Last updated: May 24, 2021
Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery in Desha County, Arkansas, is one of only three extant Japanese American confinement site cemeteries in the United States. Japanese Americans incarcerated at Rohwer from 1942 to 1945 designed and built the cemetery which has several monuments, including one honoring Japanese American soldiers who died fighting in Europe during World War II.
After Japan's devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, leading to the United States' entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The Order authorized the establishment of military areas encompassing most of the West Coast of the United States, "from which any or all persons may be excluded." This allowed for the forced removal of Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry from these areas. This was done because of fears that they might support Japan in the war. In March 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, which established the War Relocation Authority, the federal agency responsible for the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans and the construction and administration of confinement sites throughout the United States. The U.S. military supported Executive Order 9066 by forcibly removing Japanese Americans from states on the West Coast. Through Executive Order 9066 came Proclamation No.1, which was initially a policy of voluntary participation to move. However, incarceration soon became mandatory forcing some 120,000 Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry to move to 10 confinement sites across the nation.
Rohwer Relocation Center was one of only two confinement sites located in the eastern half of the U.S. The other was the Jerome Relocation Center, 30 miles southwest of Rohwer. Built five miles west of the Mississippi River, near railway lines for easy transport of incarcerees, Rohwer was deemed secure, isolated, and livable. Construction of Rohwer began in late July 1942 and extended into January 1943, but by September 1942, the confinement site was already admitting incarcerees. Regardless of family ties, even immediate families' members ended up in different confinement sites or were separated within a site due to overcrowding and for logistical reasons. Rohwer consisted of 500 acres of wood-frame barracks, covered with tar paper and divided into blocks with twelve barracks per block. Each block also contained a mess hall, a laundry and a combination bath/toilet building. The barracks buildings were divided into six apartments of different sizes and housed 250 incarcerees. The incarcerees included first-generation Japanese nationals (Issei), and second- and third-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei and Sansei). The Rohwer Relocation Center housed a mix of generations with approximately 10% over the age of 60 and 40% under the age of 19. Over 10,000 incarcerees passed through Rohwer Relocation Center during its existence, and over two thirds of these were American citizens. The center closed in 1945, the buildings were removed, and most of the land was returned to agricultural fields.
While in Rohwer Relocation Center, some incarcerees volunteered to enlist in the U.S. Army. The volunteer soldiers from Rohwer and other confinement sites received assignment to the 100th Infantry Battalion, a unit within the United States Army's 34th Infantry Division, later activated into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This all-Nisei unit received recognition as one of the most highly decorated and respected in the U.S. Army. While the Japanese American men who enlisted left Rohwer Relocation Center to fight for their country, their families remained behind as incarcerees.
Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery was planned and laid out in 1943-1944 and is set within a rectangular plot containing two historic monuments, 24 low-lying concrete headstones, two entrance markers, 64 concrete posts, a bench engraved with a sun and moon, and sidewalks. All were designed and built by the incarcerees. There are also 17 flowering cherry trees planted in 1994 to replicate part of the original design of the cemetery which also included water features and bridges. The historic monuments within the Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery were the largest and most elaborately detailed of all the confinement site cemeteries.
On June 24, 1945 a monument to commemorate all those who died while incarcerated at Rohwer was dedicated at the cemetery. The historic monument still stands and consists of a square base with decorative carving and urns at the four corners. The base supports a tall obelisk with a globe and eagle on top. The base has inscribed floral patterns, and a star and circle alternately at the four corners. Decorative carvings and inscriptions in Japanese and English adorn the obelisk on all four sides. Of particular beauty are the egret and the peacock on the south face, which stand beneath a tree branch and a stylized rising sun. The American eagle beneath the star on the east face stands as a silent testimonial to the patriotism of Japanese Americans.
The second monument, sponsored by the Rohwer chapter of the USO and designed and built by incarceree Koheiji Horizawa and his assistant Harry Fujioka, was dedicated on November 4, 1945. It commemorates the soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who served in Europe during World War II. The names of the incarcerees who enlisted from the Rohwer Relocation Center and were killed in action are memorialized on the monument itself. The monument has a base shaped like the lower portion of a tank with a tall, rectangular tablet and a star on top. The relief designs in the concrete feature an American flag with the colors painted into the relief on the east and west sides beneath a carving of an eagle. The inscription on the back of the monument reads "In memory of our sons who sacrificed their lives in the service of their country. They fought for freedom. They died that the world might have peace."
In 1982, a new granite monument topped with a bronze eagle commemorating both the incarcerees who died at Rohwer and those who died while serving in World War II, was dedicated at the cemetery. The new monument, located near the two historic monuments, was suggested by Sam Yada, a former Rohwer incarceree living in Arkansas. Mr. Yada was concerned that that the original concrete monuments, which were deteriorating, would be lost, so he proposed a new monument for the cemetery to be made of a more durable material.
There are also 24 concrete headstones at the cemetery. All are of a similar design which consists of a low tablet placed on a rectangular base, with a scalloped concrete flower holder positioned at the front. The top of the face of the headstone is decorated with a floral pattern under which is a symbol indicating whether the deceased was Buddhist (a flower) or Christian (a cross). The name of the deceased, with birth and death dates, is located within a rectangle beneath the symbol.
In 1974, the Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 1992, it became a National Historic Landmark. Today, the majority of the Rohwer Relocation Center grounds have been converted back to farm land.
Grants from the National Park Service's Japanese Confinement Sites Preservation Program have assisted efforts to document and restore the Rohwer Relocation Center Cemetery. As part of the grant, the University of Arkansas Landscape Architecture Program volunteered its services to produce an Historic American Landscape Survey report of the cemetery. This effort was aided by the University's Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) which produced a high-density survey (HDS) of the cemetery and the surrounding site.
In addition, the National Trust for Historic Preservation worked with the Arkansas State University Heritage Sites program to produce interpretive mapping and establish educational kiosks and audio tours for the Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery. The Central Arkansas Library System also preserves creative artwork left behind by the incarcerees, such as paintings adhered to paper.
Today, all that remains of the 500-acre Rohwer Relocation Center is the cemetery and a tall smokestack where the camp's hospital used to stand. There is a replica small scale guard tower that serves as an informational kiosk and visitors can take a self-guided walking tour along the southern boundary of the original camp. There are also interpretive panels and audio stations featuring the voice of actor George Takei, who was imprisoned at the Rohwer Relocation Center with his family in 1942, before being moved to Tule Lake Segregation Center in California.
Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, is located on the Japanese American Internment Heritage Trail off of Arkansas Highway 1, 0.6 miles North of Rohwer, AR, and 13 miles Northeast of McGehee, AR. For more information, visit the Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery website or contact the McGehee Chamber of Commerce.
Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery is featured in the National Historic Landmark Theme Study Japanese Americans in World War II. Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery has been documented by the University of Arkansas through the National Park Service's Historic American Landscapes Survey program.