Return to Rohwer

Posted on December 22, 2008 – 4:43 PM | by OldManFoster
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By William J. Hughes, Photos by Jesse Vasquez

MasakoMy friend Masako lives in Oak Park here in Sacramento.  Maybe you know her.  She used to own Masako’s Café next to Tapa The World on J Street.  She and her then husband Sal Yniguez owned a few coffee houses/cafes here in Sacramento City in the 60s.

In 1942, when Masako was eight years old, the United States Government, under the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, forcefully removed Masako and her family from Lodi, California and shipped them off to Rohwer, Arkansas, part and parcel of what became known as the Japanese-American Relocation, or Internment of WWII.   When you come to live in California you meet friends like Masako.

I’m headed into Arkansas at Ft. Smith, crossing over from Oklahoma.  I’m headed to Masako’s internment/prison camp in Rohwer, AR.  Do soybeans and young corn rule the world?  In this part of Arkansas they do.  Same as Lodi, CA.  I take great pride in being here. I’m here to do penance.

With six miles to go I think of one of Masako’s tales from the camp that she’s shared with me—a rare confidence.  She told me what one of their greatest fears in the camp was.  I was trying to imagine from a long list I knew nothing about.  “Well,” she says, “What if the Japanese had started to win the war . . .”  

Rohwer, Arkansas.  On anyone’s vacation list?  It’s a long way from Midtown Sacramento.  It’s a long country with a long troubled history.  The surrounding Arkansas earth continues, soybeans and early corn out in back of the adequate Best Western where I’ll be staying, requisite grain silo and town water tower nearby.

“Well, Masako, I’m here . . .” by phone back to Sacramento.  We both can’t quite believe it.

I wonder who got the lumber, the barbed wire, the guard tower contracts when Masako’s camp was first built?  Are their relatives still here?  Did they feed their families on the government money?  Is it hush-hush?

Masako in camp

One day at the prison camp of approximately 10,000 American citizens, a fleet of Army trucks pulls up to take some of the internees to McGehee, AR nearby.   There the prisoners could do some personal shopping.  Masako says they ate a lot of government Spam in the camp.  The trucks unload Masako and her family and the rest in McGehee, circa 1942.  One of the first things they notice is two water fountains:

One says WHITE
One says COLORED

Masako and her folks didn’t have a clue.  “What is this?  Who is it for?  What color are we?” 

Masako got here to the unknown by train, window blinds ordered pulled down the entire trip east to prevent the prisoners from knowing where they were going.  I just followed a map.

A roadside sign says: Rohwer War Relocation Center.  It’s the usual white letters on a brown background Natl. Park Service-like sign.  Just beyond it is a small white house with a satellite dish on its front lawn.  The black dish is large enough to be listening in on the universe for alien life.   Another roadside sign reads: Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery.

Turn left and up off Rt. 1 and in through a windscreen line of shrubs and trees.  Up over a slight hump that feels like its got some old railroad tracks still imbedded.  Uh, that doesn’t feel real good.  Too concentration camp-like.
Stop the car, get out, turn off the engine, stand on the muddy work road pointed out into the flat cultivated prairie.  Take in a real deep breath.  Out in the near distance, a copse of trees, a singular circle, an island in the cultivated ocean.  There’s something within the circle.

There’s a sculpture garden, a memorial garden within the trees.  Park the car anywhere I please.  The silence is golden.
The tall trees form walls, an outdoor home for the stone monuments, old and new, tall and low and in between off the ground.  The ground is green grass with little white wild petals, moist from a recent rain.  I’m surprised by how many stone memories, stone reminders are here, so much of the Internment still so secretly kept.
I see a newer stone monument, about four ft. in height.  A short block of cut stone reads:

Relocation Center
Made Possible By
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Japanese-American Citizens League
City of McGehee, Arkansas
United States National Park Service

The next memorial stone is taller, almost brand new, wider chunks of cut stone stacked atop each other. “Courage” the top of it reads.  “Cassino” and “Anzio” are inscribed on its base.   American-Japanese were released from the camps to fight in Europe. The Nisei Division had the highest casualty rate of any unit in WWII.  Why? Their courage, proof of their American loyalty– courage in battle against the Germans at Anzio and Monte Cassino.  Do you know much of the blood-soaked history of those two Italian campaigns of WWII?  I’m a Purple Heart Vietnam vet and I can tell you that Anzio and Monte Cassino made ‘Nam look like a day off.   An older stone bears the number 100442, the Division unit that the camp internees, including Masako’s brother **** , served in.

There was, eventually, after two years of captivity, a way for Masako’s family to get an early release from the camp.  I’m not quite sure of all the details but apparently if you had X amount of property still in your possession on the outside after the land grabs, or X amount of cash on hand you could head back home– if you still had a home in your own country to go back home to.  Masako’s family qualified on both counts.  They had someone, some Anglo/German-American friend who sat on their property in Lodi.  Good man.
So, Masako and her parents were allowed to leave Arkansas.  They got themselves a used black coupe and off they go, Rohwer, AR back to Lodi, CA, headed home across their own unknown country.

Masako remembers a stop for gas and food somewhere either in New Mexico or Arizona, their black coupe all covered in dust.  Masako’s family gets out of the car and goes into the café to eat.  No one comes to fill up the black coupe.  So, Masako ten years old now, and her parents take a seat in this café.  No one comes to take their order.
Finally, the manager or the owner comes over to their table and says:  “Come on, you know better…”  Masako’s family has no answer.  “You know we don’t serve Indians in here….”

I’m standing in the cemetery, a few rows of blunt, weathered headstones, some of the stones partially covered over with light copper/orange moss, some with one bright flower placed as remembrance.  People died in here, far away from home.  Far away.  I feel the shame.

Masako returned to Rohwer with her daughter Ciana in 2004.  So much was gone, but more came back as she walked these grounds.  Too much.

Starting out my life on Long Island, NY, heading slowly west to eventually meet Masako and standing here among the silent reminders.  I’ll never know all there is to know, but now I know some of it.  I wipe away my soft tears.  Time to go.

What if the Japanese had started to win the war?

With a sigh attached, a nice semi-Jewish boy from Long Island makes good on his promise to his friend Masako from California.

  1. One Response to “Return to Rohwer”

  2. avatar

    By Laurie Funaroff on Apr 10, 2011 | Reply

    Thank you for this heartfelt story journey.

    I came upon it by accident, while searching for a way to contact a friend of Masako’s. I’d met them while walking on Broadway in Midtown the other day, and the e-mail Maria gave me doesn’t go through.

    I first met Masako through my daughter, when she worked at the cafe.

    Your story is very important. I’d never thought about the greatest fear of the Japanese people in the camps…”What if the Japanese won?” Each oppressed people have their own unique way of experiencing oppression. Along with that, too many times, each oppressed group has no idea of how the others are being treated by those in power.

    A compilation of stories, beginning with those cultures/’races’ enduring the longest political/social oppression in this country would be one more stepping stone towards peace and justice.

    Thank you again for your heartfelt journey and your story.

    Laurie Funaroff ………….

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