Wednesday, November 25, 2015         

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Link to the past

Students and scientists work to uncover the Honouliuli internment camp

By Rosemarie Bernardo


In the shade of monkeypod trees, 25-year-old Julie Baxter intently listened to an expert explain how to use a metal detector in hopes of uncovering historical features and artifacts at the site of the former Honouliuli internment camp in Kunia.

Though only a half-mile from the H-1 Freeway and west of Kunia Road, the parcel sits unnoticed by Oahu residents, unaware that under the thick cover of guinea grass and haole koa lies a 122.5-acre site where hundreds of Japanese-Americans as well as prisoners of war were confined during World War II.

Baxter and other students at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu recently conducted field work led by archaeologist Mary Farrell at the site.

Farrell and archaeologist Jeff Burton described it as the "last, largest and longest-used World War II confinement site in Hawaii."

"It's a big deal," said Baxter, an anthropology major who learned of the existence of the former internment camp last year. "You're actually helping to uncover history."


» About 150 Americans of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were nisei and community leaders, were relocated to Honouliuli from Sand Island in March 1943. By June 1943, about 300 Japanese-Americans were confined at the camp, including some who arrived from the neighbor islands. Ten to 12 of the AJA internees were women.

» A small group of internees of German and Italian ancestry were also confined at the camp.

» Between 3,000 and 4,500 prisoners of war were held at the site near the end of World War II.

Source: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii and UH-West Oahu

The hands-on work by the students is one of several efforts to reveal and provide access to the overgrown, 68-year-old site to the public via educational tours, designation under the National Register of Historic Places and inclusion in the national parks system.

There has been renewed interest in the Honouliuli internment site in the past several years as the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii collaborated with archaeologists and landowner Monsanto Hawaii to do archaeological work in Ho­no­uliuli Gulch. In 2006, U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye led the effort to establish the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grants program, authorizing $38 million for the preservation of internment camps across the country.

The U.S. government declared martial law in the Territory of Hawaii after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. In March 1943, about 150 Japanese-Americans were relocated to Honouliuli from Sand Island, in a camp surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards in watchtowers. At its peak, about 300 Japanese-Americans were interned at the camp, including 10 to 12 women, according to Brian Niiya, director of program development for the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

ALSO CONFINED there were internees of German and Italian descent. It also was recently discovered that 10 children of Japanese ancestry were interned there, according to the camp commander's logs found at the National Archives in College Park, Md., by history professor Alan Rosenfeld of UH-West Oahu.

"It's surprising," Rosenfeld said of the new information.

Why the children were at the camp is unknown.

Rosenfeld is part of a multidisciplinary project involving eight faculty members at UH-West Oahu who are conducting research of Honouliuli through a federal grant.

Prisoners of war were also confined at the site in separate compounds from the internees. Between 3,000 and 4,500 POWs were held there near the end of the war.

The internment camp was bulldozed sometime after the end of the war. Even so, remnants of the camp remain, including two wooden buildings, one of which is believed to have been for the guards.

Monsanto, a seed company, bought the land from the Campbell Estate in 2007. Monsanto has been supportive of preservation efforts at the site, allowing access to former internees, the Japanese Cultural Center and archaeologists.

On a recent trip down a narrow, winding paved road that led to the gulch, archaeologists and students used historic maps and photos to search for signs of the camp.

The sweltering heat in the gulch gave visitors who accompanied the students a sense of the conditions internees endured.

The UH-West Oahu field work, which ended Friday, was part of a three-week course this month in which students learned techniques of mapping, excavation and archaeological survey. Another field course will be held at Honouliuli next summer. The course was first offered last year through matching grant funds by UH-West Oahu.

On July 15, students uncovered a concrete foundation for a guard tower with the name "R.N. Hotchkiss" written on the slab along with the date "8/13/43." It was a significant finding for the students so far, said Farrell, of Trans-Sierran Archaeological Research, based in Arizona.

During the first field course last year, a student discovered a stone stairway that led to another guard tower concrete foundation. In 2008, an ornamental pond was discovered by a Japanese Cultural Center volunteer who joined Farrell and her husband, archaeologist Jeff Burton, in a find believed to signify the internees' perseverance through times of hardship.

"Every time they go out there, they find something we never knew before," Niiya said.

Several other efforts are under way to help preserve the site and provide greater public access:

» The Japanese Cultural Center plans to conduct six tours of the Honouliuli camp site next spring or summer. Two tours each will be offered to high school students, college students and the general public. Akaka and Inouye announced last month a $38,565 grant for a pilot program to conduct tours at Honouliuli.

» The National Park Service is conducting a special resource study in hopes it will lead to the inclusion of Honouliuli in the parks system. Alan Takemoto, Oahu community affairs manager for Monsanto, said the company has expressed interest in transferring the land to the National Park Service.

» The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii has nominated Honouliuli for designation as a historic site under the National Register of Historic Places. The site was added to the Hawaii Register of Historic Places in August 2009.

"We're fairly confident that it will go through," Niiya said.

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