2. Palm Circle (ca. 1909)  3. Inspection at Palm Circle, Fort Shafter (ca. 1913-16) 

4. Mules and Wagons at Palm Circle, Field Company E, Signal Corps (ca. 1913)  5. Field Inspection of E Company, 53rd Signal Battalion, Palm Circle, Fort Shafter (ca. 1917-21)

6. Henry Smith (seated second from right), Company C, 2nd Infantry Regiment, performs KP at Fort Shafter (Jan. 12, 1916).   


1 “Slum” or “slumgullion” was a stew created from whatever was at hand. It typically consisted of meat, potatoes, and onions.

Photo Credits:

Images 1, 3, 4 and 5 courtesy of the U.S. Army Musem of Hawaii. Image 6 courtesy of Dale Schaeffer, Smith's granddaughter.