Internment in Paradise: WWII Hawaii by Jill Engledow

Not long after the nation of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, sending the United States to war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the “internment” of Japanese American citizens and immigrants. Today, descendants of some of those internees prefer to call the process “incarceration,” reflecting more accurately the situation in which these people were corralled into barbed-wire-enclosed camps in remote locations.

On the West Coast, whole families packed up what they could carry and left behind homes, schools, and businesses to spend the next several years in these camps. Approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were crammed into barracks and guarded by soldiers with rifles, imprisoned with no pretense of due process.

But what could government do to lock up a population of some 160,000 people on islands more than 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland? In Hawaii, it would have been impossible to incarcerate every American of Japanese ancestry (AJA). They made up approximately 37 percent of the population and were a vital segment of the workforce. Some were immigrants brought by Hawaii plantations to grow sugarcane or pineapple, while many others were the children of those immigrants, United States citizens by birth and inclination.

Despite the integration of Japanese Americans into the multicultural community of Hawaii, suspicion had grown as war seemed likely, and federal authorities had been making lists of people thought to have strong connections to Japan and its government. Those lists led to immediate arrests as the Islands frantically dealt with the damage and chaos of the Pearl Harbor attack and martial law immediately descended upon the territory.

Authorities hauled off some 2,300 AJA community leaders—newspaper editors, religious leaders, teachers in the Japanese language schools where many AJA children learned their parents’ native tongue after a day in Hawaii’s public schools. Most internees were men, although some women were interned as well. Most were AJA, but there were also aliens of German, Italian, Irish, Russian, and Scandinavian descent.

These people were taken to local jails and courthouses, and on the island of Oahu, to the U.S. Immigration Station and to a camp set up on Sand Island, which lies at the entrance to Honolulu Harbor. In March 1943, the Honouliuli Internment Camp opened in an isolated gulch three miles northwest of Pearl Harbor. The largest and longest operating of Hawaii’s internment camps, over the course of its use it would house about 364 civilian internees and 4,000 prisoners of war.

Courtesy National Park Service

Camps such as California’s Manzanar, California’s Tule Lake, and Idaho’s Minidoka have been designated as National Historic Sites to preserve the story of this injustice. But Honouliuli was almost forgotten. The military had dismantled and bulldozed it after the war, and many former internees refused to dwell on the stigma and bad memories of the war years, choosing to face the future instead. Even their children had little knowledge of the camp. Only in 2002 was its location rediscovered by volunteers from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

Lining up for registration for internment.
Art class in the camp.
While there is no comparison to life and experiences in Nazi concentration camps, Japanese Americans were nonetheless treated like enemy aliens. They lost their freedom to live as they chose. Many lost their homes and property as a result of internment.

In 1998, a Honolulu television station called the center seeking information on the internment of Hawaii AJAs. Volunteer librarians looking to fulfil the request could find no documentation of that chapter of Island history. Few people had been interned in Hawaii, relative to those on the U.S. mainland, and the sites of their incarceration had vanished. Four years of research later, the JCCH volunteers finally located Honouliuli, one of 17 internment camps now known to have existed in the Islands.

With the help of a local farmer, the volunteers were able to find the physical location that matched an existing historical photo of the camp. The land’s owner donated 123 acres of the original 160-acre Honouliuli Internment Camp to the National Park Service. The neighboring University of Hawaii West Oahu campus contributed to research efforts. In February 2015, Honouliuli was designated a National Historic Monument, and in 2019, it was redesignated the Honouliuli National Historic Site.

“The 160-acre internment camp contained 175 buildings, 14 guard towers, and over 400 tents,” according to the National Park Service. “Internees referred to Honouliuli as Jigoku-Dani (‘Hell Valley’) because its secluded location in a deep gulch trapped heat and moisture and reinforced the internees’ sense of isolation and unjust imprisonment.”

Internment was a shock for AJAs who considered themselves loyal Americans, and they endured treatment that ranged from thoughtless to abusive. Taken from their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they were imprisoned at first in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Military policeman ordered them around with pointed bayonets, and even the elderly and sick were forced to sleep on the floor or eat outside in the rain.

By the time these prisoners reached Honouliuli, treatment seems to have been regularized a bit. Like residents at mainland internment camps, the Hawaii prisoners made do and tried to use their time and energy to improve the conditions of camp life. For example, the JCCH website includes copies of requests by Sanji Abe for vegetable seeds, hand tools for craftwork, and items of clothing, which he did receive, probably from his family.

Abe also took advantage of another avenue available to some of those incarcerated. At the time of his arrest, he was a Republican senator in the Territorial Legislature. An honorably discharged veteran of World War I, he was interned after serving his first session as the first AJA elected to the legislature. Abe had been arrested because a Japanese flag was discovered in the theater he owned in Hilo, on Hawaii Island.

In January 1944, 16 months after he was imprisoned, Abe wrote the military governor of the Territory of Hawaii requesting to be paroled. He mentioned his history of patriotism and service and his children, pursuing American lives. These included his son, George, who was in the first group of young AJAs to be allowed to enter the U.S. military, a group that would earn many honors for their military service.

Abe was eventually released, after signing a document that discharged the United States government and everyone associated with the military and his internment from any future claims. He was able to receive this parole because a Caucasian sponsor agreed to monitor his behavior and ensure that he continued to act as a patriotic American citizen. If ever there were an example of racism, the requirement that this honorably discharged veteran and duly elected public official be freed only if a white man keep an eye on him would seem to meet that definition.

Today, the Honouliuli National Historic Site is a work in progress, as researchers gradually uncover the remnants of the camp and learn more about its layout. No visits are allowed at the remote site, but in addition to a website rich with information, JCCH maintains the Honouliuli Education Center at its Honolulu headquarters. Visitors are welcome there, subject to current Covid pandemic restrictions.

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Related Nonfiction


Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i’s Tokioka Heritage Resource Center’s online library catalog

For more on the Honouliuli Education Center

Honouliuli National Historic Site website

Manzanar War Relocation Center website

Honolulu Magazine

Jill Engledow is an award-winning Maui journalist and nonfiction author who moved to Hawaii at the age of 13. Her books include Island Life 101: A Newcomer’s Guide to Hawaii, Haleakala: A History of the Maui Mountain, The Story of Lahaina, and Sugarcane Days, a history of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company, Hawaii’s last sugar plantation. Now retired in Oregon, Jill is working on a trilogy of novels about women making their way on Maui between 1900 and 1975. The final novel, Rose’s War, will tell the story of World War II on Maui, and of Rose McKenzie, who sets out to free her farm manager after he is interned on December 7, 1941.

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