Ending the Silence

How one determined woman managed to keep alive the story of Japanese internment camps in Arkansas.



Editor’s note: In the November 2011 issue of Memphis magazine, staff writer Jane Schneider reports on her visit to the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, where a powerful exhibit of artifacts from these World War II camps, The Art of the Living: The Japanese American Creative Experience at Rohwer, is on display through Thanksgiving.

Back in the February 2003 of Memphis magazine, Ms. Schneider published “Ending the Silence,” a powerful piece that outlined the story of these camps and the lives of Japanese Americans incarcerated there, and the efforts that have been made in recent years to tell the full story of this shameful chapter in our history. We are happy to reprise this story in its entirety below.

The southeast corner of the Arkansas Delta isn’t a place you happen upon; you have to make a point to travel there. The region is served largely by two-lane roads that snake past more cotton gins and grain silos than towns. The places you do travel through — like Kelso, Back Gate, and McGehee — rarely top 5,000 souls. The Missouri-Pacific Railroad has long whistled through these parts, carrying great loads of timber and cotton south to New Orleans. But in fall of 1942, the trains carried a more unusual cargo: Japanese-American families from California, who, in response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, were relocated to interment camps in Rohwer and Jerome, Arkansas.

 Tucked away amid the back roads and bayous, the relocation centers were constructed and dismantled so quietly they scarcely left a trace on the land, or even in the memories of folks who lived nearby — but for one exception. To get there you must head north from McGehee, about 11 miles up State Highway 1. From There you must turn west, just past the white frame house perched atop an earthen mound. Travel down the gravel path that winds through stubbly cotton fields and under a glade of arching oaks and you’ll come to rest at a cemetery, which holds the remains of the Japanese citizens who died at Rohwer. There are 29 granite markers faded and moss-covered now, a tank-like monument, an obelisk topped by a globe, and an eagle that exhorts, “ May the people of Arkansas keep in beauty and reverence forever this ground where our bodies sleep.”

The military monument honors the 4,500 soldiers who fought with the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up mostly of Japanese Americans. It became the most decorated military unit of World War II.  Ironically, while these young men fought to defend the ideals of democracy, their families remained incarcerated by the U.S. government. There was no due process, no charges filed, not even a trial

In retrospect, the American Civil Liberties Union called it “the worst, single wholesale violation of the civil rights of Americans in our history.” For many years the stain on our nation’s past remained hidden and forgotten. Yet one woman could not forget.  Mabel Rose (Jameson) “Jamie” Vogel, a Little Rock native and teacher who would spend the last years of her life in Memphis, provided art instruction in Rohwer. Upon leaving, she kept a treasure trove of artwork and essays created by her students, giving some pieces to prestigious museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, but keeping some, too. Once in Memphis, she hoped her art collection might remain in the Mid-South to help tell a story that had gone largely unheard.

Last fall, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was awarded a $3 million grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to mount an exhibition that centers on Vogel’s collection, along with other exhibits on loan from The Japanese-American National Museum, a partner with UALR.  “Very little has been written about the Arkansas camps,” notes Johanna Miller, the chair of UALR’s history department and project coordinator. Her hope is that this exhibit will more fully tell Arkansas’ story.

To gain some insight into why camps like Rohwer were considered crucial to national security, it’s important to understand something of the pre-Cold War era. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, unleashed a wave of hysteria that swept across the nation, inciting anti-Japanese sentiments that had long been festering on the West Coast, particularly in California, where nearly 80 percent of the Japanese in the U.S. resided. There, many industrious Japanese had edged into the middle class, becoming prosperous as farmers and businessmen.  But because of anti–immigrant laws, they weren’t allowed to become U.S citizens, or own agricultural land (except through their children). They were perceived as a threat, both economically and politically, observes Lewis.

In response to increasing strident public opinion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942, authorizing the evacuation from the West Coast of all people of Japanese ancestry. It was an act of the War Relocation Authority justified as a “military necessity,” though of the 12,000 Japanese Americans affected, two-thirds were U.S. citizens by birth.

That spring, notices began appearing in Japanese neighborhoods, ordering residents to evacuate their homes and report to assembly centers, packing only “that which can be carried by the family or the individual.” Most families had less than two weeks to sell their property or store their furnishings.  Some assets were frozen. Thousands sold their belongings for a pittance or simply destroyed personal items too dear to sell.  The resulting loss in property and goods cost Japanese Americans an estimated $400 million.

Coming to Camp

It was a three-day train ride to Arkansas from the crowded assembly center at Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, California, where Yasumasa “Eddie” Inouye and his mother reported, following the FBI’s arrest of his father, Michimasa Inouye, a Japanese language teacher. Michimasa was sent to a prisoner of war camp at Lordsburg, New Mexico. Eddie’s family, along with 8,500 others, were temporarily housed in crudely built barracks and converted stables at the racetrack, where latrines served as bathrooms and the stench of manure clung to their clothes. While the Japanese lived at the assembly centers during the spring and summer of ’42, the WRA hastily established 10 interment camps, which were built in desolate, lonely regions of the West. The two centers in Rohwer and Jerome were the only ones located in the South. Once the permanent camps were completed — Rohwer on September 18, Jerome on Oct 6, 1942 — more than 17,000 Japanese boarded trains for their final destination: the Mississippi Delta, where they would remain incarcerated for the duration of the war.

 “I was thrilled by the fact that I was in for a train ride,” recalls Eddie Inouye, who turned age 7 that year. “However, the trains were packed like cattle cars . . . [and] there was no baggage car, so peoples’ belongings were stacked everywhere. . . . [it was] a long, uncomfortable trip” Rumors flew at the center about where they might be headed. Fearing a harsher climate, Eddie’s mother purchased heavy winter boots. They would go unused, as their train lurched eastward, toward the segregated South.

 “We feared being sent to the South because of the racial attitudes,” says Inouye, “but instead we had a good experience — better than in California.” In Arkansas, Lewis says, the Japanese were perceived and treated as whites. “People recognized them as Americans first, rather than Japanese.”  But anti-Japanese sentiment existed as well. Rohwer was referred to as “the Jap camp” by townspeople of neighboring McGehee. And the only internees to be shot at a camp were on work detail outside of Jerome when a tenant farmer, thinking they were trying to escape, opened fire and wounded two. He thought their white supervisor was aiding their escape, he told officials.

 The Rohwer Relocation Center lay 11 miles north of McGehee and 110 miles southeast of Little Rock. It was built on marshy land purchased from local farmers, along with public land meant for subsistence homesteads under the Farm Securities Administration. Each residential block had a dozen 20-by-120-foot wood-framed barracks covered with tar paper and divided into six units or rooms. A single room provided cramped living quarters for one family; the sparse supplies provided included a wood-burning stove, one cot per person, and three blankets per person. Camp residents shared communal bath and laundry facilities; meals were served family style in the mess hall.

 Inouye described his first glimpse of the camp in a letter to McGehee’s mayor, Rosalie Gould, in May 1991. “With childish curiosity, I peered out from the train window and what I saw was a neatly laid out camp . . . surrounded by barbed wire and there were guard towers at intervals along the perimeter with search lights. There were a group of young men who apparently arrived before us helping people off the train and we were loaded onto the back of a one–ton stake-bed truck and transported to the block which was to be my home for the duration.”

Jamie Vogel began working as an art teacher at Rohwer in 1943 when she was in her late 20’s. Her memory of the camp is stark.  “At first I was terrified and miserable . . . it was one of the most gosh-awful places in the world,” she told William Thomas of The Commercial Appeal in a June 1986 interview.  Her barracks were hot in the summer, drafty and cold in the winter, and through big cracks in the floor, Vogel often glimpsed the shadowy flutter of chickens as they scratched for bugs in the mud below.

For the Japanese, the marginal living conditions and the small indignities they had to endure were secondary to the sense of anger and betrayal they felt: “Then we got to the dump which we called thereafter our home,” an internee wrote in 1942. “Does God blame my bitterness toward America, the land of so called Democracy? Time did not ease the bitterness toward this injustice to my race. Did America put the Germans and Italians into camp like this? Since I’m in Arkansas and the people of California don’t want us Japanese, I would never, never go back. Where I will go after the war? I don’t know.”

Families made the best of their situation. Soon, discarded scraps of lumber and crates found new life as tables and rabbit traps. People grew vegetable and flower gardens, dug root cellars, raised hogs and chickens, and reeled in catfish from nearby canals. The recreation hall quickly became the camp’s central meeting place, offering church services, movies, Girl and Boy Scout meetings, craft classes, as well as sporting events like judo and boxing. Inouye remembers weekends when Japanese-American soldiers from Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where the 100th Battalion and the 442nd were stationed, would visit the camp’s U.S.O.

“I recall dances where they jitterbugged to music from a phonograph. In return, the soldiers would entertain us with Hawaiian music, since a large number of them were from Hawaii,” he writes. “I [also] remember the sad moments when the first casualty reports started to trickle into the camp.  Memorial services were held for the soldiers at Rohwer.”

At the school building, Vogel’s classroom held no chairs or desks. One of her students wrote, “The rough board-made benches in the New Rohwer School made me feel as if I were in the early days of history when the students had to sit on rugged benches and with little reference books to study on.  You’ll never know how I lost interest in school.”

Since the government didn’t supply art materials. Vogel spent her own money so her classes would have unbleached muslin and paints. Her students began creating art out of found objects too — painting on canvas, dungaree material, wood boards; making delicate carvings of birds and geishas from wood blocks, even boiling and stripping the bark from oddly shaped cyprus knees, then burnishing the gnarled stumps until they glowed. Students like Sumiye Neiro and Takashi Tokunaga wrote detailed autobiographies about their lives before the war — average, middle-class lives. Living and working at Rohwer, Vogel learned much about her students and the image that reflected back to her was of a people not very different from her own.

 “We had three men who’d been rated millionaires and a number were professionals. There were lawyers and teachers and artists. They worked at the camp for $12 to $19 a month.  Some Americans though they were coddling them. They were being fed on 31 cents a day apiece,” she told The Commercial Appeal.

While it took some time to understand the political reasoning behind the internment, Vogel came to realize the injustice. Says her sister, Crete Billingsley, who has lived most of her life in Memphis: “She felt internment was the wrong thing to do. She made real friends with the Japanese; many of them she corresponded with for the rest of her life.”

By 1944 men from the camps were transferred to other parts of the country for jobs, as part of the work-release program. After the war, family members followed, settling in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and St Louis. The WRA provided minimal assistance for evacuees: “$25 per person, train fare, and meals en route for those with less than $500 cash,” according to military records. As the camps closed, other Japanese had nowhere to go. They had lost their homes, they had lost their livelihoods, they had lost their faith in America.

Life After Rohwer

Jamie Vogel stayed on at the camp until Rohwer closed in the summer of ’45, then she packed up her artwork, and got on with her life. But like the Japanese, she never forgot.  “Everyone thought she was crazy to hold on to all that junk,” says Billingsley. “But she had to, she couldn’t part with it.”

Indeed Vogel wouldn’t part with it. She moved her collection to New York City, where she lived with her husband Herbert Vogel, a Harvard graduate whom she met and married at Rohwer, and later to the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, where she continued her teaching career, eventually becoming an art supervisor with the Fairview Park City School system. Once she retired and her husband passed away, Vogel moved back to Memphis in the ’80s to be closer to her sisters. Her so-called “junk” — a jumble of trunks and boxes that contained picture albums, student notebooks, paintings, and wood carvings — so completely filled one bedroom of her apartment that only a small pathway wound through the clutter, leading to a small clothes closet. But Vogel frequently invited guests to view the work.

“People who were interested in learning about the internment would go to her apartment and she would give informal talks and show the artwork that came from the camps,” says Billingsley. Yet it wasn’t until Vogel learned of the Smithsonian Institution’s plan to mount an exhibition examining the World war II-era camps that she began to consider sharing her collection with a wider audience.

“One reason we were interested in her material is because there was no [national] collection of this nature anywhere in the country when we started,” says Jennifer Jones, referring to the Smithsonian’s launch of the exhibit, “A More Perfect Union.” Jones worked as a researcher for the project, which was mounted by the National Museum of American History in October 1987 as part of the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. She’s now the assistant chair for the history of technology for the museum.

“This was a treasure trove of all different kinds of crafts as well as art. The breadth of the collection was unbelievable,” says Jones, who first visited Vogel’s East Memphis home in 1986 to examine the collection firsthand. “Who would think that a woman in her 20s who chose to be in the camps would hold on to so much?” After meeting with Jones, Vogel agreed to donate the 87 items from her collection to the Smithsonian and visited the exhibit with her sister, Crete, when it opened that fall.

Unlocking the Past

The Smithsonian’s appeal spurred Japanese-American families to forage through attics, basements, and barns in search of camp memorabilia. For many American-born children of the Issei generation (Japanese who immigrated to this country), the internment period of their parents remained a mystery.

 “Many older people went through their entire lives without talking about the experience because of the guilt and shame they felt about being interned,” notes Lewis. “The conspiracy of silence [among] Japanese Americans happened for so many years,” agrees Jones. The people are imbued with “a very stoic demeanor. You deal with an issue, you go through it, and you move on. It goes against the sensibilities of Japanese Americans to talk or complain about their lot. [Instead], you move on — you rebuild yourself.”

During the the 1980s, a federal commission investigated the wartime relocation and internment of civilians, determining that a grave injustice had been done and blamed it on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership,” not militarily necessity. The U.S. government offered an apology and redress payments: $20,000 to each Japanese American, for the losses they endured.

Telling the Arkansas Story

The camp experiences in Arkansas are often overlooked in the telling of the internment history, but Professor Lewis says the University of Arkansas’ exhibit, scheduled to open in the fall of 2004, will rectify that. Before Vogel died in 1994, she bequeathed the rest of her collection to Rosalee Gould, the former mayor of McGehee who shared Vogel’s interest in seeing the collection stay in Arkansas. Gould wants the collection to be housed in a place where its available to ordinary citizens. “I refuse to debate whether it’s right or wrong —  it happened”, notes Gould. “People like me need to see this, to see exactly what happened, so that it never happens again.”

Since 1992, Gould has opened her home to Japanese Americans who travel to McGehee to examine the artifacts, hoping to glimpse their own family history. Ironically, her husband’s father owned some of the land on which Rohwer was built, though Gould never learned of the camps until the early 80’s when she became mayor. She pushed for a museum, but her efforts were rebuffed by the American Legion and some local townspeople. “They were dead set against it,” she says.

She is pleased that UALR and the Japanese American National Museum, to which Vogel also donated several hundred items, are working together. The preservation project will include a series of historic exhibits, a retrospective of artist Henry Sugimoto’s work, a symposium, a reunion, and a documentary. In conjunction with the project, a website titled Life Interrupted was launched last month and includes camp history photographs.

While Arkansas has longed remained a historical footnote in the U.S. internment story, the remembrances that flow from those who lived at the two camps are finally being heard.  Thanks to Jamie Vogel, who chose not to forget — and in doing so, preserved an important chapter of American history.

To read more about the artwork created at Rohwer, go to "Strangers In a Strange Land," featured in the November issue of Memphis magazine.

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