The internment camp in West Oahu’s backyard


A WARTIME ‘HELL’ IN HAWAI‘I ­— Some 3,000 prisoners were held at the Honouliuli incarceration camp, located in a gulch in Central Oahu, during World War II. courtesy of Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village /

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

A WARTIME ‘HELL’ IN HAWAI‘I ­— Some 3,000 prisoners were held at the Honouliuli incarceration camp, located in a gulch in Central Oahu, during World War II. courtesy of Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village /

The Honouliuli camp, located in a gulch cutting through agricultural land of Central Oahu, 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 Hawai‘i at West O‘ahu. She and her husband, Manzanar National Historic Site archaeologist Jeff Burton, first visited Honouliuli as part of a Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i project to document incarceration in Hawai‘i in the hope it will become a public historical park.

The National Park Service, which is evaluating a number of confinement sites in Hawai‘i for possible addition to the National Park system, partially funds a UH West O‘ahu summer field course taught by Farrell. She guides Hawai‘i 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 O‘ahu 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. “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 Hawai‘i operation. “We hope to donate the land to the National Park Service.”

If they do, UH West O‘ahu 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.

HAWAI'I'S WARTIME HISTORY — Efforts are under way to document are preserve the Honouliuli site. courtesy of Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village /

“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 Hawai‘i.”

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

Inmates 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 incarcerated 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 incarceration.

Professor of Education Susan Matoba Adler is investigating the effects of incarceration on children and families, has a personal interest in the topic — her parents met at the Manzanar concentration camp in California. “On the mainland, entire families were shipped off to internment camps, while in Hawai‘i 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 Hawai‘i 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 incarceration.

Shedding light on a story affecting multiple ethnicities

By 1940 Japanese immigrants and their descendants represented nearly 40 percent of Hawai‘i’s population, numbering more than 150,000. Only 1 percent of the Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i 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. Inmates 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 inmates and studying the wives and offspring of male Japanese inmates, 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 Hawai‘i!” 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 O‘ahu campuses.

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

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