Leader Blues

Friday, September 04, 2009

TOP STORY >> WAR MEMORIES: Japanese-Americans sent to Arkansas during WWII

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville Museum of Military History recently held a presentation about Rohwer, one of two Japanese-American internment camps in southeastern Arkansas during the Second World War.

One man in the audience was at both Rohwer and Jerome camps, not as an internee, but as an administrator.

Young Orsburn, 93, of North Little Rock was a teacher and superintendent of housing at the Jerome internment camp in Drew County from 1942 until it closed in 1944. He went on to work at the Rohwer camp relocating internees in Desha County for three months before he was drafted into the Army.

Orsburn was born on April 14, 1916, in Okolona in Clark County. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Henderson State Teachers College.

Before working at the internment camps, Orsburn was the superintendent of Central schools in Nevada County.

Orsburn was approached about working at the Jerome internment camp school by A.G. Thomas, Lake Village school superintendent. Tho-mas had been selected to run the school in Jerome.

“He asked me if I would help him with the school system down there and I agreed to it,” Orsburn said.

Orsburn was 26 years old when he started teaching high school general science classes at the Jerome camp school. He and his wife, Lucille, lived in Jerome with their 5-year-old daughter Patricia. She attended first grade at the Jerome school.

Their second daughter, Cecillia, was born on April 18, 1943, at Dermott Catholic Hospital while the family was at Jerome.

“At Jerome, I taught for a few months. They moved me from teaching to administrative staff as superintendent of housing,” Orsburn said.

He said Jerome was not called an internment camp.

“We referred to it as the Jerome relocation center. I served on the evacuee-relocation committee. The main thrust was to put the people to work outside of the center, away from the West Coast,” he explained.

Those sent to internment camps were first, second and third generation Americans.

They came from Hawaii, southern California, Washington, Oregon and southern Arizona, Orsburn said.

Orsburn has much admiration toward the Japanese-Americans who were sent to Jerome.

“These people made good American citizens, you learned. The parents were so dedicated to see that their children were brought up American and educated,” he said.

“They exhibited this by being members of the PTA and church organizations. The children were devoted to see that their parents were taken care of in their old age. They were excellent employees and did their job well,” Orsburn said.

Many of the Japanese-American students who were at Jerome are still in contact with Orsburn today.

Orsburn recalled internee Alice Tomono, who helped the Orsburn family with babysitting and household work.

“We got her a job in Independence, Mo., as a housekeeper for a family. While she was in Jerome, she made contact with the Baby Ruth candy company in Chicago. She secured a job with Baby Ruth for close to two years.

“By that time the war was over and she returned to Sacramento, Calif. She married her old high school sweetheart, Kay Okimura,” Orsburn said.

One of the more famous Japanese-Americans who was sent to Jerome was artist Henry Sugimoto and his wife. Orsburn remembered Sugimoto arrived at the camp with three paint brushes.

Sugimoto was an art teacher at Jerome who later went to Paris and New York.

The Smithsonian Institute in Washington owns some of his art. The Japanese American National Museum has an online collection of Sugimoto’s work, including paintings of Arkansas internment camps.

Jerome and Rohwer were the farthest internment camps from the West Coast. Orsburn said each camp was set up on 10,000 acres of government-owned land.

Around 8,500 Japanese-Americans were interned at Jerome. It was the fifth largest city in the state at that time. The camp had electricity and a sewer plant that the neighboring towns did not have.

There were six guard towers at Jerome and more guards drove along patrol roads that went around the perimeter of the camp.

The camp was surrounded by three strands of barbed-wire fencing.

“We never had any trouble or anyone wanting to leave,” Orsburn said.

According to housing layouts Orsburn still has, the Jerome camp had 2,376 apartments. Some apartments had two people, while a few had up to 19 people staying at a time.

The camp was laid out in a grid pattern of 36 housing blocks; 33 blocks were used for evacuees. Each block had 12 barrack buildings with 72 apartment units.

Each barrack was divided into six apartments. There were two 16-feet-by-20-feet units, two 20-feet-by-20-feet units and two 24-feet-by-20 feet units.

Each block had its own managerial office, large cafeteria, laundry and lavatories.

At Jerome, there were nearly 1,000 Japanese-Americans employed at the camp. Some were block managers, janitors, firemen, laundry attendances, office clerks, supply clerks, warehouse employees, repairmen and movers.

Workers were paid from $12 to $19 a month, depending on their abilities.

“We had a lot of Japanese-Americans volunteer for the Army out there and trained at Fort Shelby, Miss.,” Orsburn said.

Many Japanese-Americans worked on the farms at the camps.

Orsburn said, “They raised so much food on the farms. Jerome had 718 farmed acres. They grew 1,170,000 pounds of vegetables, including sweet potatoes. They cleared 200 acres of virgin land. They slaughtered 1,215 hogs. They cut and sawed 281,900 board feet of lumber, and they cut 16,600 cords of wood used to heat the barracks.”

After 1945, the Jerome camp was turned into a German POW camp.

Orsburn was drafted into the Army in 1944.

“I had two children and was deferred for a long time,” he said.

Orsburn went to basic training in Fort Knox, Ky. He then moved to adjutant general school in Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

From there, Orsburn was stationed to McCloskey Army general hospital in Temple, Texas.

He was trained to counsel and discharge wounded war veterans and to discharge patients at the Army hospital from 1944 to 1945.

He returned to Rohwer about a month after finishing his service. Orsburn then worked for five years at the Veterans Administration in Little Rock.

He assisted the chief of advisement and guidance.

In 1950, Orsburn went to work for the state Department of Education’s rehabilitation services.

He was the supervisor of 31 counties in the western division of Arkansas. Orsburn retired from the position after 32 years.

While working for the Department of Education, Orsburn continued his education and earned a master’s degree in education and counselor training from the University of Arkansas in 1952.

During the summer of 1958, Orsburn went to New York University for advanced training in civil rehabilitation of the severely handicapped.

Orsburn and his wife, Lucille, were married for 67 years until her death in 2003. In addition to Patricia and Cecilia, they had two other daughters, Ellen and Martha.