McGEHEE — Actor George Takei, who portrayed Lt. Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek TV series, was the special guest Tuesday at the dedication and opening of the World War II Japanese American Museum in McGehee, and the unveiling of outdoor exhibits developed by Arkansas State University at the Rohwer Relocation Center.
Both projects were initiated through grants from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Program at the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government forced Japanese-American citizens to leave the West Coast, out of fears for national security. They were detained during the war at 10 relocation centers, mostly in western states, with two in Arkansas — Rohwer, north of McGehee and Jerome, south of McGehee. These towns were the temporary homes for more than 17,000 incarcerated Japanese-Americans. Takei was interned as a young boy with his family at Rohwer.
Takei said the internment was a defining point for him.
“In 1942, I just turned 5 years old,” he said. “We arrived at Rohwer. The train arrived very slowly. I still remember that barbed-wire fence. … We were led like shepherds to slaughter when you took us to internment camps. … The internment was a defining force in my life.”
Takei said many people still do not know about the internment.
“The true legacy is to inform people,” he said. “People today don’t know about the internment. There is so much more.”
Carol Kaneko was among the Japanese-Americans who traveled many miles to attend the museum’s dedication. She and her husband, Paul, made the trip from California to be a part of the day’s events.
Kaneko was interned at Rohwer when she was a year old. Although she doesn’t remember the experience, she echoed Takei’s perspective on educating others. She said there is still work to be done.
“One woman in the audience referred to them as Jap Camps,” Kaneko said. “She didn’t have a clue how insulting that term was and still is. There is a lot of education we can do to educate people about that term.”
The new commemorative museum, housed in McGehee’s historic train depot, serves as the Jerome-Rohwer Interpretive and Visitor Center. “Against Their Will: The Japanese American Experience in World War II Arkansas,” is the museum’s featured exhibit. The outdoor interpretive exhibits at the Rohwer site include a series of kiosks and wayside panels, with audio components narrated by Takei.
Researched by students in the Heritage Studies Ph.D. Program at Arkansas State University and designed for the university by the 106 Group of Minneapolis/St. Paul, the exhibits provide a glimpse into the lives of Japanese-Americans once interned there. The exhibits will be maintained by Desha County.
A National Historic Landmark, the Rohwer site today includes only the Japanese-American cemetery and the remains of the camp’s hospital smokestack. Preservation work at the cemetery is expected to begin later this spring under the leadership of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Matching funds and support for the McGehee museum grant were provided by the McGehee Industrial Foundation, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Department of Rural Services, Clearwater Paper, Inc., and the Joseph F. Wallace Trust. The featured exhibit, created through the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Public History Program, is on loan from the Delta Cultural Center in Helena.
Matching grant funds for the Rohwer exhibits were provided by Arkansas State University, with support from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, Desha County and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.