Under Honouliuli brush, dark history
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
At the bottom of Honouliuli Gulch, wading through dense, chest-high grass like a man in a swamp, archaeologist Jeff Burton needed a bit of luck.
Somewhere in the gulch, maybe even beneath the foot or so of matted dead grass under his boots, were the remains of a lost World War II internment camp.
"I'm just rambling where I can make it through," he said.
Burton, one of the nation's leading experts on camps like this, seemed to relish the search. He's surveyed most of the 70 places where people were imprisoned during World War II — from internment camps run by the Army and the federal Department of Justice to the sprawling guarded communities run by the War Relocation Authority.
But he's never looked in Hawai'i, where military authorities imprisoned an estimated 1,440 people at five camps. Burton plans to examine all of them over the next week — assuming he can find them — to see if a more thorough survey of each is warranted.
And while his trip is unrelated to a $38 million bill in Congress to preserve internment and relocation sites, anything Burton catalogs would help historians with the effort.
"It's neat, especially with one where you have no idea where it is or where to start," Burton said.
The camp at Honouliuli had been forgotten for so long that area farmers who lease the land from the Campbell Estate were never sure if the stories about barbed wire fences, guard towers and wartime prisoners were true.
The camp held U.S. citizens of Japanese, German and Italian descent as well as nationals from all three countries. At one time, Japanese prisoners of war also were kept at the 160-acre camp.
Nothing except memory marks the remote location, though.
Thick stands of haole koa, huge monkeypod trees and a sea of grass have replaced the rows of Army-issue tents and wooden buildings that once filled the gulch. And a paved road with locked gates meanders through the gulch to a Honolulu Board of Water Supply pumping station.
Suburban civilization is miles away.
"It would be nice if there was a map," Burton said. "There's always one somewhere."
Volunteers from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i had come here twice since 2002 but had not mapped the foundations they found. Burton, accompanied by two center volunteers, hoped to find the same slabs — and anything else that might spin a yarn about the camp.
"I think this is history coming alive," said Betsy Young, a volunteer with the center, who pushed through the brush behind Burton. "It's very exciting. I didn't know we could get down in there. And we did."
Still, after nearly two hours in the bush, the search revealed only rotting wooden cattle pens topped with rusted barbed wire and a single, curious slab of concrete. Someone had carved letters into the slab, and spirits rose until they were read out loud.
"Mary, Andrea and Danny," Burton said. "They don't sound very Japanese."
But even nature could not erase this dark stain on Hawai'i history.
When someone shouted "slab," an eager Burton beat a noisy path to a concrete pad about 40 feet by 20 feet.
The same area yields more history: a rusted old truck and a hole in the ground.
The truck could mean there's a dump nearby with camp artifacts buried as trash. And the hole in the ground probably was a latrine.
The archaeologist grinned.
Soon, two small slabs also were discovered, as well as a row of smooth, neatly spaced stones about the size of his hand — the sort of thing that would mark a path.
Burton grinned even more. He liked the path. It's a map.
"It makes it more likely that we can come back and find more," he said. "That's something you'd follow and see where it leads."
Reach Mike Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.