Educator remembers camp children from World War II ‘relocation center’

By Wayne Bryan Published September 27, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
0 Comments A A Font Size
Wayne Bryan / Tri-Lakes Edition

Florrie Wakenight Lyle, 99, looks at a picture of the first third-grade class she taught at the Japanese-American internment camp in Jerome. She spoke at a meeting of the Saline County History and Heritage Society on Sept. 20 about her years teaching the children who were transported to Arkansas with their parents during World War II.

— For 22 years, Florrie Wakenight Lyle taught typing to young people at Benton High School. She remembers that the boys in her classes didn’t want to learn to type, for after all, they were male.

“They told me they would have secretaries who would do their typing for them, so they didn’t need to know how to type,” Lyle said.

As a teacher during the post-World War II years, and in the time of the military draft, Lyle had an answer ready for the boys who resisted her lessons.

“I said that when they go into the Army, if they know how to type, they will be needed for the paperwork, and it will keep them off the front lines,” she said. “Then most of them wanted to learn.”

Lyle was the guest speaker to a group of more than 40 local residents Sept. 20 at a meeting of the Saline County History and Heritage Society, but its members did not come to hear tales from her typing class. They wanted to hear about her job during World War II — she taught third grade for three years at the federal relocation center outside Jerome, in southeast Arkansas.

Seventy years ago, Florrie Wakenight was a young teacher in her hometown of Searcy, and her boyfriend, Tom Lyle of Pine Bluff, was working as a banker in Little Rock. The war had been under way for only a few months when her future husband suggested that the couple join a group that would operate an internment camp of Japanese-Americans being moved to Arkansas.

Lyle had her daughter, Linnie Lyle, open the talk about the camps to the society.

“Attempt to walk in the shoes of the Japanese-Americans before Pearl Harbor. The Great Depression was ending, and things were getting better,” Linnie read. “Then you are told you will have to leave. All you can take with you is one suitcase per person. You give away your pets and sell your home and car for pennies on the dollar. You have no ties to the emperor, but you are burning family pictures from Japan because you are ashamed of being connected with your heritage.”

Back in Searcy, Lyle and her banker boyfriend had their own motives for considering the new job.

“When the job came up, he thought we should try this so we could be closer together,” Lyle said.

Lyle went to work recruiting teachers.

“We needed a lot of them. We had all the grades for elementary school through high school,” she said.

In August 1942, Lyle and Tom moved to the camp, which was still being completed.

Two camps were built in the Arkansas Delta to hold the families coming from the west. The two Arkansas camps, in Jerome and Rohwer, were the last relocation centers built and the only internment facilities east of the Rockies for Japanese-American families. The camps were placed in Arkansas because the Delta region had an abundance of federal land and was relatively remote but still close enough to the rail lines used to transport the internees, according to the Life Interrupted history project at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“In November, they came in one train at a time with the blinds closed so they could not see where they were or where they had been,” Lyle said.

Years later, one of the children arriving on those trains, Ester Kinta Noguchi, who would be in Lyle’s class, wrote that her teacher was instrumental in getting warmer clothing for the evacuees who were coming from California and Hawaii in shorts and sandals.

In an email addressed to the Saline County gathering, Noguchi expressed her feelings for her third-grade teacher that she met inside the barbed-wire enclosure.

“I wanted to grow up to be like her, with her warmth and love without prejudice,” Noguchi wrote. “She was a model for me and all who knew her. I guess I followed in her footsteps. I also became a teacher.”

Noguchi is a college professor living in Hilo, Hawaii.

Lyle enjoyed her work and called her students “lovable,” she told the audience in Benton.

“They seemed so understanding of being there, and they so wanted to be part of this country. If flowers were blooming, they brought me flowers, and if they were sent any fruit, they shared with me,” Lyle said. “The children were very patriotic. They knew all the songs, like “America the Beautiful” and all the songs of the Army, Navy the Army Air Corps and the Marines.”

Those held at the camp lived in tarpaper buildings arranged in numbered blocks. Each block had 14 residential barracks with each one holding three families.

“The people built wooden walkways between the buildings to keep out of the Delta mud,” Linnie told the gathering.

The family barracks had no plumbing or running water. Each block of houses had a recreational building, a mess hall, a laundry building and a communal latrine, according to information presented by the Saline County History and Heritage Society.

“The children loved basketball,” Lyle said. “If they could find anything round enough to throw, they would start a game.”

Lyle had to be removed from the camp for a while when she came down with the mumps.

“They had to get me out of the camp and away from everyone,” she said. “They brought me to Little Rock, where my daddy took me home to Searcy. I was there for two weeks.”

She returned to the camp in Jerome that held as many as 8,497 people, including 2,483 school-age children. Lyle and Tom stayed at the camp until it closed in June, 30, 1944, but neither the couple nor the remaining residents went home. Some of the Japanese-Americans were transferred to the relocation center in Rohwer, 27 miles away, where as many as 8,475 Japanese-Americans were kept.

Tom and Lyle went to Arizona to work at another relocation center on the Gila River Apache Reservation until the end of the war.

“I hold him I would marry him and go there, if I got to see the Grand Canyon and Mexico, and if I could dig my big toe in the Pacific Ocean,” Lyle said. “I went to the Grand Canyon and to Mexico many times, but I never got to the Pacific.”

In 2005, when she was honored in Los Angeles by the Japanese-American Museum, Lyle and Noguchi made a trip to the beach and waded in the Pacific together.

When the last of the camps were closed, the Lyles moved to Benton in 1946, when Tom resumed his work in banking and Lyle joined the faculty at Benton High School.

After the couple left the camp in Jerome, it was used for German prisoners of war until the end of the war in Europe. More than 23,000 captured soldiers were distributed among 30 POW camps throughout Arkansas, including Jerome, during World War II.

At its peak, the Jerome camp had 610 buildings on the camp’s 500 acres. A water-treatment reservoir and a smokestack from the camp’s hospital were the only structures left in 2006, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill calling for the preservation of the Jerome site and the camp in Rohwer.

At the end of her presentation at the history society, Lyle had Linnie read a final statement: “One fact to remember is that they were Americans, like you and me. Their lives were interrupted, but they still served their country.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

To report abuse or misuse of this area please hit the "Suggest Removal" link in the comment to alert our online managers. Read our Terms of Use policy.

Subscribe Register Login

You must login to make comments.