Topaz Camp
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 Map of relocation sites
Topaz internment camp opened on September 11, 1942 and is located in Millard County, Utah, 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. The camp covers about 19,800 acres and is a mix of public domain land, land which had reverted to the county for non payment of taxes and land purchased from private parties.  Temperatures ranged from 106 degrees in summer to -30 degrees in winter.  Located at an elevation of 4,600 feet in a high desert, the region was subject to a constant wind that resulted in frequent dust storms.

The population of the camp was primarily from California; Alameda County County (3,679), San Francisco County (3,370), San Mateo County (722) and almost completely urban in origin. The population peaked in March of 1943 at 8,130.  Interestingly, 89.4% of the population answered positively to question 28 of the Loyalty questionnaire.  472 eligible males were inducted into the armed forces.

Topaz featured an organized protest against the registration questionnaire, in which a petition was circulated demanding the restoration of rights as a prerequisite for registration. Issei chef James Hatsuki Wakasa was shot to death by a guard on April 11, 1943. The literary and arts magazine Trek was produced here, as was the Topaz Times (Sept. 17, 1942 to Aug. 31, 1945).

In the 1940s Topaz was one of the largest cities in Utah. Like most towns, it had houses, gardens and elementary schools. Unlike most towns, it also had barbed-wire fences around the perimeter, marked periodically by towers housing armed guards.  Topaz wasn't just a town. It was a war relocation center, a prison, a concentration camp.

For thousands of Americans, Topaz was home during World War II, but not by choice. The United States government, caught up in the hysteria of war, forcibly rounded up its own citizens and locked them away in a desolate corner of Utah. Their crime was being of Japanese descent.  While American soldiers were fighting to liberate the Jews from concentration camps in Europe, the American government was busy running a concentration camp of its own.

You aren't likely to find it mentioned in a history book. You'd be lucky to find it on a map. You could drive past it without even knowing something had been there. There's not much left but a few concrete foundations and a monument which is used mostly for target practice.  Most people have never heard of it, and many of those that have would like to pretend it never happened.

The past cannot be changed, it cannot be erased, it can only be forgotten.  Let us not forget that the government can and will violate the Constitution, with the support of the Supreme Court.  Let us not forget that those who are sworn to protect the rights of all Americans can and will break their oaths to engage in unforgivable acts of racism.   Let us not forget that among the casualties of war are decency, loyalty and integrity.  Let us not forget Topaz.

Topaz Camp Postcard Collection.

The Landscape of Place and Memory:

In February, 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor, the United States took unprecedented action directed at its own population. Executive Order 9066 and Civilian Exclusion Order 5 decreed that over 120,000 Japanese Americans be removed from their homes in the "western defense zone" of the United States, and incarcerated in ten "internment" camps, which were located in isolated areas of Utah, Montana, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Idaho. These ten camps functioned as prison cities, with populations of 10,000 to 18,000 people in each camp.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Americans in America were no longer seen by other Americans as industrious, immigrant neighbors but were transformed into enemy aliens overnight. There were no trials, no hearings to prove innocence or guilt. They were assumed to be the enemy and made prisoners, indefinitely incarcerated because of their race. Successful Japanese-Americans were informed that, according to Civilian Exclusion Order 5, they were required to liquidate all property, including homes, real estate, business holdings, and anything else that they could not carry themselves into the prison camps.

They lost their homes, property, and communities. Families were separated. After the war there was a long silence because of their shame and guilt, not unlike the victims of the holocaust.

The work "American concentration camps" is about a collective memory of the camps that "interned" 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II without trial. Its memories are about the reconstruction of that time and space fifty years later. It is about transition of the immigrant Japanese American people caught between two countries at war; people caught without a country that would claim them as their own. It is about their collective voices and memories of that displacement, and it is about the quiet silence that surrounds the land, those prison cities, and that time.

Almost fifty years later, Presidents Clinton and Reagan have issued letters of apology to the camp survivors that are still living. Collective voices now reach beneath the surface of the stereotypical Japanese American image of passive acceptance, "gamman" ("endurance"), "shikata ga nai" ("it cannot be helped"), and survival. Their voices call out beyond anger and memory.

Camp Closing Date: October 31, 1945.

Project directors: Charles F. Ernst and Luther T. Hoffman.

Community Analysts: Oscar F. Hoffman and Weston LaBarre.

Newspapers): Topaz Times (September 17, 1942 to August 31, 1945).

TOPAZ RELOCATION CENTER

The history of the settlement of western Millard County has been a string of boom and bust cycles, most of them associated with water. Pioneers struggled to tame the tail end of the Sevier River with dams, canals, and reservoirs. By the 1910s the major dams were stable and a boom came as a result of Union Pacific Railroad's invitation to Midwesterners to farm the area. A series of crop failures discouraged the Iowa transplants, but local Delta realtors soon invited new farmers to the abandoned land.

Following Pearl Harbor, those realtors heard that the U.S. government was looking for locations to house Japanese-Americans who might be removed from the western coastal states. As early as January and February 1942, secret meetings took place between Delta residents and government officials. By June, work had begun at the site for the 17,000-acre Central Utah Relocation Center, later re-named Topaz Relocation Center, after a nearby mountain. Located fifteen miles west of Delta, beyond the small town of Abraham, the residential area of one square mile was located at the far western boundary of the camp.

The camp opened 11 September 1942 although many barracks as well as the schools were not completed. Japanese-Americans from the San Francisco area, who had been housed at Tanforan Race Track since its hasty reconstruction for human inhabitants in March, were transported to Delta, Utah, by train. The population of the camp soon reached about 8,000. Once located, some internees finished building their own barracks and other structures at the site.

Two elementary schools, one junior/senior high school, and a hospital constituted the major structures of the camp. Administration buildings, warehouses, and government workers' housing were located in the first few blocks of the forty-two-block camp. The remaining blocks were for internee housing. Each block had twelve apartment buildings, a recreation room, latrines for men and for women, and a mess hall. The apartment buildings were sectioned into six apartments of different sizes to accommodate families of two, four, or more people. Larger families were sometimes given two apartments.

Apartments were heated by coal stoves, but cooking in the residential area was discouraged. Furniture for the apartments included only army cots, mattresses, and blankets. Some residents constructed rough tables and shelves out of scrap lumber left lying around the camp.

The barracks, crudely constructed of pine planks covered with tarpaper as the only insulation, and sheetrock on the inside, provided little protection against the extreme weather of the semi-arid climate. The first killing frost was recorded the end of September 1942, and the first snowfall was on 13 October. Some of the apartments still had no windows installed at that time. The winter temperatures in the area typically hover near or below zero, and in the summer soar to the nineties.

Internees were employed at different jobs around the camp and were paid wages ranging from $16.00 up to $19.00 a month for doctors and other skilled workers. Residents could obtain passes to shop in nearby Delta, and some found employment in that community. One man who worked at the local newspaper was subsequently charged "rent" at the camp. On 11 April 1943 James Wakasa, age 63, was shot by a guard when he was standing near the southwest section of the fence. After an outcry from the camp population, guarding procedures changed.

On 29 January 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that volunteers would be accepted in a Japanese-American combat unit. At about the same time, residents seventeen years of age and older in all the camps were given a questionnaire. Two questions became sore points for more than just the first-generation Japanese, who were not permitted citizenship in the United States. Question 27 asked, "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?" Question 28 followed: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?" Since the Issei, or first-generation Japanese, were denied citizenship in the U.S., answering "yes" to question 28 would leave them without a country. After a protest by many residents, the question was altered; but damage had been done. Some became "No No boys" by answering "No" to both questions. Dissidents from all ten relocation camps were sent to Tule Lake, California. Of those qualifying for military service, 105 volunteers soon left Topaz for active duty.

Camp life at Topaz settled down and residents continued the routine of cultivating gardens, attending classes at schools or the recreation halls, and working. In 1943 residents with sponsors were encouraged to leave the camps and move farther inland. But the camp didn't close until October 1945. The buildings were then dismantled; some were moved to other locations, leaving cindered roads, foundations for latrines and mess halls, and an episode that sullied the history of American democracy and its Constitution.

In 1976 the Japanese-American Citizen League erected a monument near the site of the camp. On 10 August 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed a redress bill into law, issuing an apology to those interned and calling on Congress to budget compensation for the survivors.

 

See: Leonard J. Arrington, The Price of Prejudice: The Japanese-American Relocation Center in Utah during World War II (1962); Allan Bosworth, American Concentration Camps (1967); Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps of North America, Japanese in the United States and Canada During World War II (1981); Yoshiko Uchida, Desert Exile (1982); Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (1976).

Jane Beckwith