Issei, Nisei and Kibei Share Their Stories of Being Interned in Hawai‘i During World War II
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
This month marks 75 years since Honouliuli, the largest and longest-operating internment camp in Hawai‘i, opened during World War II. It opened in March of 1943 in a deep gulch off Kunia Road near ‘Ewa and Waipahu. It housed Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans, internees of other ethnicities and prisoners of war.
In consultation with Hawai‘i Herald editor Karleen Chinen, I have decided to use this anniversary as an opportunity to launch the publication of a series of write-ups of interviews I conducted in 1980 with internees who were incarcerated at Honouliuli and Sand Island Detention Camp. At a time when there was little to no awareness or knowledge of Honouliuli in Hawai‘i, I was fortunate to have located and asked former internees about their experiences while their memories were still quite vivid.
I was able to interview seven people in all through a series of events that began at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. After graduating from college, I returned to Hawai‘i from the Mainland and spent an academic year at UH-Mänoa. I was thinking of becoming a writer, so I took four journalism courses during the spring 1980 semester.
One of them was a two-semester course called “Magazine Journalism” with a professor whose name I don’t remember. It was a small class, and the major assignment was to research and write a magazine article (in those days, long-form journalism — longer stories than we tend to see these days in magazines — was common).
The class had started the previous fall. Since I joined in the spring semester, I was asked to pair up with Mike Gordon. (Mike went on to become a reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser and, subsequently, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.) The topic of our magazine article was Honouliuli. Mike and I decided that he would do archival research on the camp and I would interview former internees.
My maternal grandmother, Kimiko Sekiya, helped me find some of them. My grandfather, Yoshio Sekiya, was interned at Santa Fe, NM, and they knew people who had been interned in Hawai‘i. My grandmother called people she knew (my grandfather had passed away in the 1970s), and accompanied me when I interviewed them. My grandmother and some of the interviewees were far from fluent in English, but the three of us — the interviewee, my grandmother and I — managed to communicate fairly well through a combination of their broken English and my broken Japanese. I also received internee names from professors at UH and others were featured in a 1976 article on Honouliuli by Hank Sato and published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
By the end of the spring semester, I had interviewed a total of seven people. The Rev. Gyokuei Matsuura was my grandparents’ priest at their Buddhist temple, Ryusenji Soto Mission in Wahiawä, and knew my mother’s family well. Mrs. Haru Tanaka was a Japanese language teacher at Showa Japanese School in Wahiawä. My grandmother helped me communicate with them. The other five interviewees — Robert Muroda, Dan Nishikawa, Shinzaburo Sumida, Genpachi Tsushima and Harry Urata — were all fluent in English, and we could speak with each other at length.
The following interview write-up marks the first of seven that will be published in The Hawai‘i Herald this year. These write-ups were crafted from extensive notes taken during the interviews. These interview write-ups will become part of a book I plan to write, tentatively titled, “In Their Own Words: Issei, Nisei and Kibei Share Their Stories of Being Interned in Hawai‘i During World War II.”
I would like to extend a courtesy to the families of the interviewees and show them the write-ups before they are published. If you or someone you know is a family member of one of the interviewees, please contact me, or ask the family member to contact me, the interviewer and author Gail Honda, at (808) 942-4783 or email@example.com.
ROBERT MURODA: “IN 1942, THEY CAME TO PICK ME UP . . .”
(Interview conducted in spring 1980 by Gail Honda)
I was born in 1905 and raised in Wai‘anae on the [sugar] plantation. On the plantation, we raised chicken and pigs, and lived better in those days. Today, there are very few law-abiding people. Lots of kolohe (mischievous) boys nowadays. Before, the plantation guards were very strict and all the boys had to go to school. Today, boys don’t go to school, but in those days, you couldn’t do that — things were very good.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was working in Mä‘ili, building a house. I was a carpenter, and I didn’t realize what was happening. When I found out what was happening, it was shocking. I got my tools together and went home. I had thought that it was all war practice. A sentry stopped us, and at first, we were not allowed to go back to the plantation.
In 1942, they came to pick me up. It was around Sept. 21 or 22. The FBI men came to the company shop on the plantation. Our house had been ransacked, as they had been looking around for something. But I had five girls, so all they saw were girls’ belongings.
The FBI picked up people they thought could be leaders. My mother was a midwife and we had lots of friends. I was involved with the YBA (Young Boys’ Association) and they thought I could be a leader. Also, I was shop foreman on the plantation and had 15 men working under me. I took care of the mill and buildings.
They took me to the Immigration Station, and then to Sand Island, where I stayed until April of ’43 when a new camp opened at Honouliuli. On Sand Island, we stayed in barracks, and at Honouliuli, we stayed in 16’-by- 16’ buildings. I was one of the first persons to arrive at Honouliuli. I was a mess sergeant at both Sand Island and Honouliuli and had to figure out how people were going to be fed.
We had our own government in Honouliuli and we had a local, Cmdr. Sakamoto. There was also a Sgt. Loveless, a camp guard, who was a wonderful man. He was a really good man, a local boy. Local boys are good because they know us. We were taken there by troop transport, in Army trucks. There were armed guards when we arrived and we lived eight in one barrack. You could choose whom to live with. There were four bunk beds in each barrack and I had to have a lower one because I got up at 4 a.m. to go to the kitchen.
When I arrived at the kitchen, the cooks made me coffee and hotcakes. There were sometimes 500, sometimes 300 in camp. The first-generation aliens went to the Mainland. They cannot hold citizens (Nisei) as POWs, but aliens (Issei), they can. We gave coffee and toast or hotcakes to the guards in the morning. The guards would come to the kitchen for coffee, and when the camp commander found out, he thought it was a good idea. So at midnight, they started serving coffee to the guards. We were all pretty friendly with each other.
At work in camp, I was paid 10 cents an hour, which comes out to about $13 a month. Others who worked as cooks, kitchen police, gardeners or woodcutters also made 10 cents an hour. In addition, we received 10 cents a day from the American Red Cross. All together it came out to $13 a month. We were paid in coupons, which we could use to buy cigarettes, candy, paper goods and other items at the camp PX. I bought school supplies for my kids. I was 36 when I was in camp and had five girls and a nephew. I was at Honouliuli for seven months. I went back home on Dec. 7, 1943. Outside on the plantation I earned $75 a month.
Every morning I had to crush 40 loaves of bread. I had to do this because if we don’t get rid of the bread, they won’t give us more. But then I thought, “Wait a minute . . .” I didn’t want to keep doing this, so I started keeping the bread.
The camp commander saw all the bread and asked, “Why do you keep all this bread?” So I told him I had to crush all the bread so we could get more, and he said, “No, no, you don’t do that. You got too much bread, eh? You want a substitute?”
I said, “I think if we have rice instead, we would be very happy.” So the mess officer started giving us three 100-pound bags of rice every day in exchange for the bread and potatoes. Now everyone is happy. We don’t eat potatoes.” I did business with the delivery boy. I traded potatoes for rice with the delivery boy.
The menus for the soldiers and the internees were the same. The food supplies were the same. Japanese and haoles have different foods they like to eat, that’s all. The chili and canned food, we traded for canned fish like mackerel and salmon. They were happy, and we were happy, too.
Then we started to farm, especially lettuce. But we cannot eat all that we raise, and there was no storage room. So I tell the delivery boy, “You want some lettuce? We’ll trade for fish cans.” But the farmers found out and got sore with me. Not everyone was friendly with the guards, you see. Some men were more bitter than others. So I told them, “We cannot eat all this lettuce. You want me to throw it away or give it to someone who can enjoy it?” So I purchased miso and shoyu for them.
We just had some small refrigerators, no walk-ins. Our camp was very neat. In fact, we won an Army award for having one of the neatest kitchens in the whole U.S. Even the rest of the camp was very neat. Japanese are neat people.
When we first moved in, dirt was caked on the floors because it was built during the rainy season. Later, we dug ditches around the houses so water flowed around the houses. Because we lived in the gulch, the water was heavy. I had to walk 500 feet to the kitchen from the barracks. Across the gulch was a walkway, a catwalk.
I also fed the POWs in another part of the camp, like people from the South Seas. They were living in another compound, so we carried trays of food to them, three meals a day, seven days a week. Some of those POWs were real hard heads. They went on hunger strikes. We couldn’t talk to them, only feed them. Sometimes they wouldn’t eat for three days. They would take them to the hospital, give them treatment, they would get better, come back and do the same thing all over again.
I’d rather stay in the kitchen than in the camp. Less trouble for me. Others played guitars, played games, made booze. They would steal my sugar and steal my grape juice to make alcohol. One night, they were making so much noise the guards came in and checked. They picked up 14 gallons of wine, just fermented juice. I had some in the kitchen so I dumped it in the sink. We don’t want to get in trouble only for a few guys. If you got caught, your visiting days were over.
One time I had a fight in the kitchen over bread. We had the bread all lined up for the internees to take for their meal. One internee passed a lot of the bread lined up and took the center bread. I asked him, “Why do you do that?” He said he wanted the best part. I told him, “Why don’t you figure it out and stay farther back in line so you can get the center part? Or why don’t you give the older people the better, softer part of the bread?” Some people just make trouble.
We rose at reveille from the Army camp at 6:30 a.m., and breakfast was served at 7 a.m. At 8 p.m. it was retreat, lights out. The internees did things in the evening like play dice, play cards and read newspapers. It was breezy and open and the barracks were screened so there were no mosquitoes. We made our own tables and chairs, and the bathrooms were in separate buildings. It was a very simple life.
As for outside visits, only two were allowed every two weeks per person. The visitors smuggled in all kinds of things, like booze and whiskey. But when the camp commander found out, he said if it continued, they were going to start strip-searching visitors. But they kept smuggling things in, like they would bring a bunch of flowers, and right in the middle is the whiskey.
My wife had to struggle. We had both children and parents to take care of. My wife did laundry for service people who brought laundry to the house. The girls helped her. My father took care of the pigs, and my nephew helped gather garbage around the plantation. My nephew drove my family around in a Model T roadster and a Chevy truck.
Sgt. Loveless doesn’t bother people, but he helps get all kinds of things for them. Camp supervisor Capt. Spillner and Commanding Officer Lt. Springer were good men, too. Some other officers in camp were Fricke, the plant manager, and Simpson, the engineer. After Loveless, someone else took over. The new guy was all right, too, but kind of different. Some guards were kind of nervous.
Most of the internees were younger than me, the youngest 15 years old. Most were Kibei, or men who returned from Japan. I made some friendships in camp, like Dan Nishikawa. I still see him every week. Tetsuo Oi was another friend.
There were religious activities. There was a Christian and Buddhist church service on Sundays. The reverends in the camp led the services. We had some hospital barracks, too, and had some old people. Most were healthy as a whole. We also had a camp dentist and doctor. During the war, Hawai‘i was all right. We just made the best of it. We try to help the people. We keep working and keep busy.
In the mess hall it was very cool. For my nap, I just lay across the table and take a nap. We had three cooks for breakfast and four for lunch and dinner. Sometimes someone gets hurt in camp. Even men, when they’re in that kind of a situation, they’re worse than wahines (women). Grouchy and complaining.
Women were in a different camp. At first, they had their own kitchen, but they soon closed it down. The women ate before the men. There were only five wahines. We didn’t have too much trouble with them. They were lucky they didn’t have to work. When the kitchen closed, everything was filthy, greasy, unusable, and we had to clean.
Then one day, I was told, “Muroda, they want you at the office. Looks like good news. You can go home.” The next morning, they took me to the Immigration Station, and Capt. Spillner was there. He told me, “You have some money coming to you.” Two guards drove me back home. They took off their arms. I told them, “I’m free so I don’t have to be guarded.” My wife was stunned. We invited the guards in for coffee and gave them some beer.
Then the plantation manager came over and said, “Tomorrow you come work.”
I told him, “What’s the matter? I just came home. Where’s my vacation?”
He told me, “You just had 14 months vacation.”
I don’t know if we can say the camps were justified by the U.S. We just didn’t want any trouble, and we just have to accept it. Now I tell young people, good for you, you make 15, 20 dollars an hour. But it’s not how much you’re going to make, but how much you’re going to save. At internment camp, I worked for 10 cents an hour. When I came out I had a check for $257.
I always say this. You can judge people, you know, with their wealth, their knowledge, schooling and how much they know. Maybe they’re figures, athletes and all that. But when you strip a person to nothing, when you cannot rely on those things, just the person himself, then you know the value of the person, how much he’s worth, what kind of people. Everybody’s equal. Some live only for their mighty dollar, some only live for what they know, like doctors or whatever.
Some are common people, but still very nice and very strong people and big-hearted people. I try to help what we call compassionate people. Some are bitter, but you cannot do anything. What are they going to do? Fight the Army? Just go along with them. You have your health, so just help yourself and help the rest of the people.
I don’t have any bitter feelings. In fact, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but in fact, I’m happy I went. These people gave me a chance to help them, and I can do that and I did that well. It’s a good feeling. If I’m helping the people in the camp, I’m helping the U.S. government. It was a good experience for me.
Gail Honda is a writer in Honolulu. She can be reached at (808) 942-4783 or firstname.lastname@example.org.