The internment camp in West Oʻahu’s backyard

October 31st, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Features, Multimedia, Nov. 2011  |  8 Comments

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The Honouliuli Camp held more than 3,000 interned American citizens and prisoners of war in several compounds during World War II.

“There are still scholarly works that say there were no internment camps in Hawaiʻi,” observes archaeologist Mary Farrell. In fact, there were at least 14 places in the islands where people were detained during World War II.

The Honouliuli camp, located in a gulch cutting through agricultural land of Central Oʻahu, was the largest and longest operating. Dubbed “Hell Canyon” by some inhabitants, the 120-acre site opened in March 1943 after Sand Island facilities were deemed too exposed. Built to hold 3,000 people in several compounds, it was unique in housing both prisoners of war and a diverse group of U.S. citizens and resident aliens.

Farrell is a retired Coronado National Forest heritage program leader and a lecturer at the University of Hawaiʻi at West Oʻahu. She and her husband, Manzanar National Historic Site archaeologist Jeff Burton, first visited Honouliuli as part of a Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaiʻi project to document internment in Hawaiʻi in the hope it will become a public historical park.

The National Park Service, which is evaluating a number of confinement sites in Hawaiʻi for possible addition to the National Park system, partially funds a UH West Oʻahu summer field course taught by Farrell. She guides Hawaiʻi and mainland students in digging both onsite and through thousands of pages of archival materials to bring the story of Honouliuli to light.

Park service grants also support archival and oral history research extending to the neighbor islands and U.S. mainland under the direction of principal investigator and UH West Oʻahu Professor of Anthropology Suzanne Falgout.

Hidden from view, literally and historically

Covered with sugar cane when the camp was built in 1943, the land around the gulch was purchased by Monsanto Company in 2007. &#ldquo;We want to do the right thing and partner with community organizations to preserve the site,” says Alan Takemoto, media affairs manager for Monsanto’s Hawaiʻi operation. “We hope to donate the land to the National Park Service.”

If they do, UH West Oʻahu Chancellor Gene Awakuni pledges to provide access from the adjoining property, where the new UHWO campus is scheduled to open in 2012.

Ironically, the conditions that kept the gulch hidden from view have also left the site largely untouched. And with such a valuable research site literally in their own backyard, eight faculty members have signed onto the UHWO interdisciplinary research project.

“The story of Honouliuli has been largely unknown or forgotten until recently,” says Falgout. “What little has been known resulted in Honouliuli being thought of primarily as a World War II Japanese internment site. Our summer research emphasizes the diversity of those interned and imprisoned in Hawaiʻi.”

Honouliuli held U.S. citizens of Italian, Irish, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish ancestry; most arrested and detained as “Germans,” despite their U.S. citizenship and their non-German ancestry, notes UH West Oʻahu Assistant Professor Alan Rosenfeld.

“For me, the important piece of information is that the vast majority of civilian internees at Honouliuli were American citizens,” he says. He hopes their firsthand stories will become part of a chronicle that guides the actions of future generations.

Given the site’s large and diverse prisoner of war population from both Atlantic and Pacific theaters, the researchers now refer to the site as Honouliuli Internment and POW Camp. They study those who worked at camps or were impacted less directly as well as those interned or imprisoned. “This is everybody’s story,” Falgout says.

A multidisciplinary effort to unearth the facts

With a background in Micronesian perspectives on World War II, Falgout pursues archival and oral history related to the prisoners of war housed at the site, many captured in the Micronesia region.

Joyce Chinen, a UH West Oʻahu professor of sociology and director of the UH Mānoa Center for Okinawan Studies, researches the experiences of Okinawan prisoners of war and Hawaiʻi-born citizens of Okinawan ancestry. “Internment touched a lot of families, especially the well-educated ones,” she observes. Some later became leaders in Hawaiʻi’s Okinawan community.

Internees included Japanese language teachers, newspaper editors, religious leaders and others whose personal ties or life circumstances linked them, in the minds of the American military, to enemy groups. Among them was Hilo Republican Sen. Sanji Abe, the first American of Japanese ancestry elected to the state legislature, who was interned after his first session.

Retired faculty members Linda Nishigaya and Ernest Oshiro study the Buddhist priests among the internees and the reciprocal effects of Buddhism and internment.

Professor of Education Susan Matoba Adler is investigating the effects of internment on children and families, has a personal interest in the topic—her parents met at the Manzanar camp in California. “On the mainland, entire families were shipped off to internment camps, while in Hawaiʻi many families had to survive on the ‘outside’ with their head of households taken away. The impact was huge for families,” she says.

Excited to return to the site with researchers, Hanako Hashimoto recounted occasional Sunday visits to her late husband, newspaper editor Koji Hashimoto, who was sent to the camp in 1944. Doris Berg, a Hawaiʻi woman of German descent, described being left as a young child when her parents were taken away. The intergenerational impact of forced incarceration is the focus of Assistant Professor of Psychology Garyn Tsuru, who has published previously on Japanese Americans’ accounts of coping with internment.

Shedding light on a story affecting multiple ethnicities

By 1940 Japanese immigrants and their descendants represented nearly 40 percent of Hawaiʻi’s population, numbering more than 150,000. Only 1 percent of the Japanese Americans in Hawaiʻi were sent to camps; a higher percentage of European American residents were confined.

“I think the effect on the families is even worse when you pick and choose who’s detained. It becomes more suspicious,” Farrell observes.

The site provides a multiethnic perspective, Falgout says. Ethnic German spouses lived as couples. Japanese men and women lived separately, although they may have met at dinner, and were more apt to be transferred to mainland camps. Internees had barracks with flush toilets and hot and cold water for showers. Each group had its own gardens. Food rations were supposed to be the same, although records indicate the Asians received less food overall, but more rice.

Adler is pursuing National Archives references to 10 children internees and studying the wives and offspring of male Japanese internees, including those who elected to join their men at mainland camps.

In the POW compounds, prisoners lived in tents and had pit latrines and cold showers. Italians comprised a large group of military prisoners. Why? Falgout has heard that they were the most difficult, so were sent far from home.

“It looks like there was very little interaction between the internees and the POWs, although there are a few stories of internees working as interpreters in the dispensary,” she says. On the other hand, POWs often interacted with members of the local community.

Although the military bulldozed most of the site after the war, more than 125 features of interest to archaeologists remain, including concrete slabs, rock walls, fences and an aqueduct. Last year, part of the roof caved in on one of two remaining structures; one may have been an administrative building.

Finds to date include a guard tower marked Jan. 21, 1943, slabs for a POW shower room and a laundry that may have served the whole camp and scattered artifacts, including a manhole cover and 1940s beer bottle.

“We’re looking for the last section to be built,” Falgout says. Photos show a sea of tents near the entrance; the inhabitants were likely Korean POWs.

In the summer field class, students learn the advantages of paper trails and modern tools. The military hired R. H. Lodge to photograph the site and drew blueprints detailing natural features and a proposed sewage system.

“We use features in historical photos, such as a rock wall along a stream bed, as clues to find the location of demolished structures,” Farrell says. Community volunteers like Ross Brown demonstrate use of metal detectors. “We can find ferrous material without turning spoonful of dirt. It is so important to not destroy a site as you study it,” he says.

Students also experience the challenges of fieldwork—contending with heat, mosquitoes and dense, shoulder-high grass that obscures the ground.

“It’s all worth it…it’s Hawaiʻi!” says Chris Beavers, who attended the summer field course after completing his anthropology degree at the University of Western Kentucky. Beavers has attended field schools before and worked on a biological survey, but this was his first trip west of Chicago. Other 2011 participants included students from California to New Jersey, a local high school student and his mother and UH students from Mānoa and West Oʻahu campuses.

Their involvement not only advances the work at Honouliuli, it helps spread the word that the camp existed so the story of Hawaiʻi internment will not be forgotten.

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  1. Archaeological News from Archaeology Magazine - News for November 1, 2011 says:

    November 1st, 2011at 6:53 am(#)

    [...] of Hawai’i archaeologists are investigating the Honouliuli Camp, where more than 3,000 prisoners of war and American citizens of various ethnic backgrounds were [...]

  2. Russell Estlack says:

    November 1st, 2011at 8:54 am(#)

    Thank you for writing this article. The true story of internment of American citizens in Hawaii is long overdue.

    I am the author of “Shattered Lives, Shattered Dreams, a recently released book on the internment and its aftermath. I have included a chapter on the internment camps in Hawaii and a story by Doris Nye whose parents and sister were interned at Honoluilui.

    In my book I show how the United States Government violated the precepts of the Constitution in the name of national security and how these event5s of World War II have impacted the political climate in America today.

    The book is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and online outlets.

  3. Bettyann Chambers says:

    November 3rd, 2011at 5:43 pm(#)

    Very interesting pictures. Having lived on the main Island and a University of Hawaii grad (1970) I am familar with the climate and its deleterious effects on wood, metal and plastics (roof in photo). I do not doubt there were interment camps but I do not believe these photos represent any remains of them. As open as Hawaii is/was squaters most likely lived in the shanties you showed in the first photo, and that, probably within the last 20 years. Pink and green plastic roofing is a relic of the present. Exploring the past and uncovering hidden artifacts is exciting but implying that these remains are over 65 years old is a bit of a stretch and disingenuous.

  4. Cheryl Ernst says:

    November 4th, 2011at 7:20 am(#)

    Archaeologist Mary Farrell responds:

    Ms Chambers makes several excellent points that do apply to the Honouliuli internment camp. The climate has indeed contributed to the deterioration of the site–most of the features we are discovering in the archaeological survey are of concrete. The small barracks, large mess halls, and most other structures visible in the historic photos were bulldozed after the war, preventing their reuse by squatters or anyone else.

    For some reason, the two buildings still present on the site were not bulldozed. The structure with the collapsing roof shown in two of the “current” photos in the article was an administration building during the internment camp. It and an adjacent building were reused after the camp closed, reportedly by people raising chickens and fighting cocks. Their occupation and maintenance of those 2 buildings probably kept them standing longer than they would have, otherwise. A rancher leased other parts of the site from the land owner for his cattle operation, and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply used an area where one of the mess halls stood to construct a modern building.

    The post-internment-camp occupants altered the structures and landscape of the site to fit their needs, so it isn’t surprising that we’d find new roofing material and other post-WWII artifacts and features. The history of a site can be obscured by modern developments as well as by vegetation, erosion, and deterioration, so archaeologists often have to look at numerous clues to figure out what’s going on at a site. But that’s what makes it interesting!

  5. Don Kawashima says:

    November 4th, 2011at 6:47 pm(#)

    I am a docent at the Japanese American
    Museum in San Jose, Ca. Reading this article was very interesting and would like more information as it becomes available. We get quite a lot of inquiries about he Hawaiian camps so getting more information would be very helpful.
    My family was in the camps on the mainland and experienced various hardships during that period, but we managed to recover from living in those times and have lived successful lives since.

  6. David Ritter says:

    November 17th, 2011at 9:15 am(#)

    Very interesting work, wonderful article! Have you published any of your findings yet in an academic journal?

  7. Lisa Shimabukuro says:

    November 29th, 2011at 10:34 am(#)

    Thank you so much for sharing your article. My grandfather was interned here; and since he passed I’m unable to hear his story. However, this past summer my mother and uncles told me about the research. I would love to hear more as information is surfaced. Thank you.

  8. mel domingo says:

    January 22nd, 2012at 12:46 pm(#)

    according to the article “Digging for the Truth”, (Go West, Winter 2012), the camp had also held Filipino prisoners.
    Who were these Filipinos?? What were their names?? Were they classified by the U. S. as “national” aliens at that time??
    The Philippines were compromised with nominal independence from the U. S. in 1946.
    Where are the records of these Filipino prisoners kept??