On June 2, 1942, simultaneous announcements were made — in San Francisco by Lt. Gen. J.L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command and the Fourth Army, and in Little Rock by Gov. Homer Adkins — that 10,000 “Japanese and persons of Japanese descent” would be relocated from the West Coast to Desha County, Arkansas.
C. Calvin Smith, writing for The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, notes that “on the West Coast racial prejudice against non-whites, especially Japanese, had characterized American attitudes for over a century before World War II. These prejudices were inflamed by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor” in December 1941.
Americans were afraid of a Japanese invasion and viewed the Japanese population in the United States, most of whom lived on the West Coast, as “potential spies and saboteurs,” according to the Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the secretary of war power to designate military areas from which “any or all persons may be excluded.”
Executive Order 9102 followed on March 18, under which a civilian agency, the War Relocation Authority, was created for the relocation, maintenance and supervision of excluded persons; the wording didn’t specify nationality.
On June 3, the Arkansas Gazette’s Page 1 reported the site in Arkansas that had been chosen for one of the 10 U.S. “reception centers” that would hold Japanese evacuees who had already been removed from their homes and were waiting in “assembly centers.” Owned by the Farm Security Administration, the 10,000-12,000 acres of “tax-delinquent” land near McGehee needed clearing, leveling and drainage. The area came to be known as the Rohwer Relocation Camp.
The Gazette edition noted that Adkins, who, Smith writes, had once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, consented to the relocation because the federal government guaranteed that the camp would be under military guard, that the evacuees would not be permitted to compete with local labor, and that they would be removed after the war.
The Gazette reported that, as of the 1940 census, only 10 people of Japanese descent lived in Arkansas, but more than 16,000 would be held in Arkansas, split between Rohwer and Jerome relocation centers, the latter in Chicot and Drew counties.
Construction at Rohwer began in July 1942 and continued into January 1943, and its buildings were not finished when the internees began arriving Sept. 18, 1942.
The encyclopedia notes that the “tarpapered, A-framed buildings arranged into specifically numbered blocks” covered 500 acres and had thin walls, and “each block was designed to accommodate around 300 people in ten to fourteen residential barracks, with each barrack (20’x120’) divided into six apartments for Japanese American families.” The camp was surrounded by barbed wire with strategically placed guard towers.
At its peak, Rohwer held 8,475 people, 64% of whom were American citizens. The Gazette had originally estimated that only a third of the people of Japanese descent were held there would be citizens.
The Rohwer camp closed on Nov. 30, 1945.
In 1974, the Rohwer camp cemetery, which is all that is left of the camp, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
— Jeanne Lewis
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