Visiting Honouliuli Internment Camp

My dad spends a great deal of his time researching our family history, and one of his projects was learning more about my grandpa, Sadao Moriyama, and his experience as an internee at Honouliuli Camp, one of five internment camps in Hawaii during WWII. Honouliuli was nicknamed jikoku dani, or "Hell Valley," because of its heat and oppressive conditions. Using a variety of historical records, including the WWII internee case file from the National Archives, my dad was able to piece together a narrative of what my grandpa went through. Before the war, my grandpa had won a local oratorical contest and spent three months touring in Japan. This, along with his connections to some important Japanese American members of the community made him a target after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Initially kept at Sand Island Detention Center, my grandpa was moved to Honouliuli in March 1943. According to my dad's research, he spent 157 days at Honouliuli, before being released. What was remarkable was that even though he was being held in the camp, his two brothers, Charlie and Toshi, both served in the war for the U.S, with Charlie signing up for MIS (Military Intelligence Service) and Toshi serving in the 442nd.

After some correspondence with Jane Kurahara, who volunteers for the JCCH, my dad was able to get a special tour of the Honouliuli grounds arranged for our family. Yesterday, Jane and another volunteer named John Okutani, at the JCCH took us out to the actual site of Honouliuli, which is located on land in Kunia owned by Monsanto, an agricultural development company. What really hit me when we reached the site was that I had unknowingly driven past it countless times over the past two years, as our old Isle Media office was located about 10 minutes up Kunia Road from the site.

When we got out of our cars, one of the first things I noticed was how incredibly hot it was, down in the gulch where the internee housing was located (the external thermometer of the car read 95 degrees!). As you can see in the photo above, there were essentially no trees or vegetation around the camp when it housed the internees, meaning that it must've been even hotter.

Jane and John brought a collection of photographs and documents containing stories and accounts from the Honouliuli internees, and it was really interesting to see them pointing out where everything once was, as walked around the area. 

Jane showing us a picture of the building behind her, before part of it collapsed. The whole camp had been bulldozed over after the war, and was essentially forgotten until it was rediscovered by Jane and JCCH in 2002. 

You can find out more about the JCCH efforts to preserving the stories and the sites of the internment camps here

Mess hall, where the internees had their meals

My sisters kindly providing some shade for Jane and John :)

Stone wall that pre-dates the camp, and was part of the aqueduct system. 

Aqueduct that ran through the camp. 

Amazing how overgrown the area was, considering the place was literally a desert during the 1940s. 

Latrine used by the internees. Each hole in the ground was for a toilet. Note that there were no doors or dividers between stalls, so there was no privacy when using the bathroom. 

"Aug 30, 1920"

You can read about things that happened in history, but nothing really compares to visiting and engaging with the actual site where something took place. During the tour, I found myself picturing grandpa in this camp, reading his Shakespeare books to pass the time in the ridiculous heat. At the end of the tour, Jane and John brought out flower petals for us to throw as a way of bringing closure to the experience. We all began to sing "Hawaii Aloha," and then at some parts of the song, I began to choke up because it made me miss grandpa even more, and at the same time, I also felt this surge of admiration for him, because in light of everything he went through, he never talked or complained about his experience. 

Here is a photo of my grandpa and grandma at my dad's wedding, which hangs in my grandma's house. This was taken many years after his internment, and his big smile is one thing that will always stay with me. 


  1. That is both horrifying and amazing. My grandparents never really talk about it either. It is an important part of Japanese American history. Thanks for sharing Reese.

  2. What an amazing experience. There is so much that we can learn from our family history... I can't wait to see and hear more about it:)



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