Arkansas museum looks at Japanese internment camp

  • Article by: MELANIE RADZICKI MCMANUS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 11:58 AM

A new museum details a chilling part of U.S. history, the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

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Tarpaper “relocation houses” have been preserved to show the living conditions of those who were detained during the war because of their Japanese heritage.

He was number 12832-C. At least according to the tag affixed to his pint-size, 5-year-old frame. Marched out of his comfortable Los Angeles home at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers, he and his parents and siblings were shipped off to a swampy patch of land in the sultry Arkansas Delta.

Their new home in Rohwer, a mere speck on the map, was much different from the one they had left in L.A. One of several “apartments” created inside a flimsy 20- by 120-foot tarpaper barracks, it had no plumbing or running water. Heat came from a tiny wood-burning stove; the latrine was two blocks away.

To shed light on the life this boy and others led, an oft-overlooked part of Arkansas and U.S. history, the Jerome-Rohwer Interpretive Museum & Visitor Center opened last year in McGehee, Ark.

Despite being far from home, the boy was happy enough. He was with his family, had food to eat and clothes to wear, and quickly adjusted to his new home. He caught polliwogs in the drainage ditches surrounding each residential block, delighting when they magically sprouted legs and turned into frogs. He doggedly tried to grab the wispy dragonflies that skimmed over the camp’s innumerable soggy patches, although they were much harder to nab than the polliwogs. He played games with his new friends. He saw his first hog.

The gun-toting soldiers a distant memory, his first inkling something wasn’t quite right about his new life came on Christmas Eve, when Santa reportedly was coming to visit. Little 12832-C was trembling with excitement until Santa ho-ho-ho’ed his way into the room, a bulging sack of presents in tow. The little boy’s heart sank.

“I immediately sensed something fishy,” he recalls. “I had seen Santa Claus before, and I knew what he looked like. He was a Caucasian, and had sparkly eyes and dimples. This man was Japanese. He was a fake.”

To make sure, he climbed up onto Santa’s lap and furtively poked him in the stomach. Instead of a soft, pudgy tummy, he felt newspaper crinkle. Yes, Santa was a fraud. “But then I thought, well, that’s understandable,” he says. “They won’t let Santa Claus in through those barbed-wire gates.”

An actor tells his tale

The little boy was George Takei, well-known for playing Lt. Hikaru Sulu in the 1960s hit television series “Star Trek.” Now 77, Takei spent several years of his childhood living in Japanese-American concentration camps, also called internment or relocation camps.

The U.S. government hastily created 10 such camps in a panic following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, fearing anyone of Japanese descent was a threat to national security. Some 120,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in the camps, the vast majority of whom were American citizens or legal residents

Eight of the internment camps were clustered in the western one-third of the contiguous United States on federal land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. When federal land became scarce in the West, the government looked to Arkansas, where it had land set aside for homesteaders. It was there, in the tiny towns of Rohwer and nearby Jerome, that the United States’ final two internment camps were built, eventually housing roughly 8,000 Japanese-Americans each.

The Jerome-Rohwer Interpretive Museum & Visitor Center is in McGehee, a town in between both camps. In its inaugural year, the museum hosted 2,300 visitors from 45 states and five countries. “It just blew us out of the water when we had this many people come, being open a year and with a town no larger than McGehee is,” says Susan Gallion, museum curator. McGehee has 4,000 residents.

Because the Japanese-American internment was rarely taught in history classes until recently, and the camps were concentrated in the West, many Americans aren’t aware of this dark chapter in U.S. history. Many people “do not know the injustices that these folks went through,” says Jack May, mayor of McGehee. “And that’s the reason we have this museum. To let people know.”

Moving exhibit at museum

McGehee’s renovated 1910 railroad depot houses the compact museum. Visitors can watch a 55-minute film about the camps, view camp artifacts and peruse books in a small lending library. The museum’s main feature, however, is the interpretive exhibit “Life Interrupted — Against Their Will,” which explores the 1940s history of the Rohwer and Jerome camps.

Adults assigned to Jerome-Rohwer had a choice: Farm the land to help make the camps self-sustaining, or work at a camp-assigned job. Professionals, such as physicians, could earn $19 per month, says Gallion, although most toiled for $12 per month at menial jobs, scrubbing tables in the mess hall or chopping down trees for firewood. Children were expected to attend the camp schools.

While many museum displays are largely informational, several are quite poignant. Like the binder of autobiographies, written by high school students imprisoned in the camps. One was penned by an internee whose parents were clearly proud to be U.S. citizens. “My birthplace was in Bloomington, California, on February 22, 1927,” he writes. “Because I was born on George Washington’s birthday, I was christened George Hiroshi Kobayashi.”

Outside the museum, a tidy Japanese garden pays homage to Japanese-Americans and serves as a meditation spot. May hopes to build a replica of one of the tarpaper barracks on an empty tract of land across the street, and perhaps a guard tower. In the meantime, those wishing to see the real deal can stroll down nearby 1st Street, home to the largest concentration of “relocation houses,” or barracks turned into homes. It’s easy to spot them due to their plain shapes and simplicity.

  • related content

  • The cemetery at the Rohwer Internment Camp is now a National Historic Landmark.

  • If you go

    Museum admission is free (100 S. Railroad St., McGehee, Ark.; 1-870-222-9168). The Rohwer cemetery is about 15 minutes from McGehee. More details at http://rohwer.astate.edu.

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