Driving Tour Will Tell World War II Story of Japanese-Americans in Arkansas

Tucked amid cotton fields and grain silos of Desha County, Arkansas, you'll find an unusual nod to the past: a small cemetery that honors Japanese Americans who died during World War II. The site is associated with the Rohwer Relocation Center, which from 1942 to 1945 was one of 10 concentration camps built by the U.S. government to house Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

Only two such camps were built in the South, at Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas. There, 16,000 Japanese Americans, many second-generation Americans, remained incarcerated for the duration of the war. Their story went largely untold, until now.

Next spring, visitors to this corner of the Arkansas Delta will be able to take a one-mile driving tour around the perimeter of the camp and learn what life was like here. Beth Wiedower, Arkansas Delta field director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Rural Heritage Development Initiative, has interviewed former internees, members of the Japanese-American Citizens League, staff at the Japanese American National Museum, and area residents to piece together a compelling audio narrative that will accompany visual panels. Push a button and you'll hear the familiar voice of actor and former Rohwer internee George Takei (Captain Sulu of Star Trek fame) tell their stories.

The 14 posts will be thematic and address topics such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 1066, life at camp, recreation, the outsiders' perspective, and so forth. The project is funded in part by the National Park Service Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant program.

In addition, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock received a $250,000 grant from the National Park Service to study and preserve the two stone monuments made by internees (such as the one shown here). These honor the Japanese-American soldiers who fought in Europe, as well as the 24 individuals who perished while at the camp. The Rohwer cemetery is one of only three Japanese-American internment camp cemeteries in the U.S.

“We want to make sure the existing resources — the cemetery and the camp's smokestack — are preserved,” says Wiedower. “But if we only preserve without putting it into context, then it is in vain. We must put this site into context or it's just a cemetery in a cotton field.”

The cemetery and smokestack are all that remains of the camp, which was located several miles outside of McGehee, Arkansas, and has been tended by county government for the past several decades. “That cemetery is the most powerful argument against government disrespecting U.S. citizens’ civil liberties,” says history professor Johanna Miller-Lewis, who directs the UALR Rohwer project. “The fact that it has been allowed to fall into decay is a tragedy.”

Rohwer was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 30, 1974, and gained National Historic Landmark status in 1992. Says Wiedower, “I've been on the project for the past six years and in the last two years there's been a shift in the minds of people. They want — and are willing now — to tell their stories.” With this new interpretation, Mid-Southerners will be listening.

For further reading about the Rohwer camp, see "Strangers in a Strange Land" in the November 2011 issue of Memphis magazine.

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