A little-known or advertised circumstance which occurred after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 is related in this documentary. Japanese-Americans living in California were regarded as dangerous and potential collaborators whose activities should be monitored closely. As a result, United States authorities searched the homes of Japanese community leaders and prominent businessmen, resulting in 1,200 men being taken away without charges. Many had lived in the United States for decades. These Japanese were called Issei. Their children, born in the United States, were referred to as Nisei.

In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which stated that Japanese-Americans must register their families and be prepared to evacuate their homes within 10 days. 110,000 of these people had to conform. 40% were children and 70% were citizens of the United States. There was never even one federal indictment of these people for espionage or sabotage. 16,000 were sent to Arkansas, to the poor towns of Rohrer and Jerome. They were prisoners of the U. S. military and were surrounded by barbed wire. Southeast Arkansas is one of the poorest areas in America. At that time, the citizens did not have electricity, no indoor plumbing and were frequently flooded when the Mississippi River overflowed.

Many of these internees were interviewed for this documentary, including Senator Dan Inouye of Hawaii, who was one of many Japanese who volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces.

Milton Eisenhower, brother of General Dwight D. Eisenhower was named head of the War Relocation Agency which moved the Japanese to relocation camps in inland regions. Governor Homer Atkins of Arkansas did not want them and imposed severe restrictions on the internees.

The camps were built within days and the internees had to line up for everything - for food, showers and supplies. Adults could earn $12 a month if they worked. They were under military guard and were assured that they would be removed at the end of the war. Since many were farm workers prior to their imprisonment, they were able to raise vegetable and hogs for their subsistence.

White Arkansans were hired to teach in the camps in Rohrer and Jerome. In the cities, they were paid $900 a year, but in the camps their salary was $2000 a year, which enraged Arkansas citizens. The people saw that the internees received plenty of food while the citizens had to use food stamps. They also had their own hospitals and health care. The family structure broke down as teenagers chose to eat with their friends and not with their parents; the parents ate together. The Nisei were bored and anxious to leave. They were given permission to go into the town, but the town stores did not like to serve them. The colleges in Arkansas would not accept the Japanese lest they be required to accept African-Americans also.

The Governor would not let the Japanese work in Arkansas but they could work in other states. After security checks, hundreds of Nisei were allowed to leave and work in other cities. The U. S. government realized that the Japanese would be valuable in the army and approved 10,000 men to join the service. They formed the 442nd combat unit and trained in Shelby, Mississippi. They had to pass several security clearances to do so. The 442nd unit was sent to Europe where they fought some of the toughest battles. They became legendary when they won more war decorations than any other unit of their size.

By 1944, security was relaxed at the camps. For the children, the camps were fun and they made many friends. The citizens of Rohrer and Jerome eventually showed empathy toward the internees. By December 1944, it was deemed that loyal citizens could no longer be incarcerated or kept out of California. They were free to leave. Only nine families remained in Arkansas where the farmland was good to them. Most did not want to stay; they went to Chicago, New York City, Cleveland and California. The citizens of Rohrer and Jerome were relieved when the internees left.

Four decades later, in 1988, the Federal government apologized to the internees, admitting that their internment was caused by racism, fear, and the failure of leadership. That year, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and $20,000 was given to each and every person who had been interned. Plus, they were offered a formal apology. The experience, however, continues to haunt them, as is gleaned from the documentary.

The film was funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation with additional funding from the Arkansas Resources Council and the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council.

Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans
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