Jerome Relocation Center, Arkansas
While most of the other relocation camps were built on barren, windswept lands, Jerome Relocation Center was in the middle of heavily wooded swampland, 18 miles south of McGehee and 120 miles southeast of Little Rock. The camp was named after the town of Jerome, which was located a half-mile south.
The evacuees found themselves in the midst of the Mississippi River delta region, an area carved by numerous waterways and bayous. Arkansas was actually the home of two camps, Jerome and Rohwer, which were located about thirty miles apart. The original plan for the Farm Security Administration land in the southeast part of the state had called for the clearing and draining of the swamps to be used as homesteads for low-income farm families.
Construction of the Jerome Relocation Center began on July 15, 1942, and it was the last of the ten camps to be opened on October 6, 1942. Internees arrived from the central San Joaquin Valley and San Pedro Bay in California, and Hawaii. Jerome’s population reached 8,497 in November 1942. It was the first camp to close on June 30, 1944.
Life was difficult at Jerome for a somewhat different set of reasons than the other camps. The region is extremely humid and receives nearly sixty inches of rain a year. Mud was a constant problem, and the moist environment allowed mosquitos to flourish, which in turn caused malaria and other diseases to spread. The surrounding swamps were also rife with some of the most deadly snake species in North America, a real fear among the internees.
Many of the local people living near the camps were sympathetic to the internees’ plight, but emotions ran high after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and several incidents occurred in late 1942 that reflected the heightened racist attitude of the time. Jerome was the only site that reported shootings of internees by civilians. A local farmer on horseback came across three Japanese Americans on a work detail in the woods. Assuming that they were trying to escape, he fired and wounded two of the young men. A Caucasian engineer supervisor was with them, but the farmer claimed that he thought the supervisor was trying to aid their escape.
Other scuffles reportedly included a contractor’s guard who shot and injured three boys who had thrown rocks at him, and a Dermott farmer who shot at a Japanese-American soldier who had been visiting relatives in Jerome. A black employee of the Jerome contractors tore the coat off one of two Japanese girls he had solicited, and received a $100 fine and a year in prison.
To complicate matters, rumors and false press reporting leaked out to the general public. When it was rumored that the Arkansas camps were not observing the food-rationing program, U.S. Senator Hattie Caraway ordered an investigation, but the claim proved to be untrue. A Memphis reporter spent a week at Jerome and wrote that sabotage and unrest were prevalent at Jerome and that the evacuees were destroying equipment and refusing to work. Many people believed the story, and shortly after, several discriminatory bills were raised in the Arkansas General Assembly that, in part, prevented Japanese people from owning land in Arkansas.
The camp was divided into 50 blocks surrounded by a barbed wire fence, a patrol road, and seven watch towers. The blocks were arranged on a north-south grid, except for the warehouse block, which was aligned with the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
There were over 610 buildings at the center. The military police compound had 12 buildings, the administration area had 18 buildings, the warehouse area had 21 buildings and the hospital had 16 buildings. The 36 residential blocks were located to the east of the administration areas. Each residential block had 12 barracks, a recreation building, a mess hall, and a combined bathroom and laundry building.
Several blocks were used for the high school and elementary schools, and the auditorium was completed in June 1944. A recreation area was provided for various activities, and tournaments were held for the girls’ and boys’ basketball leagues as well as other sporting events. There was a community workshop where women made rugs and other household items. Classes such as knitting and sewing were popular, as well as adult education courses in shorthand and typing. The internees built a 45-acre Scout campsite four miles east of the residential area. Three buildings near the campsite were used as the Scout headquarters and field houses.
The internees themselves provided much of the general labor, clearing land, digging ditches and building bridges. Because of drainage problems, an eight-mile canal was constructed that enabled them to run a successful farm operation. By 1943, 630 acres were under cultivation, which expanded to 718 acres by the following year. Jerome was able to grow 85 percent of its own vegetables. In addition, the internees raised over 1,200 hogs for consumption at the camp. The camp also had a sawmill that produced more than 280,000 board feet of lumber and 6,000 cords of firewood from the cleared trees.
The questionnaire administered to all Japanese by the WRA, called the Application for Leave Clearance, was designed to determine who was "loyal" and who was "disloyal" to the United States. It caused deep confusion and resentment among the internees, who were required to complete the form whether or not they were actually planning to leave the camp. Only those who had applied for repatriation to Japan did not have to fill out the questionnaire. The most troubling questions were numbers 27 and 28, which read, "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" and "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack from foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?" Many answered "yes" to both simply because they believed that if they answered "no" they would be sent to a maximum security facility, such as Tule Lake. Three-quarters of the people at Jerome answered question 28 positively, and of those, 52 eligible males were inducted directly into the U.S. Army.
Because the WRA leave process had enabled many internees to resettle outside the camps before the end of the war, the population among all the relocation centers declined dramatically in 1944. Since Jerome was the least developed of all the camps, it closed on June 30, 1944. It was also one of the smallest, and nearby Rohwer Relocation Center was able to take in most of the remaining Jerome residents.
After the camp was closed, it was converted into a German Prisoner of War camp. The POWs were confined to the central area and did not work in the surrounding fields. A German general and his orderlies who were captured at the Battle of the Bulge occupied Block 1. Another block that was isolated from the rest of the camp housed SS troops. Today rice and soybean fields and fish farms occupy much of the land. The camp’s deteriorating structures have been restored, including the hospital boiler house smokestack, now a local landmark.
Anderson, William Cary, "Early Reaction in Arkansas to the Relocation of Japanese
in the State," Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume 23 (Autumn, 1964):195- 211.
Burton, Jeffery F.; Farrell, Mary M.; Lord, Florence B.; Lord, Richard W. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, Publications in Anthropology 74, 1999.
Girdner, Audrie and Loftis, Anne. The Great Betrayal, Toronto: Macmillan, 1969
Niiya, Brian. Japanese American History: An A to Z Reference, 1868 to the Present, New York: Facts on File, 1993.
Vickers, Ruth Petway, "Japanese-American Relocation," Arkansas Historical
Quarterly, Volume 10 (Summer, 1951): 168- 176.
Reprinted with permission from "Echoes of Silence: The Untold Stories of the Nisei Soldiers Who Served in WWII" with thanks to the AJA WWII Memorial Alliance educational project who produced the CD.