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.
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.
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.”
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.
The Revs. Takahashi and Yano lead a blessing ceremony on March 31. Photo: Odeelo Dayondon
Since the discovery of the site in 2002, JCCH has been busy acquiring grants, putting together artifacts and displays, taking students down into the gulch and talking with families of the internees to preserve their stories. Some of them, including Sam Nishimura’s children and grandchildren, were able to visit Honouliuli for the first time since the ’40s. Going to the site has helped them find closure, says Grace Fukunaga, Nishimura’s daughter, who was only 7 when her father was taken away. “I was really happy when [they found the camp] because all that time, it was like a blank. Was there really a Honouliuli? Because nobody knew what that word was,” she says.
Fukunaga’s sister Edna Saifuku says every time she went to Wai‘anae she would look for the Hawaiian Electric transformer she remembered passing as a 16-year-old going into the camp, but she never found it. “I remember the sentry post, the tower with a machine gun facing us,” she says. “I thought, are they gonna shoot us? That scene comes back to me all the time.”
Fukunaga was able to visit their father quite often, though they were not allowed to touch. They sat across from each other on benches in the mess hall. “His words were very positive. That helped,” she says, but, once he came home, he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“I think he was angry,” Saifuku says. “He was angry that he was locked up. My mother had to suffer so much, taking care of six of us, plus my grandfather.” But, as Saifuku’s daughter Sandi Chang says, “He didn’t show that he was bitter. That’s one thing that I admired about him. He was a happy-go-lucky man.” Chang believes that if Nishimura were alive today, he would be happy to know that his hardships would result in valuable lessons of understanding, hope and peace.
Fukunaga’s daughter Wanda says that everything happens for a reason. Though internment is a terrible part of her family’s history, she believes that her grandfather was in a good position in the camp to help others, because he was very well-spoken and outgoing. And she feels fortunate that he shared his story years later. “The fact that we are willing to share what we have with everybody, I think all of that put together, there’s a reason—taking a bad situation and making it into a positive one. And we’re not afraid to talk and get the word out.”
Just as there are lessons to draw from internment and the site itself, there’s just as much to learn from the process of researching, finding the site and getting it the recognition it deserves. JCCH president and executive director Carole Hayashino says, “It’s inspiring to know that a small community like ours could create a national movement to create a new national monument for this state and nation. As Jane and Betsy said, every step of the way there was just this incredible support, from the farmer to the teachers, to the students, to business leaders, to Monsanto (which purchased the land from Campbell in 2007 and has since donated 123 acres to the National Park Service). As the movement grew we found support where we never expected it, support where we never even thought of asking.” Seventeen years is a long time to work on a project, she says, “but this national monument is forever.”
PHOTO: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA
When it was announced in February that Honouliuli would become a national monument, Kurahara and Hayashino were called to Washington, D.C. “When I first heard the news that President Obama was going to sign, all I could do was sit there and cry,” Kurahara says. “I kept thinking about all those people along the way that had helped us get to where we were.” It was a surreal experience for the two of them—especially as they waited in the Roosevelt Room. “Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had signed Executive Order 9066, which had led to the mass incarceration [of Japanese-Americans, among others, during World War II]. And here we are, all lined up waiting in the Roosevelt Room,” Hayashino says. “I kept thinking, my parents were interned in Mainland camps. My grandparents, my parents. I don’t think they could ever imagine that someday I would be invited to the White House to witness a president say that the internment was wrong or unjust and to recognize a place like Honouliuli. Honouliuli is very unique to Hawai‘i, but, for all Japanese-Americans across the nation, it symbolizes recognition of an injustice. It’s pretty amazing.”
Kurahara remembers that, when she first started volunteering at JCCH 21 years ago, she could count the number of cars in the parking lot on one hand. She would bring pencils from home. Not many people knew what the organization did outside of its New Year festival. “I don’t want to brag,” she says, and you can tell she means it, “but I think it’s been very fortunate for JCCH to be allowed to be the instrument that brought this to where it is. And for that I’m very grateful.”
Hayashino looks over at Kurahara and Young. “This is the soul and the spirit of JCCH,” she says. “It really is.”
Breaking the Silence
To read more about Honouliuli and internment in Hawai‘i, check out Breaking the Silence: Lessons of Democracy and Social Justice from the World War II Honouliuli Internment and POW Camp in Hawai‘i, Social Process in Hawai‘i, Volume 45, Guest Editors Suzanne Falgout and Linda Nishigaya, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014