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story.lead_photo.caption Keith Bryant/The Weekly Vista Jeanne Stokebrand with the Questers discusses internment camps for people of Japanese descent with visitors at the Bella Vista Historical Museum.

In a state of fear after the recent Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese Americans faced discrimination from their communities.

Not long after the attack, they were ordered to leave their homes and businesses to be hauled off to overcrowded, hastily-built camps. An estimated 70 percent of those placed in these internment camps were United States citizens. A little more than two months after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the relocation of anyone of Japanese descent in the United States. The order was signed Feb. 19, 1942.

Bella Vistans learned about World War II-era internment camps for Japanese Americans at the Bella Vista Historical Museum last Thursday, March 8. Jeanne Stokebrand, former international president of The Questers, came to discuss the camps -- particularly the two in Arkansas.

The attack that convinced the U.S. to fight against Japan and to round up its own Japanese immigrants, she said, had its roots in the first world war. Japan worked with the United States, she said, but despite the fighting, suffering, casualties and expending resources, the island nation was kept from claiming spoils in the Treaty of Versailles.

After the war, she said, the United States placed a steel and scrap embargo on Japan and later added oil to it. This, she said, made Japan an enemy.

And Japanese Americans, she said, faced substantially more discrimination than German or Italian immigrants. Many lived on the West coast, she explained, and the majority were U.S. citizens who identified with their current country despite widespread belief they were loyal to Japan.

"Born in the United States and supposedly protected by law," she said.

Before they were placed in prison camps, she said, homes were raided by authorities. Goods that may have been connected to their families' former nation -- including art and decor and old photos -- were confiscated. Many families, she said, discarded these items before they could be raided. Others were put on watch lists.

Each family, she explained, was given an identification number and, once the camps were ready, the families were given orders on when and where to gather -- sometimes with just a few days' notice given to take care of their possessions.

"Some families were lucky. Friends and neighbors would take care of their things and pets," Stokebrand said. "They were just put on trains or trucks and carted off."

Many families, she said, lost everything -- their properties were claimed by neighbors, and their goods were stolen -- sometimes by the same neighbors who offered to look after the Japanese Americans' properties. There was a report, she said, of a family leaving its dog with a neighbor who promptly killed the animal after the family left.

These camps, she said, were largely built on government-owned land which wasn't particularly desirable for anything else.

Among the ten camps to which these families were shuffled, two were in Arkansas: Jerome, which opened October 1942 and sat near the southeast corner of the state, and Rohwer, which sat a little further North and opened September 1942. Both were in the Mississippi River Delta region, which was far hotter and more humid than many of the detainees were likely accustomed to.

"The camps were built very quickly," she said. "They were not built very well."

The Jerome camp, she said, had nine wards with four blocks each, with 16-24 barracks per block, overlooked by seven guard towers. Showers were communal, she said, and most families of four or five were placed in a 20-by-20-foot space -- roughly half the space of the room in which she was making her presentation on Thursday.

There was no running water and no insulation. Provided furniture included one army cot and two blankets per person, though many residents used stray wood to make whatever other furniture they could, she said.

At its peak, she said, this camp housed 8,497 people.

"These Americans lived in these poor conditions for more than three years," Stokebrand said.

This camp, she said, closed June 30, 1944.

Rohwer was built on 10,000 acres of land and cost $4.8 million. More than 10,000 people passed through the camp, she said, and it did not close until 1945. Among other prominent detainees, this camp housed a young George Takei.

In their time at the camps, she said, the Japanese Americans did what they could to make a home of it, setting up gardens and making what improvements they could.

Before leaving camps, she said, internees were required to fill out a loyalty questionnaire -- which included questions about willingness to serve if drafted, or if the individual in question would swear loyalty to the emperor of Japan. Those deemed disloyal were shuffled off to harsher camps.

Those who were disloyal, she said, likely were so because they were locked up for no reason.

Once they were officially released, Japanese Americans were given a $25 allowance to rebuild, she said; and for those who left camps in Arkansas, there was an even bigger slap in the face: a 1943 law, backed by governor Homer Martin Adkins, which prohibited those of Japanese descent from owning land in the state.

Nothing else was done for Japanese Americans, she said, until 1981. A nine-member commission was put together by the federal government to review the internment and, after interviewing more than 700 people, the commission agreed that the executive order was never justified and the relocation was unnecessary. Restitution amounting to $20,000 was awarded to each still-living survivor, though the checks didn't go out for another nine years.

A formal apology was issued by President George H.W. Bush, and the checks were sent out Oct. 1990, she said.

"More than 48 years had passed," Stokebrand said.

Xyta Lucas, president of the Bella Vista Historical Society, said she appreciated the presentation. Until hearing this discussion the first time, she said, she was unaware of these camps.

She was especially surprised, she said, that camps were placed this far out.

Stokebrand said she appreciated the community's interest in the presentation, but she worries the nation's troubled history with immigrants is not over.

"The trouble is it's still happening. It hasn't changed; we haven't learned," she said.

General News on 03/14/2018

Print Headline: Bella Vistans discuss WWII internment camps

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