(McGehee, Arkansas) May is Asian Heritage Awareness Month.
Many Japanese-Americans fear a crucial part of American history is not only being forgotten, but kept secret in the first place.
The long journey from Fresno, California to the Arkansas delta isn’t new for Tim Taira.
This time the 81-year-old drove his own car, but more than seven decades ago the trip wasn’t his choice.
“We left by trains if you can call it that. Rickety old trains. They put the blinds down to block everything out and it was a sad moment because as we pulled out slowly, we could see our homes disappear,” said Taira.
Taira was among the one hundred and twenty thousand Japanese Americans imprisoned at 10 relocation camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequent war with Japan.
They were ordered to leave everything they had worked for behind at gunpoint, and moved to barbed wire surrounded camps.
There was concern some people might Japanese sympathizers since many still had family there.
“We lacked one thing: our liberty,” said Taira.
More than 16,000 Japanese Americans were brought from around the country on trains to the depot in McGehee, Arkansas.
Almost half of those people were children like Tim.
Taira was nine when he was imprisoned at Jerome Internment camp and at the Rohwer Internment Camp.
They are now empty fields in Desha County Arkansas.
All that’s left is a smoke stack and cemetery for those who never made it back home.
“I give tremendous credit to the adults for this. They were bound and determined to create a society for us like we were outside of the fence. And they all pitched in with their expertise,” said Taira.
Taira’s father was a doctor and lost everything he had built for his family in Fresno during his imprisonment.
Taira says his father, and most of those imprisoned, never lost their sense of patriotism.
The elder Kikuo Taira even served as the camp’s doctor.
“All through the war and even during the camp in spite of what happened to us our patriotism never failed,” said Taira.
As a young prisoner, Taira even wanted to help in the war effort despite what the US was doing to him.
“I carefully saved every penny and to buy savings stamps and one by one I put them in a little book, and after three years I was so proud that I filled that book up I ran to the post office and traded it in for a war bond. I was so proud I had a war bond that I still have it. I never cashed it in,” said Tiara.
Taira’s uncle was also at Rohwer and volunteered to serve in the 442nd Infantry Regiment.
The group was made entirely from Japanese American volunteers and is still the most decorated and most blooded regiments in history.
Taira’s uncle Harry Kuroiwa was captured during battle in Germany, making him one of the only people in the world to be imprisoned in the US by the country he went on to serve, and in Europe, by the enemy he swore to combat.
Taira says internees were strong in patriotism because they didn’t want US officials to think they were a part of the enemy or should be imprisoned.
When the war was over, Taira’s family and thousands of others like them were released, “Most of us went back to the west coast where we came from, and we weren’t welcomed back. Severe discrimination."
Despite the odds, in just four years Taira’s family rebuilt what it had lost.
But many Japanese American’s lived the rest of their lives in temporary trailers in California because they couldn’t bounce back from the imprisonment.
Taira, and people who live in Desha County, are making it their mission to spread the word about what happened at Jerome and Rohwer.
A Japanese-American Interment Museum now stands at the depot that welcomed them to the Delta.
Museum Curator Heidi Reed hopes tours of the museum, especially to younger generations, will spread awareness about the relocation.
“Now they have a place to come back and say ‘hey we’re remembered and what happened to us is no longer a secret,'” said Reed.
Reed, and people like Taira, fear if American’s aren’t educated on this dark chapter of history we could be doomed to repeat it.