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From 3-D to 2-D: Mapping the Forgotten History of a Japanese-American Internment Camp

From 3-D to 2-D: Mapping the Forgotten History of a Japanese-American Internment Camp

Laser scanning produced a three-dimensional representation of the site. Every time the laser encountered a surface, it recorded a distance as a point. Taken together, the points produce a 3D point cloud, the recording of millions of points that precisely plot the shapes within the site and document the most minuscule details of headstones and monuments in the Rohwer cemetery.

In an unexpected union between landscape architects, historians and technology gurus, a small but significant cemetery, which saw its last burial well over 60 years ago, is receiving some long overdue attention.

After Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were victims of racial profiling, because of fear they could be potential spies or conspirators for a Japanese invasion. Though there was no proof that Japanese-Americans were guilty of any attempted sabotage, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, uprooting more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans – the majority of whom were United States citizens – and forcing them to relocate to 10 different internment camps around the country. Two of these camps, Rohwer and Jerome, were located in Arkansas.

Rohwer, a small farming community in the southeastern portion of the state, was the location of the last of all the camps to remain in operation. Opened in September 1942 and closed in November 1945, more than 10,000 internees passed through its grounds, with as many as 8,475 living there during its peak. What used to be 500 acres with 620 buildings divided into 51 blocks is now reduced to a small cemetery and a distant smokestack, all that remains of the camp’s laundry. In the cemetery, only 24 weathered gravestones and four monuments remain to serve as a reminder of this significant story in American history.

“May the people of Arkansas keep in beauty and reverence forever this ground where our bodies sleep,” reads one monument in Japanese. Built in 1945 and erected by the internees themselves, this memorial stands to honor the 186 people who died while living at Rohwer. Today, seven decades after the camp was dismantled, three of the state’s universities are teaming up to honor this long ago request.

“It’s a nationally significant project we’re blessed to be a part of,” said Kimball Erdman, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Arkansas and head of the effort to survey and document the Rohwer site. Erdman, who has spent his career studying, preserving and planning for culturally significant landscapes, first got involved with Rohwer in spring 2011, seeing it as an opportunity to both explore new technologies and preserve a meaningful piece of history.

Kimball Erdman’s landscape architecture class used CAST’s data to produce detailed drawings of monuments.

“That’s really what this program is about – raising awareness and protecting what remains of these sites – because frankly very little has been done until now,” he said.

Documenting Rohwer is part of a larger conservation effort being led by Johanna Miller Lewis, graduate coordinator for the masters in public history program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Lewis received a National Park Service Grant to restore the Rohwer cemetery, and together with help from the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University, is working to map, restore and stabilize the site.

Traditional and Technical Tools Combined

A resident of the Rohwer camp views the grave of a relative buried in the cemetery, June 16, 1944.
Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki

The University of Arkansas is charged with completing a report for the Historic American Landscapes Survey, which, Lewis said, will be “extremely important to how the architect approaches conservation and stabilization.” To conduct the survey, landscape architecture collaborated with the university’s Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies.

“It’s a relationship that’s really developed in the past year,” said Robyn Dennis, a geospatial education and research specialist for CAST. “For landscape architecture particularly, GIS technology is becoming more and more needed, and that’s where we come in.”

Dennis, who holds a bachelor’s in landscape architecture, master’s in geography and doctorate in environmental dynamics, was first approached by Erdman in early fall 2011. Always eager to share and make known CAST’s resources, she, along with Caitlin Stevens, laser scanning specialist for CAST and graduate of the university’s architecture program, began meeting with Erdman to discuss how the center’s technologies could be applied to the Rohwer project. Erdman was set to teach the university’s first historic landscape preservation class in the spring and wanted his students to experience new tools and methods when working on the documentation of Rohwer.

“Because of the tools CAST has, I saw it as an opportunity for the students to explore new technologies rather than just using conventional hand tools to document and survey the site,” Erdman said. CAST’s advanced equipment, purchased with funds from two National Science Foundation grants, could promise data that was accurate and of the greatest detail.

“Traditional researchers tend to think that people who go out and press a button to scan a site are disconnected from the site because they don’t have to sit and measure everything and study it so intensely,” Stevens said. “We say that we can use these things together – traditional methods and technology. There doesn’t have to be this disconnection.”

Stevens used the C10 Scan Station to acquire the 3D point cloud. From high up in the lift, CAST technologists collected about 10 scans.

After months of planning, the project took off in January 2012. Dennis and Stevens accompanied Erdman and seven students to Rohwer, a five-hour haul from Fayetteville, in a 14-passenger van holding a half million dollars worth of equipment and towing a 50-foot lift behind.

The CAST equipment included two types of laser scanners, the high resolution Z+F 5006i scanner and the lower resolution Leica C10 scanner, and two types of GPS units, a survey-grade GPS and mapping-grade GPS. While Erdman and his students moved through the site with the handheld mapping-grade GPS units, Dennis and Stevens set up the survey GPS and laser scanners to take measurements at dozens of locations throughout the cemetery.

The goal of the on-site visit, Erdman said, was to get both an overall sense of the character of the cemetery and document the most miniscule details of the headstones and monuments that remain.

“When we were mapping where the monuments were, we were mapping not just their location but the names on the gravestones, conditions of the gravestones and dates of death, so that you could actually look at this and create a sort of 3D virtual tour,” something made possible by the laser scanners, Dennis said.

“With the GPS, you’re locating specific points and paths in the site, whereas the laser scanning is making a three dimensional representation of the site,” Stevens explained. “Every time the laser encounters a surface, it records a distance as a point. You end up with what’s called a 3D point cloud, which is the recording of millions of points.”

The challenge for Erdman and his class now, Stevens said, is to take this point cloud and translate it into two-dimensional drawings as required by the Historic American Landscape Survey and the Library of Congress, where it will be stored.

“What we are doing is creating a site plan of the cemetery and detailed views of the major monuments according to how they look now,” Erdman said. “The HALS document is an inventory of the present and an analysis of how the site has evolved to its present state. Making plans for the future of the site goes beyond the scope of this grant.”

But what of Rohwer’s future?

Today, the site appears very different from what it did in its time of operation. Where there used to be sidewalks between close-quarter barracks, surrounded by barbed wire fences and machine gun towers, there is now a lone smokestack and a cemetery of deteriorated headstones in the midst of crepe myrtles and actively plowed farmland.

“Which, if you think about it, that’s a very different character than what is was historically,” Erdman said. “The barbed wire, especially, created a really powerful message, I think, in terms of what the camp was really like.”

Deciding the appropriate treatment for the future of Rohwer is something both Erdman and the CAST researchers said they would like to be involved in. Though reversing Rohwer to its original state is probably an impractical feat, Dennis and Stevens advocate the creation of a three-dimensional archive, so that the cemetery could be explored online, and all of its data, including names and dates on headstones, could be accessed with a click of a mouse.

“I would love to see, eventually, a virtual tour of the site,” Dennis said. “I think it would be really interesting to be able to integrate a visualization of how the camp looked at the time it was operating.”

Erdman cautions that “decisions should not be made without careful study through the cultural landscape report process,” something he says is “another project for another time.”

“This is still a very sensitive subject because there are people alive today who remember when the internment camp was there,” Dennis said. “There was a lot of distrust not because the internees were Japanese but because they were actually better housed and cared for than a lot of the locals.”

But plenty of surviving internees would contend that life was not much better inside the barbed wire fence. George Takei, famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu in the original “Star Trek” series, was 5 years old when his family was forced to relocate to the mosquito- and chigger-infested, wooded swamplands of Rohwer, an experience he has called, in interviews, the most “humiliating” and “degrading” of his life. Through his personal social media outlets and various lecture circuits, Takei has remained committed to keeping what happened at Rohwer and the other nine internment camps fresh in the minds of Americans.

“Rohwer Camp (Thoughts of Loved Ones)” by Japanese artist Henry Sugimoto, who was incarcerated in Jerome and Rohwer. More views of his collection are available on the website of the Japanese American National Museum.
– Henry Sugimoto, Rohwer Camp, ca. 1943, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa, Japanese American National Museum (92.97.85)

“It’s an important part of American history,” he told The Sacramento Bee in March 2012. “It’s as important as slavery – not as long-lasting and not to as many people – but it certainly is a failure of our democracy. What was most grievously violated was the United States Constitution.”

Lewis said it was an emotional experience to go to the little cemetery in the midst of cotton fields. “Ideally, I would love to see that cemetery become a National Historic Site,” she said. Although it is not the only cemetery associated with an internment camp, she said, it is a significant cemetery, for the monuments and headstones, “and the creativity that went into creating them out of wood and concrete.”

Erdman said the experience of mapping the cemetery has been both challenging and rewarding, and he hopes the university will stay involved in Rohwer’s progress for a number of years to come.

“While the project is definitely moving in the right direction,” he said, “there is still plenty of work to be done.”

Stevens said it is also refreshing to see a preservation project that is purely for a landscape.

“There are historic places that don’t necessarily have a building, but they have a lot of significance and are worthy of preservation, too,” she said. “That’s a significant piece of our history that we’ve forgotten, and I think it’s important we remember what happened here.”

Art From Outside the Barbed Wire

University of Arkansas art professor John Newman has a personal connection to the Japanese internment camp at Rohwer that has informed his series of paintings about the camp and the people outside. His mother’s family was from Rohwer, and he lived there as a very young child. In an article in the fall 2004 issue of Research Frontiers, he recounted some of the stories he’d heard about Rohwer and how African-Americans, who lived under segregation, related to the Japanese-Americans, who lived behind barbed wire.

For example, he said, “My mom’s family used to gather pecans. One day, she and my grandmother went up this hill, looking for the pecans, and when they came over the top of the hill, they saw the cabins where the Japanese lived. They had no idea it was there before that.”

Read the article and see some of Newman’s paintings that grew out of the stories.

Remembering Rohwer

“May the people of Arkansas keep in beauty and reverence forever this ground where our bodies sleep.”

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