Lonely markers in two cotton fields tell tale of Japanese WWII relocation
By Louie Graves
A faded Stars and Stripes popped in the breeze making its chain ping against the metal flagpole.
There was no other sound, no movement. Even the birds were absent from this vast empty cotton field in far eastern Arkansas on the cold. gray Saturday of my visit.
I had driven across the raised tracks of a rail line long abandoned. The narrow gravel strip continued about 300 yards past a replica guard tower to a rough parking lot beside an barrier of low fence poles.
This is Rowher, a community of a dozen modest homes and an abandoned school building about 11 miles north of the town of McGehee and not much farther from the banks of the Mississippi River.
This is also Rowher, site of one of 10 camps in the United States where some Japanese were forcibly kept inside fences after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and during World War II.
Arkansas was home to two of the ‘camps’ — the one at Rowher and another one about 40 miles away near the community of Jerome.
For a long time I had wanted to see these places, and I finally made the eight-hour round trip from Nashville through Prescott, Camden, Monticello and east.
Not much to tell about the one at Jerome. There’s only a tall granite marker surrounded by a low white picket fence. This modest site is perched just off the highway and is surrounded by cotton fields about 10 miles from the town of Dermott. It was my second stop and I only stayed long enough to get a photograph of this place where at one time there were 6,000 Japanese inhabitants.
Rowher was larger. There were as many as 8,700 people living in low three-family barracks buildings lined up as far as the eye could see.
All that is there now is the walking trail linking five interpretive stations, several monuments and a cemetery with about two dozen nearly-identical grave markers.
The monuments are remarkable. One is in the shape of a military tank, and it calls attention to the men from the camp who volunteered to fight in an all-Japanese unit in Europe. Their unit won many medals for bravery. Another monument was placed by the Japanese-American Association. Its inscription asks the people of Arkansas to take good care of the site out of respect for the people who once lived there, or who are buried there.
The interpretive stations include pictures of the way the place actually looked. Push a button and the story of the experience is narrated by a boy who lived in the camps and who grew up to be “Mr. Sulu” in the television series, Star Trek.
Frankly, even with the photographs, it’s hard to envision the camp and what life must have been like for these people — many of whom were cultured, educated and successful individuals loyal to the United States — who were uprooted from their homes in California and taken by railcar to live in tarpaper shacks in the dusty oven of the Arkansas delta just because they were Japanese.
I am sorry this happened, but I clearly understand the fear of the nation which had been attacked by and was at war with the Empire of Japan.
The interpretive stations are there courtesy of Arkansas State University and a grant from the Department of the Interior.
The grave markers are unique. They are all the same shape and size. Names are inscribed both in English and Japanese characters. Some have a Christian cross; some have what I assumed to be an etching of a chrysanthemum. Maybe the latter identifies the deceased as being Buddhist or some other religious faith. I’ve since learned, also, that in Japan the flower represents grief and honesty.
The people of Arkansas are not keeping up with the request to properly maintain the site. Someone had driven a four-wheeler inside the fence and spun ‘donuts’ in the soft earth. There was no litter, but there is an obvious drainage problem. There are plans to open a museum nearby in McGehee.
Meanwhile, a starry banner pops in the breeze which whispers memories of desperate times.