The WRA Camp at Poston was located about 15 miles South of Parker, AZ, next to the Colorado River and the California border. The Camp opened on June 2, 1942, and soon housed 17,814 people. It was the third largest “city” in Arizona at the time – half the size of Tucson. No one moved to the Camp by choice.
This photo gives an inkling of how dusty it was. [Densho Digital Archives]
One group of Poston barracks. [Densho Digital Archives]
“…you know, Salinas is a cool place. When the weather hit 80 degrees, we were burning up already. And the day we got to Parker, Arizona, 114 degrees. And later on, as I thought about all this that happened the day we got there, people were fainting like flies, because none of us prepared for any of this. And you’d think they’d come out and give us salt pills? We weren’t even talked to about using salt. And if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the people that got there earlier than us found out that you gotta take a lotta salt, because you sweat like hell. And there’s, all you got is a barrack, and it’s hot as hell in the barracks. So we were very fortunate, because of the fact our train was the last one to leave Salinas. Well, by the time we got to Poston, every, a lotta, half of the people already settled in. So they come out to meet us when we got there on the bus. And they were the ones that gave us salt pills…”
Rudy Tokiwa, Poston [Densho Digital Archive]
Most of the inmates at Poston came from Central and Southern California farming areas. Unlike the experience for other Camps, most people who came to Poston, arrived directly from their home towns (without first going to an Assembly Center). The Camp filled up quickly, reaching its peak population in three months. It must have been utter chaos in the early stages.
The first day at Poston. [National Archives]
New arrivals, of all ages. [Densho Digital Archive]
First things first… stuff your own mattress with hay. [Densho Digital Archive]
The people who were imprisoned in Poston did everything they could, with scarce resources, to make a life in the WRA Camp. The conditions were harsh. There were cramped living quarters. Dust infiltrated most buildings because they were built of green wood that quickly dried out, leaving gaps in the floor that allowed the wind to blow in the dust. Life included communal eating at mess halls, and communal showers and toilets in men’s and women’s latrines (one each for each group of 14 barracks). The people imprisoned in the Camp showed incredible imagination, tenacity, and resilience to make a life there. Some thrived, some were broken, all endured.
A makeshift family “apartment” within a barracks building. [L.A. Times]
Sprinkling to try to keep the dust down. [Densho Digital Archive]
“They made charcoal so that we would have charcoal in the winter to keep us warm. Because we lived at the very end of camp and there was this vast area, land, next to us, the men in our block would go out there and excavate the land and then chop the trees down. We had mesquite trees and ironwood trees in that area. So they would chop that down and then somehow put that into this excavated area and then set it on fire and then put something on top of it and kind of smoke it all up so that the charcoal would form. I can’t describe it to you. But anyway, they used to make the charcoal.”
Laurie Sasaki, Poston [Densho Digital Archive]
The Catholic Church [Densho Digital Archive]
Poston inmates built this pond with its miniature structures. [Densho Digital Archive]
The Federal Government established the Poston WRA Camp on the land of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. They did so over the objection of the Tribal Council. The Elders on the Council wanted no part of the injustice done to Japanese Americans.
Tribal Council Chairman, Henry Walsh, visiting the Camp site. [Densho Digital Archive]
That’s it for the historical photos. In the next posts, we’ll explore Poston as it currently exists as well as the cooperation among the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Japanese Americans who once lived on their land.
Thanks for coming along on the journey.
Grace and peace to you…
The Camp Now…
This is a photo of the monument found on a hill in the Butte Camp portion of the former Gila River WRA Camp. [Source: Unknown]
Consistent with its general practice, the Gila River Indian Community withheld permission from me to visit the site of the former WRA Camp and to take photos for this blog. Although I at first received written approval for a visit, when someone higher up realized that I would be taking photos for the blog, I was required to apply for a media permit and was subsequently turned down and refused the chance to visit.
Respecting their decision, I only visited the Huhugam Heritage Center, taking no pictures. I did not go out to any of the former WRA Camp locations.
Given the historic offense of forcing the WRA Camp upon the Indian Community, I understand their apparent reluctance to open the former Camp site to most visitors. The primary exception to their policy is for former internees or their families.
One consequence of their exclusionary policy is that a major opportunity is lost.. The Gila River Indian Community is on the edge of Phoenix, Arizona, only minutes from the Sky Harbor International Airport.
The Community has created an utterly beautiful Huhugam Heritage Center. The Community describes it this way: “On January 24, 2004, the Gila River Indian Community opened arguably the nation’s finest tribal facility for the preservation and display of important cultural artifacts and art.” The Center serves as: “a climate-controlled repository for prehistoric and historic artifacts, cultural materials and vital records…; a museum to display these materials to the public…; a center for research by tribal members…; and, a space to exhibit traveling art and history shows…”
The Huhugam Center lives in the midst of an obviously thriving Gila River Indian Community economy. The Community receives thousands of visitors each year to its hotels, golf courses, businesses, and historical/cultural resources.
Lost is the chance to more fully educate visitors about injustice and resilience. There was a double injustice perpetrated in the creation of the Gila River WRA Camp: the imposition of the camp upon the Community, over the objections of the community leaders; and, the imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans in the Camp, without Constitutionally required due process. Beyond this injustice, both peoples have profound stories of resilience to share.
My hope is that the Gila River Indian Community will eventually work with the interested Japanese American groups to carefully build a visitors center that will display this chapter of history.
That’s Gila River for now. Next stop is the Poston WRA Camp.
Thanks for coming with me on the journey!
On July 20, 1942, the War Relocation Authority opened the Gila River WRA Camp. They did so over the objections of the Gila River Indian Community elders. It was a violation of Indian sovereignty, made in order to violate the Constitutional rights of the thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry who were imprisoned at the Gila River Camp.
At its peak, Gila River imprisoned 13,348 Japanese Americans. There were two Camps, Butte and Canal.
A portion of the Gila River Camp, early days… The photo shows the layout of a typical Block. Each Block had two rows of 16 barracks buildings with 14 residential barracks. Two barracks were set aside, one for a recreation/administration building and one for a mess hall. The smaller buildings between the two rows of barracks were the for men’s latrine/shower, women’s latrine/shower, boiler, and laundry room. [National Archives]
“Well, when we first got there, of course, we didn’t know where we were. [Laughs] All we knew that it was a desert. But Gila River, it was… I suppose, a shock. Barrack half-finished. We were assigned, my wife and I was assigned to a room to share with a family from San Leandro, California, who happened, one of those that evacuated into central California. They were about fifteen years older than we were. So we had to share a room with them because they couldn’t give us the room to ourselves, no two-person room. So we put up sheets and blanket for privacy, and that was our room.”
Yoshimi Matsuura, Gila River [Densho Digital Repository]
Making do in a bad situation…
Internees packing their mattresses with straw, immediately upon arrival at the Camp. [azcentral]
“Then my brother made a cooler, I guess. You wonder, where did they get this and where did they get that? They bought a fan and they got some excelsior that was like shredded wood thing they use for packaging, they put that behind the, between a net, wire net like, and then they put the excelsior in there and have a drip system that wets that excelsior and the fan goes through it. And that was our cooler. You’d make a big hole on the side of the barrack to allow this fan to sit there. And it was, like, so sticky. It was humid. …they tried to do all kinds of things. And like I say, if somebody starts something, just everybody else hears about it… everybody’s very innovative…”
Yasu Koyamatsu Momii, Gila River [Densho Digital Repository]
A sunrise service [National Archives]
A celebration of some sort. [National Archives]
“(was it) just like everyday things still went on?”
“I think pretty much so. The only difference was you didn’t live as a family. Maybe you slept as a family, but when you got up, you were on your own. You didn’t have to eat together or anything, at the mess hall. And everybody had their own separate friends, and you went their own separate ways.”
George Murakami, 8 years old, upon entering Gila River. [Densho Digital Archive]
Kids playing baseball… [Source Unknown]
Dry humor, poking fun at the government. [Los Angeles Public Library]
Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the outspoken opponents of the detention of Japanese Americans.
The First Lady visited Gila River in April of 1943. [Densho Digital Repository]
Over half of the adults at Gila River worked in one job or another. The wages were low. Nearly 900 men and women worked in agriculture on the 820 acres set aside for growing (mostly produce). Another 450 men and women worked in war production jobs (including the making of camouflage nets). All of the rest worked in the various jobs necessary to keep the WRA Camp running. [Source: Densho Encyclopedia]
Taking care of the stock… [PBS]
Picking cauliflower… [Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley]
Harvesting daikon [Modern Farmer]
Running the Camp flower nursery [Modern Farming]
Harvesting spinach [Modern Farming]
Life at Gila River was filled with so many ironies…
A soldier visits the Camp where his family is imprisoned, and shows his Purple Heart to his little brother. [WRA]
That’s Gila River as it was. Next, opportunity lost at Gila River.
Thanks for coming with me on the journey!
Japanese Americans came to Rohwer via train, bus, and truck.
Everyone crossed the railroad tracks and a bridge over water to get in.
“The first day here was a sunny day, which made me homesick for California because it was always sunny there. After a few weeks, I disliked it more for it was always raining, with mud here and there, and the house was hard to keep clean. It has been over two months since I came here and I’m hoping they do something about the mud.”
Lillian Hananouchi, Rohwer High School
In the Mud…
A daily scene… [National Archives]
People worked hard to keep the place running…
Cutting wood… [National Archives]
Harvesting yams… [Densho Digital Archive]
Loading mustard… [Densho Digital Archive]
Harvesting greens… [Densho Digital Archive]
Sewing in the shop… [Arkansas State University]
“As days became weeks, my dad and mom worked so hard to beautify the apartment that we all pitched in just as hard as they did… We are still all pitching in and working together, trying to secure happiness, even in a center [Rohwer] and I believe we are doing quite well.”
Nabuko Hanzawa, Rohwer High School, 1942
Kids were ever present in the Camp.
Kindergarten… [Densho Digital Archive]
1st Grade… [National Archives]
Changing classes at the High School… [Densho Digital Archive]
Study Hall… [National Archives]
“Evacuation wasn’t necessary to me. I guess we have to make the best of it…I hope war ends quickly so we could go home. Some of my friends said it was unconstitutional. I hope the bad feelings will go away when we get home.”
Roy Kanuda, Rohwer High School, 1942
Boarding the train to go back to Sacramento. [Source: unknown]
A mother, whose four sons served in the Army in WWII, says goodbye as she heads back home to California. [National Archives]
“As the radio spokesman announced…that the West Coast was being re-opened, we couldn’t believe it, but we listened tensely… Yes, I really feel excited, but how do I know how my neighbors will treat me when I get back? I surely hope they will treat me like they did during the pre-war days, but you have to expect a few of them to be prejudiced…”
Herbert Yomogida, Rohwer High School
So, we say goodbye to Rohwer. Later this week, it is on to Arizona, first to Gila River and then to Poston.
Thanks for joining me on the journey.
Grace and peace to you…
To get to Rohwer, you drive through the countryside north of McGehee for about 12 miles . As you come upon the hamlet of Rohwer, you’ll drive alongside a levee and a dense row of trees on the left hand side of the road, and soon you’ll see a small sign indicating the Rohwer Camp cemetery.
Crossing over the levee (which is an old railroad bed), the first thing you notice is water on the left.
Being a West Coast guy, I immediately look for alligators.
Then, you look straight ahead and see this…
The visitors kiosk explains the basic Camp layout and points the way ahead to the cemetery.
It’s a cold morning, but I set out walking toward the cemetery.
This is a monument to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all Japanese American unit in the 5th Army.
This second monument was built later.
Sam Yada, originally imprisoned in Rohwer, remained to live the rest of his life as a farmer in the area. Sam worked effectively with local people and various government and academic entities to preserve the cemetery.
The portion of the cemetery in the photo below includes those who died during their imprisonment in the Rohwer Camp.
Continuing to walk alongside the cemetery, I look toward the back end of the Camp’s residential area.
About halfway from the Kiosk at the front of the Camp, I come upon this interpretive board. In the background is the towering smoke stack from the old hospital.
A telephoto shot of the smoke stack from the same spot.
Turning back toward the kiosk, you can see the front end of the Camp’s residential area.
Back my starting point at the kiosk, I turn to take a picture of the Northern side of the Camp. The Camp’s residential area extended just beyond the treeline.
Standing at the same spot, I turn West, capturing the size of the Camps’ 400 acre residential area. Throughout the Rohwer Camp site, the soil is rich. Even though the surrounding land was drained for the Camp, and drained by farming operations after the camp, there is a lot of water on the ground. It explains why the land was available for a Camp in the first place. It also makes me appreciate how much work the Japanese Americans did to make the Camp livable and the land farm-able.
Finally, I was fortunate to spend a portion of the morning with a mother and daughter from the area. A mutual friend introduced us. They graciously walked the site with me, showed me the surrounding area, and explained how the preservation efforts had happened. I deeply appreciate their hospitality.
Next, we’ll visit the Rohwer of yesterday. We’ll take a look at some of the historical photos that capture what it was like.
Thanks for sticking with me on the journey.
McGehee, Arkansas is the nearest city to the Jerome and Rohwer WRA Camps, roughly halfway between them. In 1942, McGehee had a population of about 3,600. The two Camps had a combined population of 16,972. McGehee is still a small city.
In the middle of town, is a little jewel box… a small museum dedicated to the Jerome and Rohwer Camps. Filled with gems, the museum has a collection of photos, quotations from Camp prisoners, and artifacts from the sites. Two curators staff the museum. Remaining in close contact with Japanese Americans who were in the Camps, the curators obviously work to sustain a collection that carefully reflects what took place at the two camps.
“The next order was that we were going to be moved to Arkansas. We had to pack up our belongings again and crate them. This was another sad movement of my life. We came on the first crew. We came by the southern route. It took us three days and four (nights). We were in Rohwer, Arkansas at five in the morning.”
Hiroshi Ito, Rohwer
This exhibit includes photos of some of the people taken to Rohwer.
They have several artifacts on display.
A small box which held some of the possessions the Utsumi family (family no. 26514), who were taken from Stockton, CA to Rohwer.
Recently recovered in a field on the Rohwer site.
A small figurine recently recovered at the Rohwer site.
The care and concern of the museum at McGehee is profoundly touching. In the middle of a remote, rural part of America, men and women work daily to help others remember. Respectfully, they work to keep the memories alive.
Next stop on the journey… the Rohwer WRA Camp.
Thanks, for joining me!
The National Archives have extensive photos of life in the Jerome WRA Camp. I have selected a few that capture the heart of it and illustrate some key points made about the prison Camp. All photos, but the last, are from the National Archives.
This is a picture of the Camp, taken from the Hospital, looking north. This is near the Southern edge of the residential area of the Camp, close to where highway 165 currently runs, and where the remains of the Hospital Smoke Stack are now.
A young girl walking across the Camp in the rain.
“Environmental conditions were muddy and cold and they were plagued by mosquitoes and snakes.”
Source: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (Department of Arkansas Heritage)
Men digging drainage ditches in the Camp.
“Even when the construction company left the camp it was still not complete, the jobs of drilling wells, laying water and sewage pipe and building roads were left for the Japanese Americans to finish.”
Source: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
The new Mess Hall.
Mess Hall Staff at work.
A view of Block 7.
A woman working her garden. The wood you see piled up in the background was firewood for the stove inside the barracks building.
An “Apartment” in one of the barracks. With the absence of partitions, people improvised to provide what privacy they could. Japanese Americans made the furniture shown in this picture, using scrap wood from around the Camp.
This picture is of a display in the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, part of an exhibit entitled, “Education in Exile.” The Center is a unit of the Central Arkansas Library System, and is located in downtown Little Rock, at 401 President Clinton Avenue.
It is possible to gloss over the experience of people in the Camps. That would be one way to observe the photo above. I think, however, that the preceding photos show the extent to which people will go to make the best of a terrible situation. The woman at the table and whoever made the furniture were providing a measure of order and hope for the members of their family.
I’ve tried to capture the Jerome WRA Camp in the best way I know how.
Next, we move to an interlude at a Museum in the small city of McGehee…