America’s Concentration Camps


September 18, 1942 – November 30, 1945

“I remember chasing a firefly…. It flew over the barbed wire fence, and I went after it. And the searchlight came down on me and said, get-your-little-butt-away-from-the-fence kind of thing—which was a scary experience.”
—Paul S. Sakamoto

Rohwer Relocation Center was 27 miles north of the Jerome concentration camp, in an impoverished area of wooded swamp and cotton fields in southeastern Arkansas.

Michiko Frances Chikahisa was in junior high when her family arrived at Rohwer. She remembered that not much was demanded of the students, either by teachers or parents. “My folks, not knowing what was gonna happen to us, were not saying. ‘You got to study hard and make As,’ you know?” Once she got to high school, however, she had better teachers, some of them from the American Friends Services Committee who were teaching in lieu of army service. They were “conscientious objectors, liberal, people with some kind of conviction about how life in the U.S. ought to be, so they were sympathetic and good teachers.”

Early Leave

By July of 1942, even as people were still arriving in the camps, the War Relocation Authority had begun a program to resettle inmates outside the West Coast exclusion zone. Rohwer inmate Ben Tsutomu Chikaraishi grew up in California, but after incarceration, he resettled in Chicago.

Chikaraishi described leaving Rohwer in July of 1943, and feeling unsure of his place in the world:

I got on the bus and my first decision outside of camp was “Where do I sit?” The white people sat in the front of the bus. The blacks were in the back. So I said, “Gee, we were confined so long and we were discriminated [against] so much that maybe I’ll be considered a black.’ So I went to the back…. The bus driver stopped the bus and he says, “Hey, you gotta sit in the front.” So I got up and moved. But I didn’t come way in the front either. I sat right by the dividing line.

Soldiers from Hawai‘i

In 1943, Rohwer was visited by a group of soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who had been training in Shelby, Mississippi. The visitors were all Japanese Americans from Hawai‘i, and knew nothing of the forced removal and incarceration on the mainland. Daniel Inouye, who later became a U.S. Senator, described the visit to Rohwer:

We thought well, we’re going off to Rohwer and there’s a large Japanese community—we didn’t know the community was in a camp. And so we got ourselves all gussied up, getting ready for a weekend with the young ladies…. I remember when we turned the corner, the bend of the road, and the valley came into view. And what we saw was row after row of barracks. High barbed wire fences and there are machine gun towers all around the camp.

The 442nd Regiment, which became one of the most decorated units in the history of the U.S. military, might never have happened had that group of officers not visited Rohwer. Training hadn’t been going well. Soldiers from Hawai‘i weren’t getting along with soldiers from the mainland—so much so that military high command had nearly disbanded the unit. But now, seeing Rohwer, the officers realized the difficult decision their fellow soldiers from the mainland had had to make in volunteering to serve.

On the bus trip back to the training camp in Mississippi, said Inouye, the usually boisterous Hawaiian Nisei sat silently. “And I think almost all of us must have asked ourselves, would we have volunteered?”

As word of the concentration camp spread among the soldiers, friction between the two sides vanished. “Overnight the regiment was formed,” said Inouye. “Next morning you had the 442nd.”

Quote credits
Paul S. Sakamoto, REgenerations Oral History Project: Rebuilding Japanese American Families, Communities, and Civil Rights in the Resettlement Era: Chicago Region: Vol. III. p. 296
Michiko Frances Chikahisa, interview by Tom Ikeda, June 17, 2011, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
Ben Tsutomu Chikaraishi, REgenerations Oral History Project: Rebuilding Japanese American Families, Communities, and Civil Rights in the Resettlement Era: Chicago Region: Volume I. p.81
Daniel Inouye, interview by Tom Ikeda, June 30, 1998, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.

Second grade class, Rohwer.Enlarge
Second grade class, Rohwer. Inmates build a porch, Rohwer. Henry Sugimoto, Rohwer Camp, ca. 1945. Henry Sugimoto, Planting Vegetables, 1944.

Second grade class. National Archives and Records Administration [Electronic Record].