The Voice of Shinzaburo Sumida

Gail Honda
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

The following interview write-up is the fifth of seven that will be published in The Hawai‘i Herald this year. It is part of a series titled, “In Their Own Words.”

In the spring of 1980, I had the opportunity to interview seven former internees of Honouliuli Internment Camp and the Sand Island Detention Camp at a time when their memories of being interned were still quite vivid. (The backstory on these interviews is explained in the March 16 edition of the Herald.)

The internees were: the Rev. Gyokuei Matsuura, Mrs. Haru Tanaka, Shigeo (Robert) Muroda, Dan Nishikawa, Shinzaburo Sumida, Edgar Genpachi (Jukichi) Tsushima and Harry Urata. I would like to show the families of the interviewees the write-ups before they are published, but have not yet been able to contact the family of Mr. Dan Nishikawa. If you or anyone you know is a family member of Mr. Nishikawa, please contact, or have the family member contact, me at (808) 942-4783 or

These write-ups were crafted from extensive notes taken during the interviews. The 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.”

Here is Shinzaburo Sumida’s story.

I was born in Hawai‘i and at age 2 went to Japan where I attended grammar and high school. In 1932 I returned to Hawai‘i and went to a Mainland college. I graduated college in 1936 and went to Japan again in ’37. I had dual U.S.-Japan citizenship and thus was a Japanese citizen in Japan.

So, in June of 1937, I was drafted into the Japanese army. I was a candidate for officer and made a lieutenant. In January of 1940, I was discharged and went back to school. My uncle adopted me to carry on his business. In December of 1940, I came back to Hawai‘i and married in September of 1941.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was at home in Kaimukï. I heard noises at 7:30 a.m., but I figured they were doing maneuvers. I didn’t know anything until 11 a.m., when I turned on the radio. I thought another country had attacked us, not Japan. I never dreamed Japan would attack Pearl Harbor. My father was picked up first, that very day. The FBI came to get him. I was 28 at the time.

On the Wednesday after the Pearl Harbor attack, a couple of guards came to our office. We had a wholesale business importing Japanese food. They asked to see Mr. Sumida. I thought they meant my father. Then they mentioned my name, my first name, everything. They were already making a list even before the war broke out. They were already checking our backgrounds.

On Dec. 24, 1941, I was taken in to the Immigration Station. The FBI headquarters was near Ala Moana. I was at the Immigration Station for 10 days, then transferred to Sand Island. I was given the ID number 60. In February of 1942 I was shipped to Camp McCoy, Wis., on the first boat sent to the Mainland for internees. There were mostly Issei on the boat and about 15 to 20 Nisei.

I arrived at Camp McCoy in March of 1942 and stayed there until May 1942. Then I was moved to Camp Forest, Tenn., where I stayed from May through August. I also lived at Camp Livingston, La., for one month. I was transferred back to Sand Island in August of 1942.

In the beginning at Sand Island, there were no buildings. In January of 1942 there were only tents, but by August when I got there, there were three wooden buildings. Some men interned at Sand Island could go to the Mainland with their families.

In November of 1942 I went to Honouliuli. There were about 200 people there in the first group to arrive. Eight to 10 people stayed in a shack with double-decker beds. I stayed until November of 1944 when martial law was lifted. I was there because I was considered an “undesirable citizen.” During my FBI interview, they asked me all kinds of silly questions. Since I served in the Japanese army, I’m already considered undesirable. In 1944, I was shipped to Tule Lake with about 100 others. More than 20,000 people were interned at Tule Lake until the war ended in ’45.

At Sand Island, there were eight to 10 people in a tent. We slept on Army cots. The commander was very strict at the time. To kill time, some of us pulled weeds. Some internees even made their own weeders by breaking small spoons. At Sand Island, spoons were considered a weapon. Guards would line us up and strip us and search for spoons to see if any of us had a weeder.

The customs officer was from the Reserves. We had to eat all our food; if not, we were considered wasteful. The commanding officer stood guard at the garbage pail during mealtimes to make sure everyone ate everything.

Sand Island was very unpleasant. The food was terrible — we ate Army rations. But I do remember we had turkey once for Christmas. After mealtimes, spoons and everything were collected and counted. If one item was missing, everyone was stripped down again. By ’42, everything was more lenient, but in the beginning there was a lot of hysteria.

The guards at Sand Island were locals, UH (University of Hawai‘i) kids from the National Guard and ROTC. Maybe there were some from the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard. The assistant commander was local. We were not allowed any news. At Sand Island, I had a hearing. They asked me, “If the Japanese army landed in Hawai‘i, what would you do?” and “Do you want Japan to win the war?” Sure, I told them, I was in the Japanese army, but I didn’t want to spend my life there. There were about three or four of us at Sand Island who had served in the Japanese army. Others had clear-cut reasons for being interned. They had helped the Japanese Consulate, taught Japanese language or were Buddhist ministers.

At Honouliuli, where I transferred to in November of 1942, we were given military clothing to wear. We had soap and razor blades issued by the guards. We have to return the razor blades if we wanted to shave the next time. The guard camp was near our camp. Soldiers were stationed there. They don’t bother us and we don’t bother them. Honouliuli was more lenient and we had a nicer commander than at Sand Island. At Honouliuli, the officers were Spillner, a local boy, and Sgt. Douglas from the Mainland. Once, we played softball against the guards and they won.

Every other week we had the privilege of family visits. They took place at the mess hall. Every other week, one half of the camp can see their family. We just sat and talked story with them. We had no newspapers in camp so we heard about the war from our families. We would question our families about what was happening with the war.

Once a week, they opened up the canteen as a supply shop. We could buy cigarettes and drinks. We spent what we earned working around the camp. We had work details, like cleaning the camp or going to the mountains to cut trees. We earned 10 cents an hour. In the morning, we assembled in the office and went to work. You had a choice to work or not. I worked to get cigarette money. One carton of cigarettes was $1.50.

There was not too much recreation. We played softball in the evening since our work hours were in the morning. Some made toys for kids with tools visitors brought in. Some played cards, gambled or made moonshine. One night, some guys were making so much noise from drinking moonshine. The guards came in and searched the barracks and took all of it away. They would make moonshine from pineapple juice or grape juice and yeast from outside.

The first year of the war was really bad for internees. The second, third and fourth years weren’t too bad because it wasn’t as strict. My family was doing well while I was in camp. Some older Issei were shipped to the mainland right away. Some of them worried so much they went out of their minds. But my wife and mother were living together so it wasn’t too bad.

After my release and I returned to the community, there was really no change in lifestyle. It was like taking a long trip. Some people thought of it as a vacation — mostly farmers who were having a hard time. In camp, they didn’t have to worry about food.

Now when I recall those years, I forget about all the hardships. I only remember the fun, like playing softball. The really unpleasant things dissipate away. The years pass by and you try to push away the memory of the hardships. There are meetings of internees, gatherings maybe once a year. At the get-togethers, it’s mostly the older generation.

We were victims of circumstance. I served in the Japanese army and had to bear it. I didn’t do anything. I was more loyal to Japan, but I didn’t say anything. Some did, especially at Tule Lake. I’m a U.S. citizen now and have four children, all born in Hawai‘i. They’re all American citizens.

As to whether the United States was justified in interning us, in those days, forget it. We couldn’t do anything. Nobody wanted to take our case. Nowadays, everyone fights for their rights. But in those days, it was unthinkable. It will never happen again. I was able to bear it because I was in the Japanese army and could bear hardships. In those days, justice was being done, but justice was out of your reach.

Gail Honda is a writer in Honolulu. She can be reached at 808-942-4783 or by emailing her at


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here