Obama Declares Oahu Internment Camp a National Monument

Feb 18, 2015

Credit Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village
Paul DePrey with the National Park Service and JCCH President and Executive Director Carole Hayashino stand in what was once the mess hall at Honouliuli Internment Camp.
Credit Molly Solomon

President Obama is expected to announce the designation of three national monuments. One of them is Honouliuli, the largest World War Two internment camp in Hawai‘i. HPR’s Molly Solomon has more.

It’s a site that’s history was almost forgotten.

Honouliuli Internment Camp remained hidden from view in an Oahu gulch for nearly 60 years. It was one of five camps in the islands where the United States military interned Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Among the 320 Japanese Americans interned at Honouliuli was Sanji Abe, a former state senator in the territorial legislature. His daughter Helen Shinkawa remembers how the family had to relocate from the Big Island when her father was arrested and taken to the camp. "When he was interned we all moved to Honolulu from Hilo," says Shinkawa. "So that my mother could go to see dad every weekend."

Remnants of a guard post at Honouliuli.
Credit Molly Solomon

Shinkawa says she understands the reason many internees felt shame -- her own father never spoke of the 18 months he was interned at Sand Island and Honouliuli. "Some people think that it's something that we don't want to preserve, to think about. But on the other hand, there are people who would like to know what happened so that it would never happen again."

"The preservation of Honouliuli and the preservation of these stories of Hawaii's internment camps was almost forgotten and lost," says Carole Hayashino, President and Executive Director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. She says the designation has been a long time coming. JCCH has been working to preserve Honouliuli for the past 17 years. "When we heard the news," says Hayashino. "We were thrilled, excited , gratified to have recognition of Honouliuli being nationally significant."

The camp was rediscovered in 2002 by JCCH volunteers. They located the Kunia site by tracing an aqueduct in the background of an old photograph. Hayashino says many people have heard of mainland internment camps like Manzanar or Tule Lake, but few know about the island’s own. "Places where Japanese Americans who were living and working in Hawai‘i during World War II were picked up, arrested, detained and imprisoned in very similar camps as on the continental U.S."

Hayashino hopes the creation of a national monument will change that. Hawai‘i’s congressional leaders have been pushing for the camp’s designation since 2009. "This site is part of a very dark period of American history. All of the Japanese Americans who went through this, people who lost their businesses, farms," says U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono. "The pain of that time still lingers."

An aqueduct cuts across the camp, which is now overgrown with weeds and brush.
Credit Molly Solomon

The creation of a national monument would serve as a reminder of the nearly 2,000 Japanese Americans interned in the state. "This happened in America. This didn't happen 200 years ago -- this happened just a couple generations ago," says U.S. Senator Brian Schatz. "It's important for those memories to be fresh in our minds so that we can always be vigilant and protect everybody's liberty and freedom." 

The new national monument will now be under the management of the National Park Service. In addition to Honouliuli, President Obama will also protect Chicago’s Pullman Historic District and Colorado’s Browns Canyon.