Historical Overview

Daily life in Compound 5
An image depicting daily life for civilian incarcerees in Compound V.

Photo Credit: R.H. Lodge, c. 1945. Courtesy of Hawai'i's Plantation Village

Honouliuli Internment Camp

Honouliuli National Historic Site is located on land that, during World War II, served as the largest and longest-used confinement site in the Hawaiian Islands for US citizens and residents of Japanese and European ancestry arbitrarily suspected of disloyalty following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Run by the U.S. Army and opened in March 1943, Honouliuli was both a civilian incarceration camp and a prisoner of war camp with a population of approximately 400 incarcerees and 4,000 prisoners of war over the course of its use. The 160 acre incarceration camp contained 175 buildings, 14 guard towers, and over 400 tents. Incarcerees referred to Honouliuli as Jigoku-Dani ("Hell Valley") because its secluded location in a deep gulch trapped heat and moisture and reinforced the incarcerees' sense of isolation and unjust incarceration.

The majority of Honouliuli's civilian incarcerees were American citizens—predominantly Japanese Americans who were citizens by birth—suspected of disloyalty. They included community, business, and religious leaders. The remaining group comprised predominantly German Americans, though there were also Americans and aliens of Italian, Irish, Russian, and Scandinavian descent.

As a prisoner of war camp, Honouliuli held enemy soldiers and non-combatant labor conscripts from Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan, and Italy. Honouliuli also held women and children who were Japanese civilians displaced from the Pacific.

World War II Incarceration and Martial Law in Hawai‘i

Early on December 7, 1941, as the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, government officials began selectively rounding up Hawai‘i residents suspected of disloyalty. They were incarerated at local jails, courthouses, and facilities on six of the main Hawaiian Islands. Roughly 800 people were incarcerated and eventually transported to the U.S. Immigration Station and the Sand Island Detention Camp on O'ahu in this early period. Nearly all the incarcerees were of Japanese descent; they included influential leaders of the Japanese American community who were educated, were teachers or priests, or had access to means of communication with Japan or to transportation from Hawai‘i. Most civilians apprehended in the initial years of the War would be sent to the mainland to live out the duration of the war in Department of Justice and War Relocation Authority camps. The opening of Honouliuli Internment Camp in March of 1943 provided an alternate to mainland transfer, as the camp was designed for the express purpose of confining incarcerees and prisoners of war for longer periods of time.

The primary legal mechanism used to authorize incarceration in Hawai‘i was martial law. Amidst fears of a Japanese invasion, martial law was declared just hours after the attacks on Pearl Harbor until October 24, 1944. At 35 months, army rule in Hawai‘i during World War II comprised the longest period in U.S. history when the civilian population has ever been subjected to rule by martial law. During this period, the U.S. Army issued hundreds of military orders, some of which were applicable only to persons of Japanese ancestry and enemy aliens. For example, people of Japanese ancestry were restricted from residing in certain areas of O‘ahu and were forcibly removed from their properties. These types of discriminatory policies created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

While the government did consider mass incarceration in Hawai‘i as was implemented on U.S. mainland, it was ultimately deemed impractical. Hawai‘i's Japanese American citizenry and immigrant population was over one third of the territory's total population, and their labor was needed to sustain the economy and the war effort in the islands.

By war's end, over 2,000 people of Japanese ancestry from Hawai‘i were incarcerated. Despite the suspicion of disloyalty, none of the Japanese American incarcerees from Hawai‘i was ever found guilty of sabotage, espionage, or overt acts against the United States.

Mass Incarceration on the Mainland

Meanwhile on the United States mainland, all individuals of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were forced from their homes by military exclusion orders following Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942. They were rounded up and sent to temporary detention centers and then to isolated large-scale camps located throughout the western states and Arkansas, where most would spend the duration of the war years. The mass incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry was the largest forced removal of people in the history of the United States.

sepia photo of three people sitting at a table outside a wooden building behind a tall barbed wire fence
A view of daily life at Hono‘uli‘uli Internment Camp. c. 1945

Photo by R.H. Lodge, courtesy Hawaii’s Plantation Village.

Prisoners of War in Honouli‘uli

Honouliuli served as both a base camp and a transfer point for prisoners of war from both the Atlantic and Pacific Theatres. Five of the seven camp sections were created to serve as prisoner of war compounds, and eventually held prisoners from Japan, Okinawa, Korea, Taiwan and Italy. At its peak, facilities at the camp were capable of accommodating 4,000 prisoners of war, with conditions of imprisonment dependent upon factors such as ethnic background, political status and reputation. A substantial number of the prisoners held at Honouliuli were non-combatant labor conscripts.

A Presidential Apology

Both the selective incarceration in Hawai‘i and the mass incarceration on the mainland created a social stigma that was borne by Japanese Americans both during and after the war. The impacts on the targeted individuals and their families would last their lifetimes.

Over 40 years after World War II ended, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, concluding that the internment and incarceration were "fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights" and "were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." This included incarceration in Hawai‘i, and the living Japanese American survivors received presidential apologies on behalf of the nation.

Learn more about current efforts underway to plan the Honouliuli National Historic Site.

Last updated: February 17, 2023

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

National Park Service
Honouliuli National Historic Site
1 Arizona Memorial Place

Honolulu, HI 96818

Contact Us