Against their will

442 regimental combat team memorial at rohwer relocation center

This is the front view of the “tank” memorial at the Rohwer War Relocation Center Cemetery, a national historic landmark. The masonry edifice was created to remember fallen members of the 442 Regimental Combat Team who were residents of the Rohwer War Relocation Center.

memorials at rohwer relocation center

Click the pic to see more pix and information on Japanese relocation

In 1942, the tiny Arkansas towns of Jerome and Rowher in southeast Arkansas zoomed from close to the bottom of the state population list to number four and five. Jerome, at 142, added 8,497 residents, while Rohwer at 102, added 8,475. None of the new residents voluntarily abandoned their California residences to become denizens of LA (lower Arkansas). Before we traipse forward with this story, check out the where the story started on the Photo of the Week page at Corndancer dot-com where you will find more pictures and info on the heroes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

These non-volunteers were to the person, of Japanese descent. They were subject to Executive Order No. 9066 issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. Without going into gory detail, the order mandated that all persons of Japanese descent would sell or give away all of their possessions save a few items of clothing and personal items and be prepared to reside in assembly areas while a number of “War Relocation Centers” in remote, inland locations were being hastily prepared for their arrival.

Painting in Rohwer Jerome relocation center museum

For the most part, there was a lot of self sufficiency in the communities. Support for the non-volunteer communities came from within, since the population included butchers, bakers, cooks, radio repairmen, sign painters, doctors, lawyers, merchants and more, including the artist who painted this view of the guard towers at the Jerome Center. Among other things, the residents were excellent gardeners. The painting is part and parcel of the collection of relocation memorabilia in the Jerome-Rohwer Relocation Museum and Information Center at McGehee, Arkansas.

The assembly areas were cobbled together of everything from quickly constructed shacks and tents, to the smelly horse stalls of the Santa Anita race track. That was bad and things were not going to get much better. The camps consisted of tar paper covered barracks which held five families, communal bath facilities, a mess hall and other trappings of a small captive community.

Memorial at Rohwer Relocation Cemetery

The Rohwer Cemetery includes this masonry memorial erected in 1944 to honor center residents who died during their stay.

When the relocation centers were deemed ready for occupancy, these 16,972 new Arkansas residents were loaded on passenger trains bound for LA. The trip would take three days and four nights during which no one was allowed to leave the train. Only one bag per person was permissible for personal items.

Bill Clinton presenting medal of freedom to Fred T. Korematsu

There was one individual who absolutely refused to be relocated, Mr. Fred T. Korematsu. His protest failed in federal court and he was remanded to federal prison for the duration of the war and two years thereafter. Decades later, supporters pursuing his case uncovered prosecutorial chicanery which contributed to his incarceration. His conviction was overturned. On January 15, 1998, President Bill Clinton presented Mr. Korematsu with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Despite this cavalier treatment, residents of the Jerome and Rohwer camps became volunteer members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Together with their fellow members of the 5th US Army, they valiantly fought Germans in Italy and France during World War II on behalf of all of us, including those who created and facilitated their ill-conceived relocation. When all the dust settled, the 442nd was the most decorated Unites States Army unit in World War II.

Infant graves at Rohwer Relocation Cemetery

1942 and 1943, above all else, was not a good year for the Masakis, the Tasugis, and the Sanos. They all lost infants.

The insider’s view

George Takei, better known as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek television series, and his family were detainees at the Rohwer Center. He was active in bringing the Jerome-Rohwer Interpretive Museum and Information Center to fruition. He was a speaker at the dedication. While he was in Arkansas he granted interviews. The video below provides a sample of his observations as a child detainee and how his family was affected.

After the defeat of Germany in 1944, United States forces were amassing a sizeable number of German prisoners of war. Some self-appointed genius came up the idea of relocating the Japanese relocatees residing at Jerome and repopulate the facility with German POWs. The pseudo-genius’s leaders bought off on the concept. So for the second time, American families were uprooted and moved.

trucks moving detainee belongings from Jerome to rohwer

Trucks move detainees property from Jerome to Rohwer after the decision was made to house German POWs at Jerome.

The end of these American citizens’ confinement was as ignominious as the inaugural fiasco.  Officials gave residents $25 in cash and a bus ticket with the admonition that they could go anywhere. Anywhere that is, except where they were.

Since detainees returning to California were returning to nothing, Uncle Sam put up a park populated by small trailers to accommodate returning families with no where to go. Historians tell us that some stayed in these until their death. This was known as the Winona Housing

Since detainees returning to California were returning to nothing, Uncle Sam put up a park populated by small trailers to accommodate returning families with nowhere to go. Historians tell us that some stayed in these until their death. This was known as the Winona Housing project in Burbank, California.

Make no mistake: this was not “The Greatest Generation” that pulled off this debacle. At the time, they were teenagers and twenty-somethings fighting the war and keeping the wheels turning with the sweat of their brows. These American families, who just happen to be of Japanese descent are truly  members of “The Greatest Generation.”

This page in American history should have taught us all to do politics like carpenters cut wood: Measure twice. Cut once. The only problem is, getting ‘em to buy into the concept after the ballot boxes have closed.

Thanks for dropping by,

Joe Dempsey
Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind

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