The following news story has interested me for many years. Once I began looking on the internet I found a lot more information. Ten camps were established. As far as I can tell this was the only one that closed early and became a German Prisoner of War Camp in 1944.
JEROME – Only a tall, solitary smokestack with a thick rope of ivy standing in the middle of a cotton field identifies the spot that once housed more than 8,000 people. A memorial monument bears silent testimony to the men, women and children forced to leave their homes, businesses and schools in 1942 simply because they or their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were native Japanese. In 1944 it became a German prisoner of war camp housing 7,000 of the most fanatical, pro-Nazi soldiers.
With the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, xenophobia quickly reared its ugly head and swept the country and government. In February of 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the War Relocation Order which mandated that anyone of Japanese origin who was living along the Pacific Coast or in Hawaii could be relocated inland. Ultimately, due to population density and resistance from officials, very few Japanese descendants in Hawaii were relocated. Around the country, 10 war relocation centers were established in Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, California, Idaho, Utah and two Arkansas at Jerome and Rohwer. Eventually, the centers housed 120,000 dislocated Japanese descendants, of whom two-thirds were American citizens.
“It was the biggest thing that ever happened in Jerome,” asserts longtime area resident Curtis LaGrone.
Like everything else during the war years, everything happened quickly to implement the order. In June 1942 the federal government contracted out the building of the war relocation center to accommodate up to 10,000 people.
Peggy Head, now of El Dorado, spent her early years in Jerome. As a plumber, her father, Kyle McVoy, helped install the plumbing in the center.
The Heads had moved to the Delta region in 1939 to take advantage of the Farmers Home Administration’s offer of a farm. The Depression-fighting measure offered each farmer up to 80 acres, a new house, barn, smokehouse, outhouse and a well with pump for the cost of $5,555, according to LaGrone, whose father also settled on one of the farms.
Before the FHA and the War Relocation Order, tiny Jerome had a scattering of sharecroppers growing cotton and corn and big gardens, according to LaGrone, who added, “and everyone had a shotgun to go squirrel hunting.” With the FHA’s offer, people came and the little community grew. “We got this new high school, junior high school and had a basketball team. We were the Hornets,” he recalled with a touch of pride in his voice.
Then in the summer of 1942, the Corps of Engineers of the U.S. Army came and began quickly building the War Relocation Center in Jerome and another camp about 30 miles north in Rohwer.
The center at Jerome, located of U.S. 165, had 500 acres dedicated to the buildings which were surrounded by a fence with guard posts. Inside the restricted area, the federal government provided a hospital, school, administration building, sewage disposal – and burial arrangements.
Although LaGrone, still not in high school, could not go beyond the gate of the center, he and a friend would often ride their bikes near the center’s building site. “I would climb up in an oak tree to watch. I could look down on top of these houses and look up across there and see rows and rows of rafters as they were being built. You could hear the whistles blow for break or for lunch. It was something fantastic to see. We had never seen anything like that around here.”
He pulled out a small copy of a map of the center. “See these long barracks? Every block had the same thing: a mess hall, a laundry, a rec hall. They could get everything done in the same area, where they ate, the laundry, the post office, everything was contained in the block where they lived.”
The 10,000 acres around the 500-acre center were tax delinquent lands purchased through a trust agreement in the late 1920s with the Farm Security Administration. Quickly, the centers rose out of the wilderness. Seven months after FDR’s presidential order and four months after the building began, the first Japanese received notice that they had 48 hours to evacuate their established lives, businesses, farms and schools and report to be assigned to a war relocation center. Wikipedia and many other websites relating the events report that scalpers took advantage of people trying to sell their earthly goods, their homes and farms on such short notice. Sometimes neighbors cared for the farms during the absence.
With the evacuation happening at the beginning of the school year, teenagers put aside any plans for the spring prom, school clubs or playing sports with their friends. Instead, they packed what they could and went to centers still getting organized to make good use of the school facilities provided.
As the trainloads of evacuees arrived, received their assigned barracks and settled into the center, a semblance of order developed within the centers.
Outside the central area, the Japanese evacuees went to work clearing the land for farming. They dug ditches for drainage and built bridges. At the sawmill, they produced more than 280,000 board feet of lumber and more than 6,000 cords of firewood, according to the website javadc.org/jerome_relocation_center.
By 1943, they had more than 630 acres under cultivation and grew over 85 percent of their own vegetables. The evacuees also raised 1,200 hogs for consumption at the center. In 1944, more acres were cleared or partially cleared. They also built a 45-acre Scout campsite with Scout headquarters and field house.
But it was not all farming work. The evacuees included everyone from the newest baby to teenagers in high school to great-grandparents, doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, college professors, farmers and businessmen.
From the age of four, George Takei, who played Sulu in “Star Trek,” went to live at the Rohwer Relocation Center, 30 miles north of Jerome. Later his family was re-assigned to the center in Tule Lake, Calif.
Life continued for the evacuees, but nothing erased the fence, the guard towers or the fact that citizens of the United States who had done nothing other than be the descendant of a Japanese ancestor were not allowed to exit the fences without permission.
At the Jerome War Relocation Center, the evacuees worked to build an instant community. By April of 1943 a high school of more that 1,000 students was organized with a teaching staff composed from Japanese citizens with at least a couple years of college education.
Head and LaGrone rarely, if ever, saw the Japanese-American students. A few miles away, they continued attending their small junior high where the principal served as the agricultural teacher, the coach and the home-ec teacher. The former three-room junior high building now serves as a community information center.
Inside the center, a yearbook staff produced a pictorial record of the short school year from April to August of 1943. The book lists two senior classes: seniors A and B. Each class had about 200 students in the high school. Girls and boys basketball and baseball teams practiced and played three games each.
At its peak, the internees at Jerome numbered 8,497, many of whom were second and third generation Americans who had to take a loyalty oath before serving in World War II.
While most of the War Relocation Camps closed in 1945, the last in early 1946, the one at Jerome closed in 1944. The government needed the barracks to house German prisoners of war.
“In the United States, at the end of World War II there were 175 branch camps serving 511 area camps containing over 425,000 prisoners of war (mostly German). The camps were located all over the U.S. but were mostly in the South because of the expense of heating the barracks. Eventually, every state with the exception of Nevada, North Dakota, and Vermont had POW camps,” according to Wikipedia.
At Jerome, the name was changed to Camp Dermott. Other POW facilities were Camp Bassett, Camp Monticello, Fort Robinson, Fort Chaffee, Fort Smith and a camp in Pine Bluff. At Jerome the SS men had a separate isolated barrack.
LaGrone remembers the soldiers well because local farmers could request a work crew to pick cotton or clean up around the area. LaGrone’s father hired the soldiers to pick cotton. LaGrone said they were working in the field when he heard shooting. They ran to see what was happening only to discover bored guards shooting buzzards.
For many years during and after the war, the LaGrone family income came from the camps.
“My dad was a security guard there. He worked until it was closed. Then he got a job at the water plant, the disposal plant. He worked for the fire department at the camp when it became a German prisoner of war camp and after. Then he was in maintenance taking care of the grounds that were left,” he said.
After camp emptied, his father ran cattle on the grass around the deserted buildings to keep the grass cut. Fences remained at the camp, but scavengers still entered and took furnishings for their own homes. LaGrone said that the Japanese had painted extensive wall murals on the dry wall. When he found a picture he liked, he would cut it out and store it in the barn. “I was just a kid, I didn’t know what would happen to dry wall left out like that,” he said, mourning the loss of all those pictures that had deteriorated.
Eventually, LaGrone bought many of the abandoned buildings from the government, cut them into two or three pieces and sold them at a profit for houses and shops in the Delta area. Curtis Lagrone said that sharecroppers would take the building his father sold and have a nice home.
“I watched them build it and I watched them unbuild it,” LaGrone said reflectively. Little remains of the Relocation Camp at Jerome: a hospital smokestack and cement slabs. The only explanation is the 10-feet-high monument positioned just off U.S. 65.
Most of the land of the former camps at Jerome and nearby Rohwer are now private property.
“My father could have purchased the camp for $15,000,” recalls Curtis LaGrone. “But he did not have the money.”
The John Tillman family purchased the land and continues to farm around the smokestack. The slabs of cement under the administration building are now the base for farm buildings.
Occasionally, tour buses with descendants and those who once lived in the relocation camps visit the area. LaGrone said during a visit to Rohwer, he happened on one of the tours. One of the men had a map of the area that he followed until he pointed to a specific spot in the ground and said, “I was born right there. I was born right there.”
The Japanese-Americans’ legal protest against the presidential order that tore them from their lives slowly worked its way through the courts to the Supreme Court.
“On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court of the United States clarified the legality of the exclusion process under Order 9066 by handing down two decisions. Korematsu v. United States, a 6–3 decision, stated that the exclusion process in general was constitutional. Ex parte Endo unanimously declared that loyal citizens of the United States, regardless of cultural descent, could not be detained without cause. On January 2, 1945, the exclusion order was rescinded entirely,” the Wikipedia article reports.
The freed internees were given $25 and a train ticket to return to their homes. The U.S. continued to fight Japan until its surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. The last of the centers closed in 1946.
This link will take you to a few pictures I took the day I went to cover this story.
Ivy covered smokestack still stands (a similar stack is in Rohwer).
monument: The Jerome Preservation Committee and also the Japanese American Citizen League dedicated this monument to remember those who suffered the indignity of being incarcerated because of their ethnic background.
remembering: Sketches and a brief history of the Relocation Center prepared for the third reunion of residents held in 1996. Curtis LaGrone provided this print.
Rohwer 4 monuments: A small cemetery with four memorial monuments marks the War Relocation Center at Rohwer, Desha County off Highway 1, north of McGhee. Identical tombstones mark the burial spots of those who died in the camps. The majority of the stones have an end year of 1943 with birth dates in the mid-1800s indicating a person 65 and older who died in the camp. Monuments added at later dates note the names of the Japanese American soldiers who died fighting for the U.S.A. in World War II. Fields of crops on private lands surround the cemetery located on a lonely dusty road.
This summer a walking tour with explanatory signs around the cemetery were installed an information booth replicating the original guard house. Nearby McGehee is in the process of building and opening a museum focused on the Relocation Center.