The Jerome WRA Camp was about 130 miles southeast of the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. There is almost nothing left of the camp that once held 8,947 Americans of Japanese ancestry for nearly two years. When the camp was built, the land was wooded swampland which local farmers had tried to convert to farmland. It is now part of large scale farmland, surrounded by forests, bayous, a short distance west of the Mississippi River.
The site of the Camp is on the east side of US 165, about 18 miles south of McGehee, Arkansas. Approaching, you need to remain alert, or you will drive right by the granite monument that commemorates the Camp…
Here is the monument on a small square of land, just off Highway 165.
The next four photos offer different views of what was the central residential part of the prison Camp site. The Jerome Camp was about 10,000 acres in size, much of which was used for farming during the two-year life of the Camp. The residential part of the Camp was about 500 acres.
From the monument, looking to the North, on the edge closest to Highway 165.
Looking to the East from the monument, toward the back of the property. The residential area would have extended all the way to the tree line.
Looking to the South from the monument, toward the end of the residential area, also along the edge of Highway 165…
This is what remains of the towering smoke stack of the Camp hospital, located on the Southern edge of the residential area of the Camp.
“…the camp itself was located in a kind of swamp, a cleared out swamp. Because around the camp was a pretty high level… six or seven foot high levees, you know. And this area that we were in evidently, they must have drained it or something, you know. And then that’s where they built it because these were built off the ground, three or four feet, three feet maybe. Because when it rains in Arkansas, it rains like… like no tomorrow, you know, it just floods. And then on one side, the side next to the road, where the main road is, and the railroad tracks, there was no levee there but on three sides there was a levee. And then within the camp, within the block itself, there was a slight levee with a channel dug so that the water could flow out.”
Osamu Mori, Jerome (from Densho Digital Archive)
Next time, we’ll explore what the Camp was like, through historical images and observations…
Thanks for continuing with me on the journey!
This leg of my journey required some imagination, because there is so little physical evidence at three of the four WRA Camp sites in Arkansas and Arizona. During the first nine days of April, I visited the Jerome and Rohwer Camps in Arkansas and the Gila River and Poston Camps in Arizona.
To get to the Jerome and Rohwer Camps, I flew into Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, and set out driving through the countryside. My first destination was McGehee, Arkansas, a small town that is about half way between the two camps. I had not expected such physical beauty.
Almost everywhere I go, there is beauty to be seen. The highways take you through mile after mile of pine forests. There is something peaceful about such a drive, if you are on an adventure. Water is everywhere, and the closer you get to the Mississippi River, the more water there is.
Driving on US Highway 278 through the country, I crossed something called Bayou Bartholomew. On my drives to and from Little Rock, I crossed this Bayou several times. My new Arkansas friends told me that it is the longest Bayou in the world, stretching 359 miles from Arkansas into Louisiana… Something way outside my experience…
This is the type of beauty that I saw in the Bayou Bartholomew (not my picture). It is a foreign thing for someone who has spent most of his life living on the West Coast. There are all kinds of critters who live in it and on its periphery, like this character seen below (again, not my picture)…
When the waters of the Mississippi River rise, going over into the flood plain areas that run alongside it, critters like this one and others (including a variety of poisonous snakes) will migrate out of their homes and into swamps and other flooded land. This was the environment into which thousands of Japanese Americans were sent. Despite its inherent beauty, it would have been a strange and frightening place to be put into a prison camp that flooded regularly with the winter and spring rains. Both the Jerome and the Rohwer Camps were in areas subject to such flooding.
“[Rohwer was] far enough south to catch Gulf Coast hurricanes, far enough north to catch Midwestern tornadoes, close enough to the [Mississippi] river to be inundated by Mississippi Valley floods, and lush enough to be the haven for every creepy, crawly creature and pesky insect in the world.”
Eiichi Kamiya, Rohwer
(from WWII Japanese American Internment Museum, McGehee, Arkansas)
One question that has intrigued me is why the Federal Government decided to put two of the WRA Prison Camps all the way out in Arkansas, near the Mississippi River. It is a long way to transport people from the West Coast. Three criteria key to the selection of WRA Camp sites were: distance from the West Coast; remoteness from cities; and, ownership and/or easy control of the land by the Federal Government. In the case of the Arkansas WRA Camps, the land came under Federal ownership and control because the Farm Security Administration (a New Deal agency whose mission was to combat rural poverty in America) purchased the land from farmers who had gone bankrupt trying to drain the swampy land for farming.
Despite the wild beauty of the location, neither Camp was in a place that appeared hospitable to West Coast dwellers, particularly those who had been forcibly removed from their homes.
My next posts will explore the Jerome Camp.
Thanks for coming along on the journey!
Imagine that this is your new address…
Could be anywhere West of the Mississippi River, in some place isolated from other human communities, some place that is not only remote but also known for its harsh climate. Most certainly freezing cold in the winter and blazing hot in the summer. You won’t know where it is for several days and once you get there it will never truly feel like home. A real home involves some matter of choice: either you chose to be there or some loved one chose to bring you into the world right there.
Why is it in such a remote place? That one is easy. The government thought that you and “your kind” are threats to American security. So, the best thing to do is to move you away from other Americans, out where you can only do minimal damage.
OK, but why does it have to be so damned cold in the winter? We’re from the Pacific coast. Don’t they realize that we’ll get sick out here, or at the very least experience great hardship from the cold? Don’t they understand that the buildings are drafty and not insulated in any way? Don’t they know that the snow will blow horizontally among the buildings? Yes, I think the government does understand that.
Then, there are the summers. If you are lucky, it will just be overwhelmingly hot, with precious little natural shade available. The deeply unlucky will be stuck in some swampy, damp pit near the Mississippi, with snakes and all sorts of unwelcome critters as guests. If there is dust, it will find its way up into your barracks because they were built with green lumber that will dry so much that the cracks will be like super highways for the dust and any little critter that cares to enter. Don’t they know they’ve built places to live that have terrible shortcomings? Yes, I think the government does know that.
“Dear Uncle… I know that you’re safe in Chicago, and I hope you are well. We’re out here in the middle of the desert. It’s hotter than blazes and there is no place to hide from the sun that never seems to go down. Darkness is my best friend in the summer. I hope that you’ll write, to let me know that I still know someone outside this prison fence. Please write. The Camp name, city, and state are important, but please don’t forget our number, Block 14, Building 1. Otherwise, I’ll never see your letter. Don’t ask me about the address, about what kind of place has an address like that. I’ll tell you all about it one day.”
No… We should never take people out of their homes, to place them out in the middle of nowhere in some godforsaken place with no neighbors, with nowhere to go and no permission to go there, with weather that defies the imagination and with buildings that do not withstand it. We should never take people to a place where their local address is Block 14, Building 1.
Soon, I will set out on the road again, this time heading to Arkansas and Arizona to visit four of the WRA Camps. I am so glad to be back at it again! It is with a mixture of trepidation and hope that I set out. It is, after all, a sorry chapter in American history that I am exploring. One where our principles of fairness and civil liberties were abandoned out of fear bent by racism. Right at the start of the American entry into World War II, Americans let fear overcome wisdom and our Constitution. Reason said, “We’ve got this, no need to panic.” Fear and hatred said, “We can’t take any chances… ’round them all up!” So, we did.
I have slowly discovered and felt the darkness permeating the WRA Camp sites. It would be hard to escape, even if I wanted to. Some places are worse than others. So far, the Tule Lake Camp is at the top of that list. I’ve noticed that some people are loath to even acknowledge, let alone to talk about, this period in American life. I can understand that and I guess I can drag myself to sympathize. But, acknowledge and discuss it we must, lest another ugly chapter rear its fearful head once again. I have heard that finding some humor in the thing would make it easier for others to take in. If there is any humor to be found, it is certainly not mine to express. That would only be rightly lifted up by those who lived through the experience, or by their descendants offering up, perhaps in a story.
There is a measure of hope that appears to anyone who ventures on this path, looking at the darkness of the WRA imprisonment. It is to be found in the courage and tenacity of all those men, women, and children who lived in the WRA Camps. It is there in the way they lived in the Camps, and it is there in the way they carried on with life after leaving the Camps. It is there in the way former prisoners and their descendants work to remember the WRA Camps today. Their hope glows like a beacon in the night. I hope to reflect some of that light on the rest of my journey.
Thanks for joining me…
Today, I look at this picture and it is more disturbing than ever before. I try to imagine what it would be like for someone standing with a clipboard, backed up by armed guards, and telling me and my family to hike over to Block 14, Building 1, that this would be our new home for who knows how long.
The lie inherent in such a direction is that such a building was never intended to be a home. Home is not where 32 mostly unrelated people are crammed into a space of 2,000 square feet. Back home, in Southern California or the San Francisco Bay Area, or the Central Valley, a family of 4 usually lived in a home of 1200 to 1,400 square feet. No, this building was not intended as a home. It was intended as a prison barrack.
Most homes have a yard of some sort, even a small one. Instead, the surrounding here looks like a prison yard. The land is nearly barren. Yes, there are basketball hoops between the buildings for recreation, and the sound of bouncing balls would be a welcome diversion for some. For others, it would be an irritating noise that could not be avoided, a constant reminder of captivity.
The view of the Sierra Nevada would be strikingly beautiful. But, it would also be a reminder that I could not go there. It might be a source of hope that one day I would go out the gate of this prison camp and then go wherever I wanted… free like the birds who fly overhead. I would try to hold onto that hope with all my might.
Like so many did, I would try to make this a home. Perhaps, adding my own hand made furniture. Perhaps, a family member would plant some small plants, or place some beautiful stones by the entry stairs. Perhaps, we would gather to tell stories of the past and to make up new stories about this present. Perhaps, out of this prison we would fashion a home, as an expression of freedom and resistance and hope.
As I listen to the current distortions of what passes for our nation’s political discourse, I am struck by how common place lies have become. How amazing is it that the greatest of lies and liars seem to go unpunished, their lies unnoticed by so many. Anything based on a fundamental lie cannot be good. That is why I am drawn back to this image. It was a lie that this building was intended to be a home in some innocuous process of “relocation” and “protection.” It was meant to be a prison.
It is an in between time for me right now. I’m in between visiting the Tulelake Camp in Northern California and visiting Poston on the Colorado River in Arizona.
But, I’m also between looking at this specific thing, this WW II internment, and considering it in the broader context of race relations in America. So many people say there is no such connection, but it is unmistakable. There is a particular image that captures the connection. It is the California Historic Marker that was placed in front of the Tulelake Camp on May 27, 1979 (the name of the Camp is misspelled on the marker).
“These camps are reminders of how racism, economic and political exploitation, and expediency can undermine the Constitutional guarantees of United States citizens and aliens alike.”
It draws me to a quote by one of my favorite contemporary American Philosophers… Mr. Wendell Berry, farmer, poet, and philosopher. Mr. Berry wrote this many years ago:
“I do not know how exact a case might be made, but it seems to me that there is an historical parallel, in white American history, between the treatment of the land and the treatment of women. The frontier, for instance, was notoriously exploitative of both, and I believe for largely the same reasons. Many of the early farmers seem to have worn out farms and wives with equal regardlessness, interested in both mainly for what they would produce…”
Wendell Berry in Recollected Essays, 1965-80
I believe there is a similar parallel involving the treatment of virtually all people of color who have come to America (or were here in the first place) as well as people who live in poverty or on the very edge of it.
As women march and inspire others to join them in marching, I hope that we will remember the connection between this movement today, this tidal wave, and the sacrifices of all those who have gone before. Walking together builds solidarity and makes a point for all to see and hear. So too does being mindful of historical solidarity with all who have marched before, with all who have navigated the seemingly endless path of contradiction between American political philosophy and the reality of American history.
This day, my heart is full of thanks and blessing for all those who have walked and struggled.
Soon, I’ll be back on the path of my journey to the Camps. I’m going next to Poston, Arizona and then to Arkansas to see the Rohwer and Jerome Camps and to visit the Japanese American Internment History Museum in McGhee, Arkansas on the occasion of its fifth anniversary. I promise to share many photos and perspectives. I hope you’ll stay with me for the rest of the journey. It is a path better traveled together.
The New Year is about to start and I’m getting ready to go back out on the road. First stop will be Poston, Arizona in January. My blog posts will start-up again in February and continue through the year as I visit Arizona, Arkansas, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado. I’ll conclude with a visit back to where I started, Manzanar.
In the meantime, I wish for you a blessed and peaceful New Year in 2018.