Honouliuli: the Last Internment Camp

May 31, 2013 at 2:51 am

by Terry Watada

2013 is, as anyone who reads The Bulletin knows, the 25th anniversary of Redress. Interesting to note that we are still learning about the internment era. Some know about Sand Island on Oahu, Hawaii, where the most “incorrigible” of the Japanese community were kept until transfer to the mainland camps – the incorrigible like teachers, ministers and community leaders.

I would bet however dollars to donuts (a period-appropriate expression) no one knows about the Honouliuli Internment Camp. It was built in March 1943 near what today is the H1 Freeway west of Kunia Rd. and on the way to Schofield Air Force Base. At the time, it was located in an isolated area, in fact, in a deep gulch. The constant complaint of the camp was the overwhelming heat and the swarms of mosquitoes that drove some prisoners crazy. Not much was done to ease their lives. As a result, the internees nicknamed it Jigoku Dani or Hell Valley.

The camp was divided by barbed wire into sections meant to segregate the inmates by gender, nationality, and military and civilian status. Its capacity was about 3000 but held no more than 320 at any one time.

150 Japanese Americans were transferred from Sand Island soon after Honouliuli opened in March 1943. Three months later, the number doubled with detainees coming from neighbouring islands. Twelve were women and ten were children under the age of ten. In August, the camp population reached its first plateau: 160 Japanese Americans and 70 Japanese. As prisoners moved in and out, the population soon grew and became mixed with German, Italian and Korean POWs. The Koreans were non-combatant labourers captured during the Marshall Island campaign.

By the end of World War II between 3000 and 4500 prisoners had cycled through the camp. After Honouliuli’s closure, the land was sold to the Oahu Sugar Company, which let it go fallow. It became a dumping ground for wrecked cars.

In 2002, Jane Kurahara, a volunteer at the Japanese Cultural Center, located the camp by tracing an aqueduct in the background of an old photograph. Soon archaeologists were called in and they surveyed the land overgrown with underbrush. It qualified for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in February 2012.


Sanji Abe

A notable internee of the Honouliuli Internment Camp was Sanji Abe. In 1940, Abe was elected the first American of Japanese Ancestry to Hawaii’s Territorial Senate. During the campaign, his dual citizenship caused much controversy. In the end, he renounced his Japanese citizenship and became the Republican candidate for the office.

He was arrested on August 2, 1942, charged with possession of a Japanese flag, not an offense at the time of arrest. He was let go since the flag was a prop in a movie theater. He was later taken into “custodial detention” with no charges laid or reason given. Unable to serve as Senator, he resigned on February 4, 1943, to “protect the people of the territory . . . from unjust outside attacks.” He spent a total of 19 months in Sand Island and Honouliuli.

He did not resume his political career afterwards and died in 1982.


Thomas Tameichi Sakakihara

Another internee was Thomas Tameichi Sakakihara, elected to the territory’s House of Representatives in 1932. As a consequence, he was placed on the list of planned seizure of community leaders in the mid-1930s. He was held at the Sand Island Camp and Honouliuli from February 1942 until 1943. He was released after signing a pledge not to sue the US government for damages related to the incarceration. After the war, he returned to politics and stayed connected to the state legislature in some capacity until the 1970s. He died in 1989.


The excavation of the Honouliuli Internment Camp continues to this day. Taking a prominent role in the effort is the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. Two buildings and various foundations of other structures remain on site. The Center is busy setting up and leading public tours to the camp (though check first if interested). Monsanto, the current owner of the land, is said to be in negotiations to transfer the ownership to the National Park Service.

So in this year of Redress both in the United States and Canada, the discovery and preservation of the last internment camp uncovered is appropriate and should be celebrated. It is worthwhile to note only one of the aforementioned politicians heard the words of apology and received compensation.