Internment camp’s hidden history uncovered in West Oahu

August 12, 2014  |   |  Comments
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The Honouliuli Internment and POW Camp in Kunia on Oʻahu was the largest internment camp in Hawaiʻi. Opened in 1943 during the height of World War II, Honouliuli held approximately 300 internees from Hawaiʻi of Japanese, Okinawan, German and Italian ancestry and about 4,000 prisoners of war from Japan, Italy Okinawa, the Philippines and Korea.

Every other summer, University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu students have an opportunity to dig into Honouliuli’s history, literally, thanks to the school’s three credit, three week long, archaeological field techniques course.

The students are taught through hands-on, on-site investigative fieldwork.

“How to use tools that are appropriate for World War II internment site, how the tools vary depending on what kind of feature you are looking at or what kind of site you are looking at,” said Mary Farrell, a summer lecturer at UH West Oʻahu and nationally renown archaeologist who specializes in internment camps.

Getting to those sites is not always easy. The students often have to hike through the rugged terrain of the hidden gulch where the 120-acre camp is located. Safety is a top priority and the hiking and fieldwork can be physically challenging.

UH West Oʻahu students conduct investigative fieldwork at Honouliuli Internment and POW Camp in Kunia.

UH West Oʻahu students conduct investigative fieldwork at Honouliuli Internment and POW Camp in Kunia.

“Today we were finishing up work that we did yesterday, clearing up the dirt sediment, all the guinea grass from this site here,” said UH West Oʻahu student Earl Ramsey “We had a few yards left over.” The foundation they were working on had been almost completely covered with dirt and vegetation the day before.

“We were clearing out a slab from the POW site,” said fellow student Tori McCann. “This is a washroom.”

The work came to stop after something was spotted in the dirt. The students quickly gathered for a closer look at what appeared to be an old toothpaste tube.

“Wow!” exclaimed McCann after the find. “Other people used this. It’s like, it’s kind of like you are going through a museum but you are living it.”

“Archeology provides the human dimension,” said Farrell. “It’s something you can touch, you can feel, you experience it.”

After the excavation was complete, the students mapped out the foundation using the techniques taught to them in the class. The students also learn metal detecting, photography, on-site artifact analysis and GPS and Total Station mapping, all at Honouliuli.

“You are actually working in a place where people actually interacted,” said Ramsey. “This is where they lived. This is where they worked. You kind of get to experience what their life was like.”

“I think they are learning that this was a pretty difficult environment to be stuck in for one thing,” said Farrell. “It’s hot, it’s humid, not much breeze down here. For another thing, they are learning a lot about the World War II history. This is a history that’s not very well known.”

Now UH West Oʻahu students are helping to uncover and preserve that untold history.

More on Honouliuli

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