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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 3, 2008

WWII internment camp revisited

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Former internees, families gather at Honouliuli camp to remember
Video: Internment camp survivors recall wartime detention

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Chojiro Kageura, accompanied by niece June Nakaki, casts flower petals on the Honouliuli Internment Camp site. Kageura, now 88, was one of those imprisoned at Honouliuli.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The camp was built to house several thousand people but never held more than 320 at one time. There were five wartime internment facilities in the Islands.

Japanese Cultural Center photo

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HONOULIULI INTERNMENT CAMP

Opened in March 1943, the camp housed Americans and foreign nationals detained by the federal government after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The site now is under the control of the Monsanto Group.

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"It was powerful. ... This is my first time here. It's hard to describe. It's not awe. It's not shame. Looking at how desolate it was, it must have been really hard on her. There is a sense of sadness."

Todd Takahashi | a high school teacher whose aunt was interned at Honouliuli

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HONOULIULI The pilgrims made their way yesterday to the end of the sun-baked gulch, anxious to see the place where their loved ones were once imprisoned.

It was a journey of curiosity and nostalgia. This was the first-ever gathering of relatives at the site of the Honouliuli Internment Camp, a World War II facility that today exists largely in memories, family scrapbooks and history texts.

But when their 90-member entourage arrived, bused in by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i to mark the 65th anniversary of the camp's opening, there was nothing to see.

Towering monkeypod trees had filled the gulch with shadows, and thick haole koa hid the rest. All but one of the camp's buildings were gone, and a carpet of grass and debris hid the concrete foundations that remained.

And yet, no one was disappointed.

"It was powerful," said Todd Takahashi, a 34-year-old high school teacher who choked up when he recalled the aunt who was once interned at Honouliuli.

"This is my first time here," he said. "It's hard to describe. It's not awe. It's not shame. Looking at how desolate it was, it must have been really hard on her. There is a sense of sadness."

The camp was one of five used by military authorities in the Islands during World War II to intern an estimated 1,440 U.S. citizens of Japanese, German and Italian descent as well as nationals from those countries. Their only crime was that they looked like the enemy.

Honouliuli was the last of its kind in the Islands and opened on March 1, 1943. Although it was built to house several thousand people, it never held more than 320 at one time. Those interned behind its barbed-wire fences were watched by armed sentries.

Only a dozen former internees are still alive, and two of them made the trip yesterday Harry Urata and Chojiro Kageura.

"Everything's different now," said the 88-year-old Kageura, looking out on the trees. "It's like, all bushy now."

At the end of a brief ceremony yesterday, he joined Urata and others in tossing rose petals onto the internment site a soft moment for a place of boredom and harsh memories.

HELL VALLEY

The internees called Honouliuli jigoku dani, or hell valley, because of the intense heat trapped in the gulch.

Wedged between O'ahu Sugar Co. fields just west of what is now Kunia Road, the camp's remote location kept the public away during the war. For decades afterward, its location on private agricultural land continued the isolation. As former internees grew old and died, their stories, as well as the camp, nearly passed into history.

But in the late 1990s, volunteers at the Japanese Cultural Center began to gather information, photographs and memorabilia about the Hawai'i internment experience. The high point came in 2002 when they found the camp.

'PEOPLE DON'T KNOW'

Many in the community would like to see some kind of memorial built on the site as a way to remind younger generations about what happened, among them Yutaka Inokuchi, an 83-year-old retiree from 'Aiea who went to Honouliuli yesterday to see what was left.

"A lot of people in Hawai'i don't know about this internment camp," said Inokuchi, whose father was interned at Honouliuli. "The people who were interned, they refused to talk about it."

Inokuchi has not only researched the case military authorities made against his father, he has been to the camp site twice. His father never returned to the camp and died with questions unanswered.

"I think he didn't understand why he was detained," Inokuchi said. "He was only a plantation janitor. Of course, he could read and write Japanese."

Yesterday's pilgrimage was possible because the landowner, Monsanto Group, believes the camp's remains are an important community asset. The company bought the 160-acre camp site and surrounding 2,140 acres last year. Although it allowed archaeologists and volunteers to survey the area last week, Monsanto limited access yesterday to views from a paved access road.

"With the acquisition, we became the stewards of this site," said Fred Perlak, a vice president with Monsanto. "I say stewards rather than owners because the responsibility for it resides with all of us."

NO APOLOGY RECEIVED

Ramsay Hishinuma, who yesterday entertained the pilgrims with a song written by internees, said his father was philosophical about his internment, even though his family had no idea where he was for nearly a year. The elder Hishinuma was a 58-year-old plantation worker who died in 1972 without ever receiving an apology from the U.S. government.

"He said it couldn't be helped," said the 82-year-old Hishinuma. "He wasn't bitter. But what I want to know is why he was picked up."

The visit to Honouliuli left Janice Uemori struggling for the right description.

A 47-year-old educator from Waipahu, she first learned about her grandfather's internment after his death more than 20 years ago. Ever since, she has been on a quest to learn more.

"When I first found out about this, for me, it was very emotional," she said. "He was taken from his family."

But to finally stand before the camp and see nothing but trees was an odd sensation. In the end, she decided that what she felt the most was gratitude.

"Nothing is here," she said. "But I still think it's incredible that 65 years later, there are still people for whom this whole thing matters."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.