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Jonathan ‘Big Jon’ Kaaihue celebrates 21 years with Young Brothers

By Hilary Reeves

Machine Operator Jonathan Kaaihue was born and raised on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, but moved to Southern California just months before starting high school. After completing the ninth grade in Los Alamitos, the family prepared for another big move.

Kaaihue smiles next to heavy machinery.
Kaaihue, or “Big Jon” as he’s known to his coworkers, has lived in Hawaii since high school

“My stepdad was from New Zealand, and we had been there many times to visit and spent the holidays,” said Kaaihue, nicknamed “Big Jon” by his coworkers. “He was a sea captain and owned a shipping company there, and we ended up moving there for a year and a half. I wanted to be a firefighter when I was a kid, but I also remember wanting to be out on the water with my stepdad.”

Kaaihue finished high school in California and moved back to Hawaii, where he began his collegiate career studying civil engineering. He had a friend who was a supervisor at Young Brothers, and asked whether Kaaihue wanted a job several times during his first few years in school.

“I really didn’t need a full-time job, and I turned him down a couple of times,” he said. “About four years later, he asked me again. I was taking a break from school, I was burnt out, so I decided to accept.”

Kaaihue started his career at Young Brothers in April of 1995. He was 23 years old, recently married, and his wife was five months pregnant. His first position: utility stevedore or, as he puts it, “master of tying things down.”

Kaaihue drives heavy machinery wearing an orange safety vest.
Operating anything from a four-ton to a 40-ton machine, safety is always on Kaaihue’s mind

“We tied lashed cargo on the barges,” he explained.

Seven years later (to the month), Kaaihue moved up to machine operator, a job he’s enjoyed ever since.

“I load and unload the barges,” he said. “I operate all the different machines that we have here, from the four-ton to the 40-ton machines.”

Kaaihue said safety protocol is always on his mind.

“For me, the easiest job is hooking up to a container, because it’s enclosed and you’re not as worried about things shifting around inside,” he said. “”When we have to pick up the flat racks…that’s something special. There could be stacks of ladders, piles of lumbar, auto parts, cars – they all have to be properly lashed. You don’t want a car rolling off a flat rack.”

Kaaihue said most people don’t realize the sheer amount of things that have to be shipped to the island chain.

“If you’re standing on the street, and you’re looking around at the houses, and the telephone poles, and the cars, and the people wearing clothes, and the silverware in the restaurants – every single thing has to be shipped in.”

Even the cranes and excavators used in construction have to be shipped in, and while it’s fun to work with them, Kaaihue said his favorite cargo so far has been a submarine.

Jonathan smiles on the steps leading to a truck cab.
Kaaihue, known for his infectious smile, celebrated 21 years with Young Brothers earlier this year

“We have those tourist submarines that go down off Waikiki about 30 feet, and divers go down and feed the fish in front of its big windows,” he explained. “The guys that run that business needed a submarine sent to Maui. So we picked it up, secured it, and sent it off. When we pulled that submarine out of the water, that was pretty awesome.”

He describes his job as “a little kid’s dream job,” but again emphasized the importance of following any and all safety protocol. At the end of the day, it’s about sending everyone home safely.

“We come to work, and we move around containers that are 60,000 pounds like other people would pick up and move a piece of paper,” he said. “But if we were to drop something, the injury wouldn’t be a paper-cut, or a twisted ankle, or smashed finger. It would be losing a hand. It would be losing a life in the blink of an eye. The machines are second-nature to us now, they become an extension of ourselves, but we never take for granted that what we’re doing is very dangerous.”

When asked about his favorite machine, Kaaihue was all smiles.

“My favorite machine is any machine that has air conditioning,” he laughed, adding that Saltchuk began replacing the fleet about 10 years ago.

“When I first started working here, the machines were older and didn’t have enclosed cabs,” he explained. It gets hot, and loud, and dusty. When it rains over here, it pours. The machines were slower, not as strong, and not A satisfied Kaaihue smiles and crosses his arms.as stable. The new ones are top of the line.”

Kaaihue celebrated 21 years at Young Brothers in April. He went from expecting one child with his wife, to raising three: a 20-year old daughter who attends college in California, an 18-year old daughter off to college in Texas, and an 11-year old son.

“Even though I never finished college myself, I don’t look back and think to myself that I made a mistake working here,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed my work at Young Brothers. It’s the company that raised my family and allowed my wife the freedom to stay home with our children. It’s been 21 years. It’s been 21 fantastic years.”