Honouliuli Internment Camp

photo by: Photograph by R. H. Lodge. Courtesy of Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i / AR 19 Collection

February 18, 2017

How A Lost Internment Camp Became A National Monument

The USS Arizona Memorial. Diamond Head. Waikiki Beach. For most people, these places are synonymous with Hawai’i. But what about Honouliuli?

Until a few years ago, most Americans had never heard of this WWII internment camp site not far from Pearl Harbor. And then in 2015 Honouliuli made headlines when President Obama designated the place a National Monument, exercising the authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act.

Almost lost forever to the jungle, this historic site of conscience will, according to the Presidential Proclamation protecting it, ultimately serve “as a powerful reminder of the need to protect civil liberties in times of conflict, and the effects of martial law on civil society.”

Motivated by a request in the late 1990s from local media inquiring about its location, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i (JCCH) volunteers began a four-year search for the Honouliuli site, ultimately rediscovering it in 2002. When Monsanto acquired a roughly 2,300-acre agricultural plot in 2007, it knew the land included remnants of the internment camp site and pledged to work with the community to help preserve and protect it. That same year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation provided a grant to fund an archaeological survey of the area.

The survey, suggests JCCH President and Executive Director Carole Hayashino, would not have been possible without close collaboration among JCCH; the former landowner, Campbell Estate; and the new landowner, Monsanto Hawai’i.

“Archaeologists,” says Hayashino, “discovered a few standing buildings, concrete foundations, rock walls, remnants of a fence and a historic aqueduct on the site.” Additional field work and written reports were completed between 2008 and 2012, culminating with the 2012 addition of Honouliuli to the National Register of Historic Places.

Shortly after Monsanto’s transfer of the internment camp land to the federal government in 2015, it began working with National Park Service (NPS) staff, and JCCH on plans for opening the site for public visitation. Though it will be years before the public will be able to access Honouliuli, I used the opportunity of a recent visit to Hawai’i to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a monument in the making.

Dubbed “Hell Valley” by the 400 civilian internees and 4,000 prisoners of war confined there in the years after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Honouliuli lives up to its ignominious epithet. As Hayashino, NPS Planner Rebecca Rinas, and I made our way from Monsanto’s offices on a breezy plain with views to the ocean down into a deep, hot, windless gulch, I experienced a mild degree of the suffering prisoners would have endured during their detainment.

During our brief visit to the overgrown site, Rinas and Hayashino showed me the foundation of a former mess hall and the small aqueduct that provided the camp’s only running water. But what affected me most was the environment—the stifling heat, the dense tangle of grass and jungle, Hayashino’s admonishments to watch out for cane spiders, and the rustle of wild boars huffing in the brush.

It’s this environment, in part, says Rinas, that makes the process of preparing Honouliuli for public visitation so difficult.

“Vegetation management will be one of the major challenges associated with both resource preservation and the development of visitor facilities,” she says. “Honouliuli Gulch was used for ranching for a period of about 50 years following the closure of the camp in 1946. During this period native grasses were supplanted with a monoculture of guinea grass. A drought and fire resistant species, it can reach 6 feet tall under ideal conditions, so managing guinea grass (and other invasive species) will be one of the primary challenges in the years to come.”

But that is a long-term concern; the initial one is access.

“Located in a ravine surrounded by private land, there are no public roads leading to the site,” says Rinas. “The ability of NPS to allow for public access is ultimately contingent upon a public road or trail, the development of which needs to be part of a process addressing broader planning considerations as well as impacts to Honouliuli’s cultural and natural resources.”

While opening the site to the public will prove a longer, more difficult process than I imagined, all the work will have been worth it. After experiencing the place where hundreds of Americans suffered for no reason other than their heritage, I now, even more clearly than I did before, understand the dangers of rushing to judgement and making unilateral decisions on the basis of race, creed, or skin color.

Hayashino summarizes the importance of Honouliuli National Monument within that context: “Like the more recent Freedom Riders and Birmingham Civil Rights National Monuments in Alabama, Honouliuli can help celebrate the contributions of our diverse nation by bringing diversity and inclusion into our public lands and national park system. Preserving these places is the greatest gift we can leave to future generations, and it will contribute to building a more engaged and united America.”

Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived in historic apartments and houses all over the United States and knows that all old buildings have stories to tell if you care to find them.

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