Wartime stain in history retraced in O'ahu's brush
|World War II internment camps
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By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
The view from the bluff above Honouliuli Gulch had changed dramatically in the 60 years since they were last there, but the three old men could see beyond the thick trees and tall grass.
They could see through time.
The lens of memory took them back to the Honouliuli Internment Camp and a dark chapter in Hawai'i history. And though nothing remains of the camp except concrete slabs, that moment on the bluff in June 2004 was a powerful experience.
The men cried. This was the place they called hell.
The Army had imprisoned them here in 1943. Their only crime? They looked like the enemy.
"I kept thinking back," said Harry Urata, an 87-year-old music teacher who stood above the gulch with two lifelong friends. "I cannot see where is the mess hall and all that. There was just nothing. But thinking back, once upon a time I was here."
Visits like this are unheard of and, like this one, accomplished only with permission from the landowner, the Campbell Estate. The Honouliuli camp has been forgotten for so long that even the farmers who lease the surrounding acres were never sure if the stories about a World War II camp with barbed-wire fences, guard towers and armed soldiers were true.
A pair of bills moving through Congress could change that by providing $38 million to help preserve sites across the country where Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals were incarcerated. They specifically identify Honouliuli as a historical site.
Scholars, Japanese cultural groups and experts on the wartime incarceration say preservation is the best way to illustrate the injustice of the camps.
Dennis Ogawa, chairman of the University of Hawai'i Department of American Studies and an expert on the Japanese-American experience, said preserving internment and relocation camps could help future generations understand their history.
"They have to make it an educational center so schoolchildren can walk through it," Ogawa said. "It is one thing to read about it in books, but it is another thing to make it part of your life by physically being there. It adds a deeper meaning to it, and you won't forget."
Ogawa has seen the effect that visiting sites like Honouliuli can have on people. In the late '70s and early '80s, he led student groups on spring-break trips to the Manzanar relocation camp. Those trips generated some of the most gratifying teaching experiences in his career, he said.
And if the students didn't know Ogawa's connection to the remote California camp by the time they arrived, they surely did when they left. Ogawa was born there.
The wartime incarceration of Japanese in Hawai'i was done on a much smaller scale than on the Mainland.
The declaration of martial law on Dec. 7, 1941, allowed military authorities to immediately imprison Japanese nationals and their children, even if the youngsters were U.S. citizens. By the end of the war, an estimated 1,440 people were detained or interned in Hawai'i at one of five locations on O'ahu, the Big Island, Maui and Kaua'i.
The first major camp, which opened in 1942, was on Sand Island. In March 1943, the internees were transferred to the 160-acre camp at Honouliuli Gulch.
It was wedged between O'ahu Sugar Co. fields just west of what is now Kunia Road. The Army, which ran the camp, cleared trees and grass to enhance security.
After the war, the camp vanished entirely, and the view reverted to foliage.
In the late 1990s, the camp found an unlikely savior in Jane Kurahara, a retired public school librarian who volunteers at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i. She had seen photographs of the camp but was troubled to learn that no one knew where they were taken.
She kept asking, though, and in 2002 found herself bouncing along a dirt road with a Campbell Estate executive and a local farmer who knew the landscape intimately. An aqueduct in one of the old photos guided them to the site, but not without a little luck, Kurahara said.
"They knew where it was, and they took us to it right away," she said. "Then they said, no, this isn't the place. So we drove around for three hours, and then they finally said we have the map upside down."
When she finally stood above the gulch, Kurahara was moved.
"It's silly to say, but I just felt like I wish I could fly," she said. "I was so happy."
Being there made it easy to imagine the internees in the camp, and she was overcome with empathy for their experience.
"It was history coming alive," she said. "It all hit me. The things you read in books — the books hit your head. This hit your heart."
Other than concrete slabs, it isn't clear if anything remains at the camp that can be preserved, but an archaeologist with the National Park Service will visit the site in February.
Jeff Burton said his upcoming visit is coincidental and not directly related to the bills in Congress. But the archaeologist from Tucson, Ariz., is arguably one of the nation's leading experts on what remains of more than 70 places where people were held against their will — from the internment camps run by the Army or the Department of Justice to the huge guarded communities overseen by the War Relocation Authority.
He has spent the last decade studying what was left of each camp.
Honouliuli's relative obscurity and limited access offer a rare opportunity, Burton said. He's convinced that digging around the campsite would produce artifacts.
"From an archaeological standpoint, that is what we love," he said. "Things get buried, and no one disturbs them."
The Campbell Estate would have to support the idea, however. The camp's location is where farmers work estate-owned land.
Estate spokeswoman Theresia McMurdo said it is too early to comment on the future of Hono-uliuli or the preservation bills in Congress. She said she could not say whether the estate would ever sell the land for historical preservation.
"The proposal certainly merits review but, aside from giving a tour of the site, we have not been given a proposal, so we cannot evaluate it or comment on it properly," McMurdo said.
The estate allowed access in June 2004 so Urata and his two friends — all of them former internees at Honouliuli and all in their 80s — could visit. They had not been there since the war.
"I wanted to go back," Urata said.
"I wanted to see what became of that place."
They stood there for 10 minutes, pointing to things that looked familiar. Barely anything was said.
"Quiet," Urata said. "Very quiet."
Their guide was Larry Jefts, one of the tenant farmers who grow vegetables nearby and sometimes allow livestock to graze in the gulch.
He said the place is a jungle now that is so dense, "you couldn't hack your way 100 yards without giving up."
Still, he knew where to look — he had found it before.
On the bluff, Jefts watched Urata and his friends. It was a moment worth holding on to.
"It was an emotional day," Jefts said. "It is a moment that could not be re-created. They had lost something, and they had found it."
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.
Correction: German civilians and prisoners of war were held at the Hono- uliuli Internment Camp on O'ahu during World War II in addition to Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans. A previous version of this story did not include that information.