Memories flood back for former residents of state's Japanese American internment camps

George Teraoka, who was interned at the Rohwer camp, writes his name on an American flag during a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee on Thursday. Teraoka turns 102 on May 13. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

McGEHEE -- Hachi Yasamura's shirt is simple, concise and loaded with history.

Against a distorted background of red numbers and letters that resemble computer code, white lettering reads: "Executive Order 9066" and "02.19.42."

On Thursday, Yasamura and roughly 200 other Japanese Americans rode three chartered buses to attend a ceremony held outside McGehee's old train depot.

The ceremony commemorated the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Japanese American Internment Museum. Its purpose: documenting the result of Executive Order 9066.

On Feb. 19, 1942, two months after Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the order, which resulted in the forced evacuation and imprisonment of more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American citizens to 10 "relocation centers" across the country.

Their crime? Looking like the enemy.

Two of the camps -- the last to open -- were located in Rohwer, a community located northeast of McGehee, and Jerome, Arkansas.

According to Richard Reeves' "Infamy," published in 2015, at their peak the relocation facilities held 120,313 Japanese Americans. Camp Jerome, at its peak, had a population of 8,497.

Yasamura, then only 5 years old, and eight members of his family were among those forced to leave their home in Lomita, Calif., and held at the Arkansas camps.

For Yasamura, now in his mid-80s and living in Sacramento, Thursday was his third time back to Arkansas.

Eighty years after his family's imprisonment, what draws Yasamura back to McGehee?

"What I'm more interested in doing is sharing our stories with the younger people," said Yasamura, who earlier had spoken with a group of McGehee schoolchildren.

As he talked, Yasamura sat in a chair underneath the depot's roof amid a swirl of activity and noise. Just a few feet to his right was the most famous survivor of the Arkansas internment camps, "Star Trek" actor George Takei.

While Takei signed copies of his graphic novel "They Called Us Enemy," Yasamura pulled a small binder out of his backpack.

Inside were photos taken at Rohwer and Jerome 80 years ago, plus some taken when Yasamura first returned to Arkansas in 1984 with his family in search of the campsite.

An older brother of Yasamura had managed to smuggle a camera into the camp.

"This is what Jerome looked look like back in the day," Yasamura said.

The black-and-white photos showed off the barracks-like structures that made up Jerome and the other relocation centers and which resembled prisoner of war camps.

According to a description in "Infamy" from the California Site Survey of the National Park Service, camps like Jerome "were completely unsuited for family living."

In the barracks, bathrooms, showers and bedrooms were "unpartitioned," with living quarters lacking plumbing and water.

"Anyone going to the lavatory at night ... was followed by a searchlight," according to the book.

A family of eight, like Yasamura's, would be placed in a 20-by-20-foot room.

One resident of the Rohwer camp called it a "living nightmare."

Due to the passage of time, most of the camp residents with the most vivid memories of the camps are no longer around.

The oldest camp survivor at Thursday's ceremony was George Teraoka of Fowler, Calif. He'll turn 102 this month.

The majority of those left, like Yasamura, were toddlers at the time. Yasamura's memories include "doing things that kids would do," like playing marbles and hopscotch and listening to "big band" music, like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra.

"So we learned what was going on from all our brothers, our parents," Yasamura said.

Across from where Yasamura sat under the depot's roof, a large American flag had been laid on a table.

In the flag's white stripes and stars, black marker showed where camp survivors and their descendants had written their names and where they had been held.

A museum volunteer said they hoped to have the flag donated to the FDR museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., with the help of Takei.

One woman who signed it Thursday was Carol Kaneke.

She was born at the Rohwer camp in 1944.

"We just visited the Rohwer site and I could still see the smokestack that was by the hospital where I was born," Kaneke said. "This is like the second time I've been here to see that. It was very emotional. I don't remember a thing about camp because I was too young. Just a few things my parents have told me."

Kaneke was visiting with her brother, Tadashi, and her husband, Paul.

Tadashi was born in 1941 and was a year old when the family arrived at the camp.

"My parents, I think it impacted them more than anything," Tadashi said. "It was just natural [for us] to be with them. But for them they lost everything. They were here for four years and had to start all over again."

Said Carol, "It's hard to say what would have been had we not been here."

She said the message she wants young people to learn from McGehee's history is to "make sure things like this don't ever happen again in this country, to anyone."

Paul's immediate family was living in Hawaii at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. They lived close enough to the base that his mother saw Japanese warplanes attacking it. He had cousins and uncles who were imprisoned.

Paul said the forced relocations of the 1940s can't be allowed to be forgotten.

"It's too significant," Paul said. "It could happen again. It really could. We saw that after 9/11 after the World Trade Center went down. It almost happened."

One person who works to make sure the lessons of the relocation camps are remembered is Erin Shigaki of Seattle.

Her father was born in Minidoka, the camp that was in southern Idaho.

Shigaki said her father was born in January 1944 and was delivered by a horse veterinarian.

"It seems like a long time ago, but for me it's immediate family," said Shigaki, who helps run the camp survivor pilgrimage at Minidoka.

"I wanted to come in [to] see another camp and how it's different and just connect to some of the other stories with these folks," said Shigaki, who described it as an "intense" experience.

Shigaki is an artist, specializing in public projects like murals and installations, which she produces under Purple Gate Design.

She uses it in an effort "to tell the Japanese American restoration story, because it's really under-taught and erased, then I try to connect it to other stories" of the incarceration of minorities and family separations in America.

The main event of the day was the keynote speech by Takei, who was 5 years old when his family was at the camp.

His speech came at the end of a ceremony that included a Japanese invocation and the powerful moment of the roughly 200 camp survivors and descendants singing the national anthem.

Takei said the lessons to be learned at the museum are "vitally important" in a moment where America is experiencing "troubled times," when it has both "racial fractures" and "political fracture."

"I am eternally grateful for the people of McGehee and Desha County to decide to make this center of transportation a museum to tell that Arkansas history," Takei said of the train depot. "This building is still in the transportation business. It takes people back in time to history to learn about what happened here 80 years ago, and it inspires people to look to the future and with the lessons learned here to build a better future, not only for Arkansas, but for America."

CORRECTION: Rohwer is a community located northeast of McGehee and was the site of the camp. A previous version of this article misidentified where the camp was. 

  photo  Nancy White explores the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee before the start of ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the museum on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

  photo  George Takei (second from left) bows his head during the invocation at the start of a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

  photo  Hach Yasumura shows pictures of his family, who were interned at the Rohwer camp, at an event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

 Gallery: Internment Camp Museum