Rohwer


US Gov Name Rohwer Relocation Center
Facility Type Concentration Camp
Administrative Agency War Relocation Authority
Location McGehee, Arkansas (33.7500 lat, -91.2667 lng)
Date Opened September 18, 1942
Date Closed November 30, 1945
Population Description Held people from Los Angeles and San Joaquin, California; incarcerees endured a three-day train ride to Arkansas.
General Description Located at 140 feet of elevation in Desha County in southeastern Arkansas, 110 miles southeast of Little Rock and 11 miles north of McGehee. The 10,161 acres of wooded swampland were in an impoverished area 27 miles north of the Jerome concentration camp. The Mississippi River is 5 miles to the east. Summers are hot and humid, with chiggers and mosquitoes adding to the discomfort. The site had severe drainage problems; about half of the site was under swampy water during the spring.
Peak Population 8,475 (1943-03-11)
National Park Service Info

The euphemistically named "Rohwer Relocation Center" in Arkansas was one of ten concentration camps administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to house Japanese Americans forcibly removed from the West Coast during World War II. Along with the nearby Jerome camp, Rohwer was the easternmost of the WRA camps, and they were the only ones located in the Jim Crow South.

Background[edit]

The Rohwer site is located in southeastern Arkansas, in Desha County, twelve miles northeast of McGehee, 110 miles southeast of Little Rock, and just 27 miles from the Rohwer camp. The heavily forested and swampy marshland was part of the Mississippi River flood plain—the river itself flowed five miles to the east—and the land had been purchased by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s from tax delinquent landowners who had been unable to clear and drain it. Largely abandoned subsequently, the WRA acquired the 10,161 acre parcel in 1942. Supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Linebarger-Senne Construction Company was contracted to build the camp at cost of $4.8 million.[1]

Due in part to the arduous labor required to clear and drain the site, the camp was late to open and was still largely unfinished when the first inmates began to arrive from the Santa Anita and Stockton Assembly Centers. As at many of the other camps, these early arrivals set to work finishing the building of their own prisons.

Arkansas Governor Homer Adkins, a former Ku Klux Klan member, opposed the building of the camp in his state and agreed only after being assured by WRA Director Milton Eisenhower that the incarcerated Japanese Americans would be held under armed guard by white guards and that they would be removed from the state after the war. Adkins supported unsuccessful legislation that would have barred Asian Americans—including American citizens—from owning land and successfully banned Japanese Americans from leaving camp for work in the state or from attending any of the colleges in the state.[2]

Concentration Camp[edit]

Camp Geography, Population, and Administration[edit]

The main residential area of the camp consisted of about 500 acres (about one square mile) that were surrounded by barbed wire fences and eight guard towers. As with other camps, the inmates were housed in "apartments" that were partitioned sections of 20' by 120' barracks. The barracks were arranged in groups of twelve that were called "blocks," with each block housing between 250 and 300 individuals. Each of the 36 residential blocks had communal showers, toilets, and laundry facilities along with a mess hall. Camp wide institutions such as schools, hospitals, and administrative offices were located in barracks set aside for that purpose. External security—including manning the guard towers—was provided by the army's 334th Military Police Company; internal security was handled by WRA's police force, consisting of five white administrators and around 50 unarmed inmates.[3]

Rohwer was located in a heavily forested and swampy area prone to humid weather, heavy rains, mud, and the faunas typically found in such locales, including various types of poisonous snakes and mosquitoes. Former inmate Betty Matsuo told the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that

When the rains came in Rohwer, we could not leave our quarters. The water stagnated at the front steps. . . . The mosquitos that festered there were horrible, and the authorities never had enough quinine for sickness . . . Rohwer was a living nightmare.[4]

In addition to being uncomfortable, the climate and mosquitoes contributed to the spread of disease.

Rohwer's population came mostly from California and included both urban denizens from the Los Angeles area and people from smaller towns and rural areas of San Joaquin County.

The WRA mostly assigned local bureaucrats to the top administrative positions at Jerome. Camp Director Ray D. Johnson was 44 year old native of Cushman, Arkansas, who had worked for the Farm Security Administration. His top deputies included James F. Rains as operations division head, Francis R. Mangham as chief of administrative management, and Joseph B. Hunter as head of community management. Hunter had spent six years as a missionary in Manchuria and Japan was the presumed "Japanese" expert on the staff. The project attorney was Jack Curtis and the reports officer was Austin Smith, Jr.[5]

Life in Camp: Eating, Sleeping, Learning, and Playing[edit]

Life was communal and regimented. Meals were taken in mess halls at designated times, disturbing traditional family units as children and adults alike soon took to eating with friends and peers rather than family. Privacy was scarce, both in the communal toilets that lacked dividers and in the barracks themselves where the partitions between "apartments" did not go all the way to the roof. Within each "apartment," families were issued a cot, mattress, and blankets which were illuminated by a single light bulb. Other furniture would have to be constructed by the inmates out of scrap lumber; as a result, scrap lumber—and even nails—became cherished items. (See Arts and crafts in camp.)

Ever conscious of not being perceived as "coddling" the inmates, the WRA made sure that they spent less on inmate meals than the forty-five cents per person per day allotted for American soldiers, averaging thirty-seven cents for the inmates. Food rations were augmented by agricultural cultivation at the camp. Utilizing a special irrigation system that drew water from a nearby bayou, Rohwer produced 102 different agricultural products totaling over 1.2 million pounds in 1943 alone. Surplus vegetables from Rohwer were even shipped to nearby Camp Robinson and to the state veteran's hospital in Little Rock.[6]

One of the ways that inmates were able to augment their diets—as well as acquire other goods and services not provided by the authorities—was through the establishment of a co-op. Run by the inmates with the cooperation of the WRA, the co-op was a non-profit operation that ran camp dry goods stores, dry cleaning, beauty salons, movie screenings and much more, a total of twenty service departments. From an initial $250 investment, the Rohwer co-op grew to encompass nearly $100,000 in total assets by September 1944.[7]

As at other camps, a high percentage of the population was made up of school-age children, and K–12 schools and adult classes were instituted. Rohwer's schools didn't open until November 9, 1942, and even then, chairs did not appear for weeks and other supplies and equipment for months. Nonetheless, some 2,017 students attended Rohwer's schools, taught by 87 teachers. WRA efforts to hire white teachers from the local community ran into a roadblock when it was discovered that the federal wage scale—due in part to the year round schedule and the arduous conditions at the camp schools—was more than twice the average salary of Arkansas teachers, leading to charges the Arkansas' students would be shortchanged by teachers flocking to teach in the concentration camps. (Their salary was also more than seven times what inmate teachers received.) The WRA agreed to seek permission from a school before approaching teachers and to limiting itself to hiring two teachers from any one school district. Despite the high salaries, Rohwer still could not fill its quota of teachers.[8]

With time on their hands, various recreational activities took on great importance for Rohwer denizens. Sports were a popular activity. Baseball, basketball, and football leagues were among the most popular both for participants and spectators. The most popular of the camp's 32 softball teams drew crowds of up to 2,000, including inmates and WRA staff alike. Up to 5,000 spectators—more than half of the camp's population—attended engei-kai (variety shows) put on by the Issei Recreation Department, which toured different blocks in the camp over the course of several days. (See Music in camp.)[9] Rohwer was also known for its arts and crafts programs, in particular for weaving and for the collection and display of kobu. The latter—natural wood formations there were polished and mounted for display—was, according to Allen H. Eaton, an "almost exclusive product of Rohwer." [10]

The relative proximity of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi starting in May of 1943 introduced another recreational element to the Jerome population. Sports competitions between the men of the 442nd and teams from Jerome and Rohwer took place, with baseball games at the camps playing a key role in easing tensions between the Nisei "Buddhaheads" from Hawai'i and the "kotonks" from the continental U.S. Groups of women at Jerome and Rohwer were also bussed to Camp Shelby (a ten hour bus ride) to take part in what became bi-monthly dances with the Nisei men of the 442nd. The reaction to these dances by the women was mixed, with reports of rough treatment by some of the men on one hand and enjoyment of the skewed gender ratio and the amount of attention each woman received on the other. USO facilities were also set up at Jerome and Rohwer for visiting Nisei troops.[11]

The Rohwer Outpost, the camp's newspaper, was published twice a week and kept inmates abreast of what was happening at the camp. The Outpost also had a four page Japanese language supplement called the Jiho that included translations of articles from the Outpost. A cartoon character named Lil Dan'l, created by artist George Akimoto, graced the pages of the Outpost and became the camp mascot. In addition to the newspaper, an Issei inmate named C. Sumida went from block to block with the approval of the administration to report on news and announcements to the Japanese speakers.[12]

Employment and Encounters with the Outside[edit]

As at other camps, a large percentage of the adult population took on jobs with the WRA helping the camp to operate, whether as mess hall workers, hospital workers, teachers, and the like, on the artificially low WRA wage scale ($12/$16/$19 per month) designed to insure that inmates would never be paid more than soldiers, but creating large inequalities between inmate and white workers doing the same work. As at Jerome, many Rohwer inmates were dispatched into the surrounding forest to cut wood to heat the camp, work that was particularly dangerous and arduous. Tragedy struck on January 19, 1943, when a falling tree killed inmate Seizo Imada.[13]

The danger went beyond falling trees. On November 17, 1942, three inmates working in the woods outside the camp were fired at by a local deer hunter who claimed that he thought the men were trying to escape—this despite the presence of a Caucasian supervisor. Two of men were wounded by the buckshot. Hoping to avoid stirring up racial tensions, the WRA pushed to avoid vigorous prosecution, and the shooter ended up not doing any jail time and paying only a small fine. Earlier that month, a guard for a construction company at Rohwer wounded three inmate boys with birdshot when he claimed they were throwing rocks at him.[14]

After the loyalty questionnaire and segregation, the WRA decided to shut down the Jerome camp at the end of June, 1944, with many of the inmates there transferred to Rohwer. Rohwer remained open until November 30, 1945, making it the last WRA camp to close other than the "Segregation Center" at Tule Lake.

Prominent inmates at Rohwer included poet Janice Mirikitani, actor George Takei, and activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga.

After the War[edit]

After the war, the Surplus War Property Administration sold off the land to local farmers at public auction for $5 to $10 per acre. 120 acres of the camp property went to a local school district, with the remaining land sold to farmers or veterans.

The site today is a combination of farmland, housing, and the Desha Central High School. Various features from the camp remain, most notably the concrete water reservoir and the hospital boiler room smokestack. The camp cemetery includes headstones from the camp period as well as two monuments erected by inmates at the time: a tank shaped memorial to members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who were killed in action and a monument to those killed in Rohwer. Two more recent markers were added: a monument to Japanese American soldiers from Rohwer killed in action during World War II and a marker noting the site's designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1992.[15] Today, a self-guided walking tour exists at the site and includes interpretive kiosks—including one that is a model of a guard tower—along with maps and signage.[16]

In 2004, the Japanese American National Museum and the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, partnered on the Life Interrupted project, featuring a conference, exhibition, website, and other elements. In 2013, the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum opened in McGehee, Arkansas, and with Arkansas State University, it debuted the Rohwer Heritage Site website (http://rohwer.astate.edu/) later that year.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information[edit]

Anderson, William C. "Early Reaction in Arkansas to the Relocation of Japanese in the State." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 23 (Autumn 1964): 195-211.

Bearden, Russell. "The False Rumor of Tuesday: Arkansas's Internment of Japanese-Americans." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 41.4 (1982): 327-39.[Brief overview of life at Rohwer and Jerome; the title refers to an administration sponsored celebration of the end of the war on Tuesday, August 14, 1945 which attracted little inmate response.]

__________. "Life Inside Arkansas's Japanese-American Relocation Centers." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 68 (Summer 1989): 169-96. [Overview of life at Rohwer and Jerome.]

__________. "Rohwer Relocation Center" in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=369.

Burton, Jeffery F., Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites. Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, 1999, 2000. Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. The Rohwer section of 2000 version accessible online at http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/anthropology74/ce11.htm.

Friedlander, Jay. "Journalism Behind Barbed Wire, 1942-1944: An Arkansas Relocation Center Newspaper." Journalism Quarterly 62.2 (Summer 1985): 243-46.

Howard, John. Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Japanese American National Museum. Life Interrupted: Reunion and Remembrance in Arkansas, 2006. [DVD compilation of short videos produced for the 2004 conference in Little Rock.]

Johnston, Ray D. "Personal Narrative of Ray D. Johnston, Project Director, Rohwer Relocation Center." February, 1946. http://www.oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt2c600243&brand=oac4&doc.view=entire_text.

"Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in WW II Arkansas." http://www.ualr.edu/lifeinterrupted/html/ [Website on the Arkansas camps by the University of Arkansas, Little Rock and the Japanese American National Museum.]

Moss, Dori Felice. "Strangers in their Own Land: A Cultural History of Japanese American Internment Camps in Arkansas 1942–1945." M.A. Thesis, Georgia State University, 2007. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.gsu.edu/communication_theses/32/.

Rohwer Heritage Site website, http://rohwer.astate.edu/.

Smith, C. Calvin. War and Wartime Changes: The Transformation of Arkansas, 1940-1945. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986. [Includes a chapter on the WRA camps in Arkansas and the local reaction to them.]

Vickers, Ruth P. "Japanese-American Relocation." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 10 (Summer 1951): 168-76.

Ward, Jason Morgan. "'No Jap Crow': Japanese Americans Encounter the World War II South." The Journal of Southern History 73.1 (Feb. 2007): 75–104.

Yumiba, Carole Katsuko. "An Educational History of the War Relocation Centers at Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas, 1942-1945." Diss., University of Southern California, 1979.

Ziegler, Jan Fielder. The Schooling of Japanese American Children at Relocation Centers during World War II: Miss Mabel Jamison and Her Teaching of Art at Rohwer, Arkansas. Studies in American History Vol. 57. Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2005.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Russell Bearden, "Life Inside Arkansas's Japanese-American Relocation Centers," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 68 (Summer 1989), 170; Jason Morgan Ward, "'No Jap Crow': Japanese Americans Encounter the World War II South," The Journal of Southern History 73.1 (Feb. 2007), 80; Jeffery F. Burton, Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, 1999, 2000), accessed online on 8/24/12 at http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/anthropology74/ce11.htm.
  2. Ward, "'No Jap Crow,'" 81; Patrick G. Williams, "Homer Martin Adkins (1890–1964), The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, accessed on 8/23/12 at http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=84.
  3. Bearden, "Life Inside," 179.
  4. Bearden, "Life Inside," 192; Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1982), 162.
  5. Bearden, "Life Inside," 173–74.
  6. Bearden, "Life Inside," 184–85; John Howard, Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 177.
  7. John Howard, Concentration Camps, 73–80; Bearden, "Life Inside," 183.
  8. Thomas James, Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans, 1942-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 59; Bearden, "Life Inside," 187–89.
  9. Howard, Concentration Camps, 81–84; Bearden, "Life Inside," 193; Ruth P. Vickers, "Japanese-American Relocation" Arkansas Historical Quarterly 10 (Summer 1951), 173–74.
  10. Allen H. Eaton, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps (New York: Harper, 1952), 154.
  11. Howard, Concentration Camps, 82–84, 126, 135–40.
  12. Bearden, "Life Inside," 195–96.
  13. Howard, Concentration Camps, 183–84.
  14. Ward, "'No Jap Crow,'" 85–86; Howard, Concentration Camps, 132–33.
  15. Burton, et al., Confinement and Ethnicity.
  16. See http://rohwer.astate.edu/plan-your-visit/virtual-tour/.