“. . . for all the Japanese-Americans who were part of the history of these [internment] camps we want to help share their history with the world.”
—Cindy Smith of the Arkansas State Parks, Recreation, and Travel Commission, quoted by Rachel Denton Freeze, editor, in the McGehee Times, March 13, 2013
Recently a press release was issued about the April 16 opening of the WWII Japanese American Internment Museum in my hometown of McGehee, Arkansas.
As a supposed security measure after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and other American military facilities in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, thousands of Japanese-Americans, most of them American citizens, were forced to leave their homes on the West Coast and were transported to ten internment camps in the interior of the United States.
Two of these camps, the only ones in the South, were located a few miles north and south of McGehee in the Mississippi River Delta. Until relatively recently, little was known or published about these camps and the effects of the forced removal on the lives of the Japanese-Americans involved in this mass eviction and containment.
Rosalie Gould, former mayor of McGehee, was instrumental in collecting and preserving many artifacts from the internees which make up the exhibits in the new museum depicting their daily lives far from home in an isolated and often hostile environment.
Here then is the press release which was published in the McGehee Times with a photo of the building in which the museum will be housed. This release will be followed by additional information and links to Web sites with interesting photos and videos about this almost unknown—or intentionally forgotten—incident in American history. The press release is set in italics for ease of identification.
Press Release on the Opening of the
WWII Japanese American Internment Museum
The McGehee Industrial Foundation announces the opening of the WWII Japanese American Internment Museum in April. It will house the exhibit “Against Their Will,” interpreting the history during World War II when the Japanese American population was moved from the West Coast to ten internment camps across the country.
Two of those camps, Jerome and Rohwer, were located in Southeast Arkansas. More than 17,000 Japanese American citizens were relocated to the two camps. Most returned to their homes following the war, and the U.S. government formally apologized in 1988.
While living in the camps, families were provided schools, hospitals, recreation and organizations. However, they were forced to leave behind their homes and jobs.
Actor and author George Takei (Star Trek, Celebrity Apprentice) moved with his family to the Rohwer camp when he was 5. Last summer wayside signage was installed at the memorial cemetery at Rohwer, with audio by George Takei. He is expected to attend the museum dedication, April 16, along with Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe.
Former McGehee mayor, Rosalie S. Gould, began a dream of embracing this history more than 30 years ago. Her friendships with returning former internees enhanced the awareness of this dark time in American history. Her vast collection of art, documents and memorabilia was donated to the Butler Center (Little Rock) in 2010.
The museum is located in the south end of the historic railroad depot, 100 S. Railroad Street, downtown McGehee. Landscaping was designed by the McGehee Beautification Committee. It will be open to visitors at no cost Tuesdays through Saturdays. For more information call 870-222-9168.
1 p.m. dedication
1:45 museum opens
3 p.m. museum closes
Guests encouraged to drive to Rohwer
3:30 dedication of signage & remarks at Rohwer Memorial site.
Arkansas State Parks, Recreation & Travel Commission
McGehee Times Article on the Preparation for the Opening of the Japanese American Internment Museum
On Wednesday, March 13, 2013, the McGehee Times published a follow-up article on the April 16 opening of the new World War II Japanese American Internment Museum.
In that article the writer, Rachel Denton Freeze, described some of the preparations being undertaken on the exhibit to be displayed in the museum. She notes that the exhibit, which tells the story of the Japanese-Americans confined in the camps, was originally a part of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s “Life Interrupted: Against Their Will.”
According to Rachel, the first Japanese-Americans arrived at the Rohwer camp in September 1942, which is the month in which my wife Marion was born a few miles south in the small town of Dermott, Arkansas. By November, the population of the camps in Rohwer and Jerome peaked with nearly 8,475.
“One of the Rohwer camp’s most famous internees, actor George Takei who first gained fame in the ‘Star Trek’ television series and movies as Sulu, is expected to be on hand for the museum dedication,” notes Rachel.
She goes on to quote Cindy Smith who states, “It’s important that the history of the Japanese-Americans is remembered and honored. . . . Not just for Mr. Takei, but for all the Japanese-Americans who were a part of the history of these camps. . . . We want to share their history with the world.”
“Takei’s visit alone with the network television coverage is expected to bring national attention to the new museum and the history of the relocation camps,” notes Rachel.
The collection of materials from the camp internees preserved by Rosalie Gould is “truly unmatched” and “unique” among the other relocation camps.
“We’re desperately trying to make contact with people from the area who have memorabilia they would like to share with us,” says Cindy. “We want to do more than just install this exhibit. . . . These stories [and other memorabilia and artifacts] are amazing and deserve to be shared with the world.”
Rachel notes that there are two books of historical fiction about the camps available to the public: Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer and The Red Kimono by Jan Morrill. For more information about these books, see the next section.
Rachel closes her article by stating that for information on the museum or dedication readers should contact Cindy Smith at (870) 222-8576 or Jeff Owyoung at (870) 222-2886. She points out that the museum also has a Facebook page which can be found under “WWII Japanese American Internment Museum.”
Links to Books and Videos about the
WWII Japanese American Internment Camps
To view a twenty-five-minute video titled “Singled Out” about the history and impact of the WWII Japanese American Internment Camps throughout the United States and especially the two at Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas, with comments from former internees about their experiences there, click here.
To view a very moving twelve-minute video titled “Relocation Arkansas” about the camps in Arkansas, especially the one at Rohwer near McGehee, click here. It features scenes of the flat Arkansas Delta, the cotton fields and cypress sloughs that surrounded the camp, and comments from Japanese-Americans who were confined there, as well as Arkansans Bill Clinton, former U.S. president and governor of Arkansas; officials of the programs and efforts to preserve the camps’ history; and Rosalie Gould, former mayor of McGehee, who was instrumental in preserving the artifacts of the camp and reviving interest in preserving them and the memory of the camps and their internees.
To view a video about the oral history of the camp at Rohwer, click here.
To view a seven-minute video interview with Japanese-American actor George Takei about his experience at the Rohwer camp and why he and his family were later sent to an even more restrictive camp in California as “enemy aliens,” click here.
To view a twenty-six-second panoramic view of the cemetery at the Rohwer Japanese-American Internment Camp, click here.
To visit a site from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture with information, photos, and links to sites about the Japanese relocation camps in Arkansas: click here.
To view a site of oral history titled “In Their Words” with more than a hundred hours of memories of Arkansans during World War II, click on the title.
To visit a site about the historical novel Camp Nine written by Rosalie Gould’s daughter Vivienne Schiffer based on the Rohwer WWII Japanese-American relocation camp, click here. To purchase the book from Amazon.com, click here.
To visit a site about the historical novel The Red Kimono by Jan Morrill, click on the title.
Addendum: Attribution and Personal
Reminiscences of the “Jap Houses”
For virtually all of the information and links in this post I am indebted to my McGehee High School classmate from the MHS Class of 1956 Pat Scavo, known then as Patsy McDermott and still called affectionately Patsy Mc. (See my earlier posts titled “My First Encounter with the Music of Elvis” and “Moments to Remember.”)
As noted in the videos above, after WWII the barracks and other buildings at the Rohwer relocation camp were either torn down or broken up and sold to local residents to be used as homes, school buildings, businesses, etc. Almost everyone from McGehee and the surrounding area, including Patsy Mc, my wife Marion, and I vividly recall these buildings—called “Jap houses”—many of which are still in use in the area. For example, in our school days many of our schoolmates lived in converted “Jap houses,” and the band room, cafeteria, outdoor classrooms, and other school buildings were barracks from the Rohwer camp.
Here is a statement from Patsy Mc whose father Loyd McDermott was principal of McGehee High School during our school days:
“My experiences living in the re-modeled barracks will be with me always. One of those houses is still standing in Arkansas City [our county seat on the Mississippi River just ten miles east of McGehee and a few miles southeast of the Rohwer camp].
“I really did not live in McGehee [immediately after the war], but when we returned in 1950 we were ‘given’ one of the houses behind the cafeteria as part of Dad’s salary. Other people lived there alongside of our house. I think the football building was also a barracks house.
“And then we moved to Arkansas City in 1954 and guess what? Another ‘re-location’ house. That one is still being used in AC.
“I remember also going to basketball games between McGehee and Desha Central [a school near the Rohwer camp], and they were played in the gymnasium that was left standing at the camp. There were murals [from the camp] all around the building above the bleachers.
“We just did not talk about it much, as a family or community. Maybe because it [the Japanese-American internment] was too ‘fresh.’”
My wife Marion, who was born in 1942 while her father was overseas in the U.S. Army, recalls reading the historical novel Camp Nine (see reference and link above) and the effect it had on her:
“I think you will enjoy the book. The author’s name is Vivienne Schiffer. She changes the names of the towns, but those of us familiar with the area can figure out what town she is talking about.
“It is very interesting. and I found it so unusual that I knew very little of the relocation center. I knew about the ‘Jap houses’ that were used around the school, but nothing really about what went on in Rohwer during the war. Of course, I was only three years old at the time and didn’t live in McGehee. Mother would come to McGehee from Florence to shop and visit her brother and sister.
“I remember Mother saying that one time she was in McGehee and they [camp officials] had brought the ‘Japs’ in [to town] on a bus to do some shopping. She had a very negative attitude about them. Of course at that very time my father was fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for those people and what negative reactions and comments they had to endure.”
Note: Earlier posts about Marion and her father Grover related to his military service in the South Pacific during WWII were titled “Facts about Marion Williams Peacock” and “The Passing of a Real Man.”
In the mid-1970s while we were living in McGehee for about a two-year period, Mari and I decided to drive out to Rohwer to visit the site of the Japanese-American relocation camp (as it was called then).
As we were leaving the camp site we were met by a Japanese-American couple from Chicago. They had driven down to Southeast Arkansas, a distance of about seven hundred miles, so the woman could visit the grave of her mother who had died during their incarceration there.
As the woman told us a bit about their experiences at the camp she began to weep because she lived so far away from the camp cemetery, and there was no one to care for her mother’s grave.
It was only after we got back to McGehee that I realized that I should have asked that woman’s name, address, and phone number and volunteered to care for her mother’s grave and send her regular updates and photos about it.
By then it was far too late because the couple had gone back to Chicago and had left no personal information.
Now every time I see anything about the camp I remember that incident and am filled with regret and remorse that I did not think to offer my services to that grieving woman. Maybe this blog post and the efforts now being made to preserve the memorabilia and artifacts of the camp will help to make up in some small way for my lack of thoughtfulness and kindness in those days so long ago when little or no attention was being paid to the camp or to the suffering of those who were affected by it.
Your Memories and Other Sources about the
WWII Japanese American Internment Camps in Arkansas
If you have any special memories or associations with the camps, the “Jap houses,” or the attitudes of the locals toward the Japanese-Americans in the camps, feel free to comment—briefly and respectfully—on them at the end of this post.
If you know of other sources of information on the Japanese-American internment camps in Southeast Arkansas, please provide them for interested readers.
Note: A post (or posts) on the Italian and German prisoner of war camps in Southeast Arkansas will be published later.