Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado
Arkansas Detention Camp Survivor
Tells Her Story
By: Shane Devine
KOLR 10 News
World War II gave America some of its proudest moments and some of its darkest days. For three years, from 1942 to 1945, the U.S. government detained Japanese-American citizens while it conducted background checks. It turns out, their only crime was one of heritage. In a KOLR10 exclusive, Shane Devine brings you one woman's extraordinary story of war, imprisonment and romance.
In 1942, at the height of the second World War, Norma Donlan's family was rounded up and shipped by train to a detention camp. They ended up in Jerome, Arkansas where Norma was born. It was a time when the attacks on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, had the United States in the grip of fears of espionage.
Japanese-Americans were immediately seized, interrogated and held in ten detention camps across the United States, including Camp Jerome in Arkansas. By the end of 1942, almost the entire Japanese-American population lived in detention. Of the 110,000 people held, 70,000 were American citizens. They were not allowed to leave the camps. "There was one incident in Jerome, where a young 12 year old boy was killed," says Norma Donlan. "He was accidently shot by one of the guards. He was playing near the fence and a guard thought he was trying to escape and shot and killed him."
Japanese-American children at Camp Jerome, Arkansas, 1942
Norma Donlan and her family left the camp when she was two years old. But her family related stories about life there, as she grew; "A lot of the women who were pregnant lost their children because they didn't have trained doctors to deliver these babies. I myself was delivered by an ear, nose and throat specialist who had never delivered a baby before."
Some people are critical of Donlan's story, because they say she could not possibly have memory of the time she spent there. "Many people think that if you don't have a recollection of something that it really hasn't affected you in any way. But the way in which camp affected all of those in my generation is basically because their parents were so dysfunctional. We were raised in extremely dysfunctional families, my father did not talk about the camps for 40 years."
"In my younger years, until I turned 40, it was very difficult to say I was born in one of those camps. It was something we were made ashamed of."
Donlan says a chance encounter with in 1968 helped to build her self-esteem. "My husband and I met on an airplane. We were passangers and I was the last person to board the plane. There was one seat left, we kind of like to think it was destiny."
Ironically, Norma's husband, Roger Donlan, is the first recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor in the Vietnam War. Together, they have five children and travel the world to tell their stories of love, betrayal and survival. Her life's beginning has not dampened her love for America, nor did it dampen her parents love for America. She says if anything, it steeled their love.
"My father had a wonderful expression he used to say all the time, "grow where you are planted" and so no matter what situation he was in, tried to make best of it."
At one time, Norman Donlan's family's roots were embedded in a detention camp in southeast Arkansas. But now she has branched off and is living the American dream. But she sometimes wonders if what she went through in the 1940's was a legacy of war, or a blue print for the future.
"It's very difficult when I talk to people of that generation who were there.. generally they say to me, 'Well, you weren't there, you don't understand. It was hysteria, we had every right to put these people in camp.' I had a horrible experience after 9/11. I was sitting in a beauty salon and a lady came in and said 'I think they should take all the Arab-Americans and put them in camp, just like they did with the Japanese-Americans during World War II.' I thought to myself, I can't believe I'm hearing this after all these years."
Norma and her family were released from the camp after her father was granted a work permit. The family moved to new york soon after. By the way, the United States government uncovered virtually nothing during its detention camp investigations. Not one civilian Japanese-American was ever accused of plotting an attack against the U.S.
Yet, in addition to uprooting and imprisonment- Japanese-Americans suffered property losses in the $400 million range.
© 2002, by KOLR 10 News
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