The fence is gone
They say it was barbed wire
They barracks are gone
They called them chicken coops
The towers are gone
They say they were wood
The guards are gone
They say they carried carbines
The prisoners are gone
But the ghosts remain
If you stand at the edge of the compound
You can almost see the them lining up at the mess hall
If you listen closely
You can hear the voices
English over here
Japanese over there
The wind whispers of times forgotten
Forgotten to hide the shame
Now in 2017 I am standing at the edge of a cotton field where row on row of barracks once marched across the muddy land, home to 8400 Japanese Americans. The ghosts still linger. Each family known by a number that replaced their name. Another step to invisibility. This camp is in Rohwer, Arkansas far from much of anything but importantly on a rail line to facilitate the transport of prisoners.
In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the removal and incarceration of 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent (about 70% native born Americans) to camps in California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.
The Supreme Court upheld the action in Korematsu v. United States. In a 6–3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. Six of eight Roosevelt appointees sided with Roosevelt. The lone Republican appointee, Owen Roberts, dissented. The opinion, written by Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. During the case, Solicitor General Charles Fahy is alleged to have suppressed evidence that questioned the need for removal. To this day, the Supreme Court has not overruled its decision. Since this stands as the law of the land it could offer precedence to the incarceration of Hispanics, Muslims, or other targeted groups.
From the vantage point of 75 years later it is easy to vilify those who advocated and implemented the internment program. It is difficult to put ourselves in that time and place. Perhaps the closest we can get is to recall the aftermath of 9/11, the fear, the anger and even the desire for revenge. The attack on Pearl Harbor understandablely brought those emotions and more. In the book In Defense of Internment, Michelle Malkin argues that the internment was appropriate and just. Unfortunately rather than present an historical analysis based on verified evidence the book is mostly a polemic focused on discrediting opponents.
The book does reproduce important original documents including Japanese diplomatic communications and US intelligence reports. Perusing these documents reveals a couple of key patterns. First, while the Japanese government did try to establish a spy network in the US they had little success. Support among people of Japanese heritage was virtually nonexistent. Second, the US intelligence assessments show little evidence of support and indicated that internment was probably not needed. In fact a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence stated that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies or sending signals to enemy submarines. Its is worth noting that not a single instance of espionage or sabotage was ever prosecuted or proved among the 120,000 internees.
The real driver for internment was the long standing racism against people of Japanese background. Historian Nikki Nojima Louis paints a picture of the racial environment on the West coast through newspaper headlines and stories, oral histories and other documentation. Political leaders and leading newspapers in the West had been calling for the expulsion of Japanese at least since the beginning of the 1900's. In1923 the state of Washington passed a law that effectively prohibited native born Japanese Americans from owning property. Japanese immigrants had already been prohibited from owning property and were also prohibited from becoming citizens. This law was modeled on the slightly less restrictive California Alien Land Law of 1920 targeting Japanese farmers who owned or leased land.
When the Rohwer camp was closed after the war, everything was torn down - the barracks, the mess hall, the guard towers even the barbed wire fence. It was as if the shame was already so clear that the stain needed to be eradicated. Only the land remained. Land that the prisoners had transformed from worthless waste to valued crop land. Today that land grows cotton and rice and corn.
In 1945 the residents erected two large concrete monuments in the Rohwer Memorial Cemetery. The first was decorated with floral patterns and artwork symbolic to both Japanese and American cultures. This monument was dedicated to all those who died while interned at the relocation center. The second monument commemorates the young men from the Rohwer Relocation Center who fought and lost their lives while serving in the U.S. Army’s 100th Battalion and 442nd Combat Team. The juxtaposition of these two monuments speaks louder than words.
To this day the 442nd Regiment of Japanese American soldiers is the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in American military history. The 4,000 men who initially made up the unit in April 1943 had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts.
Just as black soldiers fought for their country only to return and be denied basic civil and political rights, returning Japanese were targets of racial slurs, discrimination and vigilante violence.
And so the ghosts remain
The ghosts of our past
Too easily forgotten or ignored
But if we fail to heed them
They may be the ghosts of our future
One Small Voice
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