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Finding Honouliuli: Rediscovering an Almost-Forgotten Chapter of Hawai‘i History

How a phone call to a retired librarian led to the rediscovery of the state’s largest internment camp.


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Photo: R.H. Lodge, Courtesy of Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i/AR 19 Collection 


Photo: Courtesy of the Nishimura Family 

Sam Nishimura was a young man working as a tailor in Hale‘iwa in the 1930s when some members of the Japanese-American community asked him to support sending a truck to the Red Cross in Japan. He hesitated. He was Hawai‘i-born nisei, with no real ties to Japan, but his immigrant father had retired, so he couldn’t sign the bank note. The issei organizer pressured him, pointing out that the Red Cross serves a lot of people in need. So Nishimura agreed to sign it.


Years later, as tensions between the U.S. and Japan rose, Nishimura was questioned about the note and his relationship with his father’s native country. The FBI said that Red Cross trucks were being used by the Japanese military in the war. A few months later, Pearl Harbor was bombed. In April 1942, the FBI came back and took Nishimura from his wife and six children, first to the immigration station, then to Sand Island Detention Camp and, finally, Honouliuli Internment Camp, where he remained for almost two years, until January 1944.


Whisked off to an unknown location, where the barren landscape belied the lush sugar cane and pineapple fields that once flourished in the area, Nishimura joined other internees—leaders of the Japanese community in Hawai‘i who were suspected of disloyalty to the U.S. Unlike Sand Island, this camp was built for prolonged detention. The hundreds of Japanese-Americans interned—only a small fraction of the population was singled out, unlike on the Mainland, where Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in droves—did not know how long they would be there, or what they had done wrong. Many felt ashamed. So they waited. For release, for transfer, perhaps even for death. They called it Jigoku-Dani, or Hell Valley.


In 1946, after the war ended, Honouliuli closed. And, just like that, it disappeared from history. That is, until 1998.


Betsy Young, Carole Hayashino and Jane Kurahara were instrumental in finding Honouliuli and continue to work toward its preservation.
Photo: David Croxford 


A slab of concrete, an old grease trap sunk into the brush: These scant clues are all that remain of a mess hall where internees used to gather. As local and national dignitaries join hands and sing “Hawai‘i Aloha” at the dedication ceremony on March 31, everyone grabs a handful of rose petals and tosses them into the air. Honouliuli is now a national monument. The Rev. Todd Takahashi, nephew of a Shinto priestess who was interned at the camp, blesses the forsaken land with tears in his eyes, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell says, “It’s time for the shame to be forgotten.”


“We’ve been there many times, but, for me, that would be the most memorable time,” says Betsy Young, a volunteer staff associate at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. “The past, the hardships, we can let that go now, that’s done. Let’s go with the blessings for the future.”


The dedication of this site as a monument under the National Park Service wouldn’t have been possible without Young and another volunteer, Jane Kurahara. “Some people called us obsessed because we just didn’t give up,” Kurahara says with a laugh. “We couldn’t give up.”


The long, arduous journey began 17 years ago, when KHNL phoned the center looking for information about local internment to air a segment before a broadcast of Schindler’s List. “There wasn’t anything documented,” Kurahara recalls. “I knew nothing about it, really, and many of the people here—because less than 1 percent of the population was interned—did not know about internment or have any connections to it.” So they set out to find Honouliuli, the largest internment camp in the state, where more than 300 internees (including Italian- and German-Americans) were held, along with 4,000 POWs. “We heard from people who said, ‘I didn’t know there was an internment camp in Hawai‘i,’ and, at that point, because we were librarians, we felt that we hadn’t met the customers’ need. We realized this was a very thinly documented part of our Japanese history in Hawai‘i and, if someone didn’t do it, there would be a hole, it would be lost.”


“Was there really a Honouliuli? Because nobody knew what that word was.”— Grace Fukunaga


Four years of research and phone calls led the volunteers to Larry Jefts, a farmer in the Honouliuli area. After seeing an old photo of the camp, he agreed to take Kurahara and Young onto the property, along with Bert Hatton, vice president of Campbell Estate, which owned the land. It took about three hours before the small group was standing right where the photographer had stood to take that old picture, Kurahara says. “If I had wings at that point, I would’ve flown. I just couldn’t believe we were right there, and you could tell by the contours of the mountains that we were in the right place. [Jefts and Hatton] went out of their way to make sure we knew we had found it. And that’s been our experience right along: People have stepped up and helped, there’s been support all the way.”


Serendipity, they call it, modestly. The right people in the right place at the right time. But they’re not forgetting their Japanese values. “Ganbare is the one. Go for broke. Never give up until you reach your goal,” Young says. And this is just the beginning.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2020