Sunday, June 23, 2024


We pass by remnants of our past every day, some are visible and some are nearly hidden. It's easy to drive through Rohwer in southeast Arkansas and miss the sign leading down a dusty dirt road into a field of soybeans. It would be easy to not realize what happened here, eighty years ago.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government established the War Relocation Authority for the purpose of "relocation, maintenance, and supervision" of the Japanese American population along the West Coast. This meant that thousands of people were uprooted from their homes and forced to live in "relocation centers." Ten locations were chosen by the WRA, with two of those being in Arkansas. One was in the small town of Jerome. And the other was in Rohwer, along Highway 1. 

The Rowher Relocation Center opened in 1942. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, it "eventually became 500 acres of tarpapered, A-framed buildings arranged into specifically numbered blocks. Each block was designed to accommodate around 300 people in ten to fourteen residential barracks, with each barrack (20’x120′) divided into four to six apartments for Japanese American families. Each block also consisted of a mess hall building, a recreational barrack, a laundry, and a communal latrine. The residential buildings were without plumbing or running water, and the buildings were heated during the winter months by wood or coal stoves. The camp also had an administrative section or block of buildings to handle camp operations, a military police section, a hospital section, a warehouse and factory section, a residential section of barracks for WRA personnel, barracks for schools, and auxiliary buildings for such things as canteens, motion pictures, gymnasiums, auditoriums, motor pools, and fire stations. The camp itself was surrounded by barbed wire or heavily wooded areas with guard towers situated at strategic areas and guarded by a small military contingent." At its peak, the camp had a population of 8,475 people. Among that number was George Takei of Star Trek fame, who lived there in 1942.

Driving through Rohwer now, you would never guess that there was once a massive camp here. The most prominent and well-preserved remnant of the relocation center is a small cemetery, which contains the graves of 24 people who died here. 



In 1945, two concrete markers were also built by the cemetery. The first is dedicated to all who died while they were at the camp. The monument "consists of a square base with decorative carving and urns at the four corners. The base supports a tall obelisk with a globe and eagle on top. The base has inscribed floral patterns, and a star and circle alternately at the four corners. Decorative carvings and inscriptions in Japanese and English adorn the obelisk on all four sides. Of particular beauty are the egret and the peacock on the south face, which stand beneath a tree branch and a stylized rising sun. The American eagle beneath the star on the east face stands as a silent testimonial to the patriotism of Japanese Americans." 


The other monument was also built in 1945, and is shaped like a tank. It honors the camp residents who volunteered, and died, to fight for the US Army in France and Italy during the war. Thirty-one soldiers from Rowher died in battle, and their names are listed on the memorial.




There isn't much left of the camp now. The camp closed in 1945, and all of the buildings were torn down - the barracks, the mess hall, the school, the guard towers. The land was reverted back into agricultural use, the locations of the former buildings were lost under the rows of cotton and soybeans.


I've been wanting to go back and visit this spot for several years. My grandmother grew up in the nearby town of Watson, and actually worked at the Rohwer camp during the war. Like a lot of places in the Delta, the area was hit hard by the Great Flood in 1927, followed by the Great Depression and the War. The two camps were one of the few places that were hiring people, and she needed a way to support herself while my Grandfather was stationed overseas with the Navy. She told a few stories about what it was like working there, but I can't remember the details. She passed away in 2006, at the age of 90. 

While working on this post last night I did a Google search and ended up finding a document that was scanned by a library in California. It includes a bunch of personal narratives of people employed by the War Relocation Center, including one written by my grandmother in 1945. She wrote that she started working at Rohwer in February of 1945, and was a File Clerk. The office handled the incoming and outgoing mail, along with telegrams and teletypes. After a few months she was promoted to Office Manager. In the office they had some of the Japanese internees working with them, who at the time were called "evacuees." 

In the narrative, she wrote: "One evacuee girl operated the teletype, one operated the telegraph machine and the other helped with the sorting, reading and routing of all incoming mail, also coding and filing copies of all outgoing mail. All three girls acted as interpreters when needed." Later she wrote "My work at the center has been little different from what it would have been with any other government agency except for the fact that evacuee help was used. The evacuee workers who assisted me were very cooperative and efficient. My relations with them were always friendly." 

The narrative ends with her writing: "I have enjoyed my work with the WRA and had planned to work until the closing of the center, but due to the fact that my husband has returned from overseas and is receiving a discharge from the Navy, I am leaving government employment for the time being."

The only other remnant of the camp that still remains is this smokestack, which was once part of the hospital. It seems to be forgotten, lost amid overgrown brush and vines. 


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