Arkansas Town Holds Little-Known Piece Of WWII History

(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.

7 comments

  • Rob Smith

    The 442nd was not entirely Japanese American. Look up Young Oak Kim. They were not ” internment camps”. Look up the definition of concentration camp. What a half A$$ article on an important piece of our history.

  • Francile

    This is very interesting. I grew up in McGehee, Arkansas and never knew about this piece of history. Thanks for sharing it.

  • MikeBarret

    It makes me sick that we did this to people. Our own citizens just because of where they came from. SICK! These days the gov’t would just fly some drones around and kill everyone.

  • mr matt

    scary to think that is possible mikebarret but you have to think that at this time war was declared and even though they make it appear in this article that the japanese-americans were indeed americans, at times of war you have to make tough desicions. interesting and sad, i hope that there are enough people to preserve this piece of history

  • Dale Rodgers

    I also grew up in McGehee right after WWII during the 50’s and 60’s. My dad was in the U.S. Army stationed at one of the camps just south of Dermott, Arkansas at Jerome. My dad was assigned from time to time to pull guard duty in addition to his regular assignments. After his tour there he was transferred to Little Rock for discharge.

    As time passed and I was able to ask questions about his service during the war, he told me about the camps at Jerome and Rowher. He also related how bad the conditions were and the tremendous hardships the Japanese-Americans had to endure. Dad did not like to talk about all that, but he did it to impress upon me a fact of life.

    As a general rule, most Americans felt the people in the camps were victimized due to their Japanese heritage. Most of them (camp interns) hated what the Japanese leaders did by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent horrible treatments of American G.I.’s and other allied forces captured and placed into POW camps. The Japanese people knew all to well what their leaders were capable of.

    Obviously, that is where the hatred (at the time) came from by the American population against “all” Japanese. Wrongs done? You bet! I am not saying in anyway that their internment or treatment was justified, but this nation was at war and the nation’s leaders were not taking any chances with potential internal subversive sources. There were also other foreign nationals, i.e. military and civilian Germans and a few Italians in these camps. The effort was to protect the country from within.

    My dad, on a few occasions, took me to these camp sites which had been destroyed shortly after the end of the war. Nothing much was left but some slabs of concrete and pieces of fence runs around a perimeter. I actually had a science and biology class in one of the camp buildings which had been disassembled and transported from either Jerome or Rowher to McGehee and reassembled on McGehee School grounds as a classroom. Interesting Huh?

    Lessons learned by a young boy in that time was that regardless of your nationality, ethnic origin, skin color or eye shape, you are very capable of wielding horrific carnage upon your fellow man.

    Have our leaders changed? Have our human natures changed? Have we learned from our past mistakes and history? It has been said, “Either learn from history or you are doomed to repeat it”.

    May God help us remember the past and avoid the mistakes.

    Dale Rodgers

  • Gary Hogan

    Not all Americans hated all Japanese. Many of the Arkansan locals provided food, treats and other things to the internees since the Feds did so little. I hope we have learned from this internment. I think that maybe we have. We are much more multi-cultural now… and although Muslim radicals attacked on 9/11, we didn’t round all Muslims up and intern them, as some would have liked. The United States is not perfect, and we have made many errors. This one is sad and regrettable.

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