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After Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, and America’s subsequent declaration of war and entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which selected ten sites to incarcerate more than 110,000 Japanese Americans (sixty-four percent of whom were American citizens). They had been forcibly removed from the West Coast, where over eighty percent of Japanese Americans lived. Two camps were selected and built in the Arkansas Delta, one at Rohwer in Desha County and the other at Jerome in sections of Chicot and Drew counties. Operating from October 1942 to November 1945, both camps eventually incarcerated nearly 16,000 Japanese Americans. This was the largest influx and incarceration of any racial or ethnic group in the state’s history. One of the sites, Rohwer, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
After Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, many Americans, especially those living on the West Coast, feared an eventual invasion by the empire of Japan. Over eighty percent of the Japanese American population living in the United States at the time lived along the coast in the states of Washington, Oregon, and California. Many West Coast citizens viewed the concentrated Japanese American communities as potential enclaves for espionage and “fifth-column” activities. Fueled by war hysteria, reinforced by decades of racial hatred, and citing the “doctrine of military necessity,” President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, signed Executive Order 9066, giving the secretary of war the power to designate military areas from which “any or all persons may be excluded” and authorized military commanders to initiate orders they deemed advisable to enforce such action.
On March 18, Roosevelt created the WRA for the “relocation, maintenance, and supervision” of the Japanese American population. The search for sites for America’s first Japanese American “relocation center,” as they were euphemistically labeled by the WRA, was limited to federally owned lands suitable enough to house from five to eight thousand people and located, as the War Department required, “a safe distance from strategic works.” By June 4, 1942, the WRA had selected ten sites, with the Arkansas camps being the easternmost sites. Arkansas’s Farm Security Administration chief, Eli B. Whitaker, acquired the land for the Arkansas camps. It was situated in the marshy delta of the Mississippi River’s floodplain and was originally tax-delinquent lands in dire need of clearing, leveling, and drainage.
Each camp was approximately 10,000 acres, including 500 acres of tarpapered, A-framed buildings arranged into numbered blocks. All were partially surrounded by barbed wire or heavily wooded areas with guard towers situated at strategic areas and guarded by a small military contingent. Each block was designed to accommodate around 250 people residing in fourteen residential barracks with each barrack (20'x120') divided into four to six apartments. Each block also consisted of a mess hall, a recreational barrack, a laundry building, and a building for a communal latrine. The residential buildings were without plumbing or running water, and the buildings were heated during the winter months by wood stoves. The camps also had an administrative section segregated from the rest of the buildings, a military police section, a hospital section, a warehouse and factory section, a residential section of barracks for WRA personnel, barracks for schools (kindergarten through twelfth grade), and auxiliary buildings for such things as canteens, motion pictures, gymnasiums, motor pools, and fire stations. Both camps were immense, sprawling cities that were two of the largest agricultural communities in Arkansas. During the construction phase of the incarceration camps, more than 5,000 workers were employed to clear hundreds of acres of land, to build more than 1,200 barrack-type buildings, and to lay miles of gravel-laden roads. The cost to the federal government alone in 1942–43 was $9,503,905.
The Rohwer Camp operated from September 18, 1942, to November 30, 1945, under the project director, Ray D. Johnston, and its peak population reached 8,475. The Japanese American population was divided into classifications known as Issei, first-generation nationals (aliens) precluded from American citizenship by federal immigration laws; Nisei, second-generation American citizens born in this country; and Sansei, third-generation offspring of the Nisei who were also American citizens. Another classification in the camps was the Kibei—American citizens who had received some of their primary years of education in Japan.
Although accurate population and age statistics were in a state of flux due to the WRA’s constant movement of the Japanese American population, the total Rohwer population of 8,475 Japanese Americans in January 1943 indicates well over ninety percent of the adult population had been involved in farming, commercial fishing, or agricultural businesses. Thirty-five percent were Issei (aliens), with ten percent over the age of sixty. Sixty-four percent were Nisei (American citizens), with forty percent under the age of nineteen. There were 2,447 school age children in the camp—a full twenty-eight percent of the total population.
The Jerome Relocation Center operated from October 6, 1942, to June 30, 1944. In operation the fewest number of days (634) of any of the ten relocation camps, Jerome was under the direction of Paul A. Taylor. Eli B. Whitaker, former regional director of both camps in Arkansas, became project director of Jerome during its last few months of operation. Of a total agriculturally based population of 7,932 as of January 1943, thirty-three percent were Issei, with fourteen percent over the age of sixty. Sixty-six percent were Nisei—American citizens—with thirty-nine percent under the age of nineteen. There were 2,483 school age children—a full thirty-one percent of the total population.
On October 1, 1942, the WRA initiated a new, comprehensive “leave” or “resettlement” program for the incarcerated Japanese Americans in the ten relocation camps. All classifications of leaves were subject to specific conditions, guidelines, and security checks, and could be denied or revoked at any time. The WRA’s leave and resettlement program met with limited success; each month usually fewer than several hundred well-qualified, security free, and socially acceptable Japanese Americans were able to clear the elaborate process and earn the right to live in relative freedom outside the camps. As with all relocation centers, the Arkansas camps were mainly able to resettle only the young, college-bound, well-educated, or well-connected Japanese Americans.
Arkansas was neither receptive to nor supportive of the Japanese Americans being incarcerated in the state. Local residents were often hostile to those imprisoned in the camps for reasons beyond the race of the internees. The camps often had amenities that were lacking in the poor, Delta towns that surrounded them: electricity, locally grown food, and more. During their period of confinement, many unfounded and malicious accusations of “coddling,” food hoarding, labor strikes, and disloyalty were aimed at the camps by state political leaders. Governor Homer Adkins and others also resented and feared the Japanese American prisoners. On February 13, 1943, the Arkansas state legislature passed the Alien Land Act “to prohibit any Japanese, citizen or alien, from purchasing or owning land in Arkansas.” This act was later ruled unconstitutional, and after the camps closed, several families remained in Arkansas, though all but one (that of Sam Yada) left within a year’s time to escape the system of peonage that was common for agricultural workers. Governor Adkins was particularly opposed to letting Japanese Americans attend college within the state, fearing that allowing such would pave the way to the integration of higher education in Arkansas. All Arkansas colleges turned away Japanese Americans save the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville (Johnson County), which allowed one Nisei male to enroll in the autumn of 1945, as the war was coming to a close.
Though the state had little use for them, some Japanese Americans found that the federal government wanted them. The same month that Arkansas’s government passed the Alien Land Act, the U.S. Army initiated a forced loyalty and draft program targeting Japanese American prisoners; this program pulled 326 youth from the Rohwer and Jerome camps. Those of age for military service were often conflicted when it came to the possibility of serving. Some were eager for the opportunity to prove themselves to the country of their birth, while others were resentful of being asked to sacrifice their time, and possibly their lives, on behalf of the country that had imprisoned them without cause.
Rohwer was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 30, 1974. Today, only a few monuments—a small cemetery at Rohwer and a monument to Japanese American soldiers who died fighting for America in World War II—and a few concrete foundations remain. An internment camp museum opened in McGehee (Desha County) in 2013.
For additional information:
Allbritton, Nicole Ashley. “The Women of Japanese-American Internment, with Emphasis on Rohwer and Jerome.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2010.
Anderson, William G. “Early Reaction in Arkansas to the Relocation of Japanese in the State.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 23 (Autumn 1964): 196–211.
Bearden, Russell E. “The False Rumor of Tuesday: Arkansas’s Internment of Japanese-Americans.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 41 (Winter 1982) 327–339.
———. “Life Inside Arkansas’s Japanese American Relocation Centers.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 47 (Summer 1989): 170–196.
Cashion, Scott. “Actions Speak Louder than Words… Sometimes: Reactions to the Wartime Evacuation and Internment of Japanese-Americans at Rohwer and Jerome.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2006.
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co. Inc., 1981.
Howard, John. Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in WWII Arkansas. http://www.ualr.edu/lifeinterrupted/ (accessed January 14, 2014).
Moss, Dori Felice. “Strangers in Their Own Land: A Cultural History of Japanese American Internment Camps in Arkansas, 1942–1945.” MA thesis, Georgia State University, 2007.
Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center. http://rohwer.astate.edu/ (accessed January 8, 2014).
Schiffer, Vivienne. “Legacies & Lunch: Camp Nine.” October 5, 2011. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas. Audio online at Butler Center AV/AR Audio Video Collection: Vivienne Schiffer Lecture (accessed May 8, 2012).
Smith, C. Calvin. “The Response of Arkansas to Prisoners of War and Japanese Americans in Arkansas, 1942–1945.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 53 (Autumn 1994): 340–364.
Time of Fear. VHS, DVD. PBS Home Video, 2004.
Twyford, Holly Feltman. “Nisei in Arkansas: The Plight of Japanese American Youths in the Arkansas Internment Camps of World War II.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 1993.
Ward, Jason Morgan. “‘No Jap Crow’: Japanese Americans Encounter the World War II South.” Journal of Southern History 73( February 2007): 75–104.
WWII Japanese American Internment Museum. McGehee, Arkansas. http://rohwer.astate.edu/plan-your-visit/museum/ (accessed January 8, 2014).
Yahata, Craig, and Robert Horsting, directors. Citizen Tanouye. DVD. Hashi Pictures, 2005. http://www.citizentanouye.com/ (accessed April 28, 2015).
Russell E. Bearden
White Hall, Arkansas
Last Updated 4/28/2015
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