This is the anvil of the sun. I have heard thousands of stories from the depression era generation about the miserable conditions under which they earned a living in just such a field on just such a day. Out in these shadeless fields the sun blinds, the heat blisters and the humidity wilts. That cluster of trees in the middle of the field shades the memorials of the Japanese Americans who died while their families were imprisoned at a relocation camp that was built in this field.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was a period of many months before the U.S. could muster and coordinate enough force to strike back at the Japanese. During that time, there was a public outcry for Roosevelt to "do something" to strike back. Since he couldn't strike at the Japanese Asians, he rounded up over a hundred-thousand Japanese Americans and concentrated them in camps in places such as this. Eighty-five-hundred internees were relocated to the camp located here. The action was costly, immoral and irrelevant to the war effort, but at least now the public was satisfied that Roosevelt had "done something."
From 1942 to 1945, these fields were filled with blocks of wooden buildings--five hundred acres of them. Each block held twelve barracks. Each barracks measured 20 feet by 120 feet and was divided into six apartments for six families. Simple division gives us an average apartment size of 20 feet square. Laundry, sanitation and mess halls were common buildings in each block. There was a sincere effort to keep families together and to make the internment as comfortable as they reasonably could, but a nice cage is a cage nonetheless.
I visited this place on a typical, steamy delta summer day. The heat in these fields can range ten degrees higher than the temperature in the shade, just as the temperature in the middle of a big parking lot will be several degrees hotter than the temperature you hear about on the news. I can't help but think that many of those Japanese-Americans were relocated from San Francisco or San Diego, where the temperature rarely gets below sixty or above eighty. They were interned in Arkansas delta land, where the annual temperature ranges from ten to a hundred and ten. And of course the camps and the perimeter would have been cleared of timber, because after all, it is a prison camp. They must have thought they were in hell.
Don't get me wrong. It's not as bad a place to live as all that, but a couple of years of acclimation are helpful.
Bitterness and resentment on the part of the internees are perfectly understandable. I can even understand the paranoia, hysteria, social impotence and political expedience that led the government to identify and persecute a racial scapegoat (I can understand it without condoning it, can't I?).
Here's the part I don't understand. Why is it so hard for anybody from the WWII generation to admit that this was wrong? I've spoken to a number of senior citizens on the subject, and fifty years after the fact, they are still justifying the unjustifiable. Nobody's asking for reparations. Nobody's asking for an apology. Nobody's going to be tried for war crimes. I hope I don't see any phony chest-pounding demonstrations of remorse. I just want to know if they understand that their government did something that was wrong and they sat by and allowed it to happen. They were scared. They panicked. They did something wrong. They caused innocent people to suffer. So far I have seen no indication that any of them believe that it was wrong to lock up all these Japanese-Americans. That leads me to wonder if, given similar circumstances, could we recognize and avoid doing this kind of thing again?
Here's a sample of what I do hear from the WWII generation:
"They got to sit out the war without being shot at." While military service was not required in all cases, some were drafted for intelligence in the South Pacific; and there were two volunteer Japanese-American units, the 100th battalion and the 442nd regimental combat team, who saw action in the Italy campaign. They were, according to the words carved in these stones, the most highly decorated units of the war. 274 Rohwer internees volunteered for service. Another 52 came from Jerome, another camp in Arkansas. Here's a list of Japanese-American soldiers who were killed in Italy and France while their families were imprisoned here at Rohwer. Please excuse omissions and misspellings.
"They were paid fair cash settlements for their property." Fair as decided by the government, whether they wanted to sell or not.
"They attacked Pearl Harbor." The Japanese-Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, you numb-nut, not these guys.
"We were concerned that their primary loyalty might be to their race rather than to their country." If this was truly a concern, why were German-Americans and Italian-Americans not relocated?
"They didn't have to work. The U.S. Government fed, clothed and housed them for the duration of the war." Yes, and might those tax dollars have been better spent on planes and tanks, and might these loyal Americans have better spent their time working in support of the war effort rather than having their talents languish behind barbed wire? By the way, they did work. They cleared land and built much of the facility themselves. Also, I have a hard time reconciling how people can tell me how hard it was for their own families in this area at this time and how families in a prison camp in the same area at the same time have somehow got it "easy."
I'm also sometimes invited to go to Russia, although I don't see the relevance of such an invitation. Why is it that every time some powerful authority does something wrong, I am supposed to go to Russia?
I can really only think of one valid reason for relocation. It might have protected them from irrational retribution by people who had lost loved ones in the war against Japan. Nobody has come up with that one, yet. This justification is reasonable, if still unfair.
If you want to find this spot, take highway 1 north from McGehee. On the outskirts of Rohwer, you'll see a sign for the "Rohwer Historical Cemetery." This memorial is about a half-mile down the dirt road.
Note from a reader:
"...I moved to Rohwer in summer of 1950. By that time, many of the buildings had been sold and moved, or torn down and the materials sold. Many windows local residents peer through daily, were the same ones the Japanese peered through during their internment. Some of these windows my own family used, in construction of a country theatre near Rohwer, which my family ran for some years before TV came along. I started to school in fall of 1950, on the very same land the internment camp was located. Our school was only about 2 years old, but our cafeteria was their former mess hall, one building was our home economics classroom, and the gym was the same one used by the Japanese. Just behind the highest bleachers were murals drawn and painted by them, depicting their daily life. Sadly, this gym burned about 1954, taking a bit of history with it."
"I would like to say pertaining to this statement on your page:
We were concerned that their primary loyalty might be to their race rather than to their country. If this was truly a concern, why were German-Americans and Italian-Americans not relocated?
"On one of the morning shows, June 2, There was an author who was talking about her ancestors, who were Italian Americans and were required to register as enemy aliens. There were internment camps also. LINK ."
Your Host replies:
Yes, that was a glaring error in my article. I hope I've become more thorough with ten years of practice.
Even though Italian Americans were imprisoned and registered as suspicious characters, what happened to the Japanese Americans on the west coast was much much worse and strictly speaking was ethnic cleansing. According to the website above, fewer than 2% of immigrant Italian Americans were imprisoned without cause.
I finally got around to visiting the monument at the site of the Japanese-American internment camp at Jerome. The brick smokestack in the field in the background is all that remains of the camp. In Bill Earngey's "Arkansas Roadsides" I read that Jerome is named for the Jerome Hardware Lumber Company, which was the main business here in 1916. The former name was Blissville. Jerome and this monument lie along highway 165 a few miles south of Dermott.
Here's the text of the monument:
JEROME RELOCATION CENTER 1942-1944: On February 19,1942 Pres. Franklin Roosvelt signed into law Executive order No. 9066 interring over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, and this act irrevocably changed their lives. The majority of these people were American citizens. As a result of all this wartime hysteria these people were forcibly removed from their homes on the west coast of the United States and also in Hawaii, to be interned by the War Department in one of the ten Relocation Centers located in the interior of the U.S.A. At Jerome there were over 6700 interned from September 1, 1942 and through July 1944. These temporary shelters with shared living quarter (sic) community dining halls and bathing facilities were the norm. Constant ongoing surveillance by the army served as a constant reminder of each resident's captivity and loss of freedom. This memorial is dedicated by the Jerome Preservation Committee an (sic) also the Japanese American Citizen League to those persons of Japanese ancestry who suffered the indignity of being incarcerated because of their ethnic background. May this monument serve to remind us of all these incidents and inspire us to be more vigilant and more alert in the safeguarding of the rights of all Americans, regardless of their race color, or creed.
Misspelling on line 26, they dropped the "d" in "and." Above that they dropped the "s" in "living quarters." Also a couple of misused commas as in "race color, or creed." The monument includes poorly wrought phrases like the redundant "captivity and loss of freedom" and the redundantly redundant "ongoing constant surveillance." Come on, guys. You're carving a stone to last a hundred years. You could at least proofread or hand it off to a high school English teacher for a minute or two. Where do we get our reputation for illiteracy, anyway? It doesn't come from the uneducated, apparently. It seems to originate from our aristocrats, who will no doubt be very offended that I cheapen their gesture by pointing out they spent a zillion bucks to immortalize their typos in stone. Our community leaders spent thousands on a stele and nothing on a grammarian. These same community leaders just can't understand why the media portray us as ignorant. Where does that Li'l Abner stuff come from? What about Jethro's endearingly dumb hand-lettered signs? Those stereotypes are based on stuff like this. This comes not from an ignorant field hand, but from our social and civic elite.
The monument is a fine and appropriate gesture; but proofread next time, okay, boss man? Get yourself a Little Brown Handbook. You're making us peasants look bad. And as for any Japanese-American groups that might have co-sponsored this monument, the same goes for you.