The Two Camps in Arkansas During WWII
After Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, and America’s subsequent declaration of war and entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which selected ten sites to incarcerate more than 110,000 Japanese Americans (sixty-four percent of whom were American citizens). They had been forcibly removed from the West Coast, where over eighty percent of Japanese Americans lived (Bearden, 2018). Two camps were selected and built in the Arkansas Delta. The Rohwer site was in Desha County, twelve miles northeast of McGehee, 110 miles southeast of Little Rock. The Jerome site in sections of Chicot and Drew counties, eight miles south of the town of Dermott and about 120 miles southeast of Little Rock, was also known as Denson and the camp newspaper was called the Denson Tribune (Densho, 2019). Operating from October 1942 to November 1945, both camps eventually incarcerated nearly 16,000 Japanese Americans. This was the largest influx and incarceration of any racial or ethnic group in the state’s history. The search for sites for America’s first Japanese American “relocation center,” as they were labeled by the WRA, was limited to federally owned lands suitable enough to house from five to eight thousand people and located, as the War Department required, “a safe distance from strategic works.” By June 4, 1942, the WRA had selected ten sites, with the Arkansas camps being the easternmost sites (Bearden, 2018).
Description of the Camps
Arkansas’s Farm Security Administration chief, Eli B. Whitaker, acquired the land for the Arkansas camps. It was situated in the marshy delta of the Mississippi River’s floodplain and was originally tax-delinquent lands in dire need of clearing, leveling, and drainage. Each camp was approximately 10,000 acres, including 500 acres of tar-papered, A-framed buildings arranged into numbered blocks. All were partially surrounded by barbed wire or heavily wooded areas with guard towers situated at strategic areas and guarded by a small military contingent. Each block was designed to accommodate around 250 people residing in fourteen residential barracks with each barrack (20’x120′) divided into four to six apartments. Each block also consisted of a mess hall, a recreational barrack, a laundry building, and a building for a communal latrine. The residential buildings were without plumbing or running water, and the buildings were heated during the winter months by wood stoves. The camps also had an administrative section segregated from the rest of the buildings, a military police section, a hospital section, a warehouse and factory section, a residential section of barracks for WRA personnel, barracks for schools (kindergarten through twelfth grade), and auxiliary buildings for such things as canteens, motion pictures, gymnasiums, motor pools, and fire stations. Both camps were immense, sprawling cities that were two of the largest agricultural communities in Arkansas. During the construction phase of the incarceration camps, more than 5,000 workers were employed to clear hundreds of acres of land, to build more than 1,200 barrack-type buildings, and to lay miles of gravel roads (Bearden, 2018).
A New Mission Field
Early in 1943 the Arkansas-Louisiana Conference recognized the need and opportunity to spread the three-angel’s message to this large mission field right in their backyard. At their peak there were over 16,000 people at these two camps that were twenty miles apart. Elder Louis Halswick from the General Conference met with Elder I. C. Pound, Arkansas-Louisiana Conference president, and visited the camps to decide the best approach (Record, 1943). They decided to hire Toshi Hirabayashi, a young Japanese Seventh-day Adventist, to spend his time and influence in the Japanese camps. They paid him a salary of $21.75 per week, with a $15 per month expense budget (Minutes, 1943). Toshi and his wife settled in and began cottage meetings and Bible studies among the Japanese people. Toshi’s contact with the conference officials was mainly by letter because of the isolation and restricted freedom at the camps, and by July of 1943 he wrote that he already had a real interest developing in the camps (Wells, 1943). Toshi sent requests for large numbers of Youth Instructor magazines, Little Friends, Signs of the Times, health magazines, and others (Wells, 1945). In the fall of 1944 Toshi wrote that there were about thirty children attending a Sabbath school. He also suggested that as a missionary project our members consider sending toys and other things to be given to the children at Christmas (Wells, 1944b).
Results of the Work
An Adventist Japanese lady, who was located in one of the relocation camps, told of the marvelous openings she had in the camp to contact her native people. She said that formerly these people worked so hard that they had no time for spiritual matters. Some worked fourteen, sixteen, and eighteen hours a day. Now they had nothing to do but to listen to the Bible as presented by this lady and many others like her (Manry, 1943). The pastor at Little Rock, Elder H. H. Mattison and his wife, along with several church members, visited the camps and the Hirabayashis. They had an opportunity to talk to the group of people, both old and young, who had accepted the Adventist message and were looking forward to the second coming of Jesus. Toshi served as the interpreter and the Japanese in the camp enjoyed and appreciated the visit (Wells, 1944a). Elder Mattison was the pastor Toshi would contact when individuals were ready to be baptized (Wells, 1945a). Eighteen people were baptized during the eighteen months the Hirabayashis worked at the Relocation Camp. In the summer of 1945, Toshi and his wife accepted a call to the Hawaiian Islands as missionaries (Wells, 1945b). By this time the Jerome camp had already closed and the Rohwer camp closed three months after the Hirabayashis left.
(1943, Mar. 10). Southwestern Union Record, pp. 3, 4.
(1943, Jul. 12). Executive Committee Minutes. Shreveport, LA: Arkansas-Louisiana Conference of SDA.
Bearden, Russell E. (2018, Jun. 27). Japanese American Relocation Camps. Retrieved from encyclopediaofarkansas.net.
Manry, E. A. (1943, Nov. 3). Southwestern Union Record, pp. 1, 2.
Wells, Frank D. (1943, Jul. 21). Ibid., p. 6.
Ibid. (1944a, Sep. 27). p. 3.
Ibid. (1944b, Nov. 15). p. 2.
Ibid. (1945a, Feb. 28). p. 2.
Ibid. (1945b, Aug. 8). p. 6.