Topaz, Utah's Internment Camp

Why? How? Ever Again?

Topaz Camp

This is where we brought the Japanese during World War Two. Surrounded by sand, sage and an immense sky, America brought 8,000 people of Japanese ancestry - even if they were actually Americans, which most of them were - to this empty, flat piece of desert and made them wait out the end of the war. They called it a 'relocation center' but internment or concentration camp might have been more descriptive words. When they were here Topaz, as the camp was called, was the fifth largest town in Utah.

When they were here, from the summer of 1942 until just after the end of World War Two in August, 1945, the Japanese-Americans lived and went to school in tar paper shacks, visited two libraries, went to schools, read the camp's paper, went rock hounding, tended gardens and, if sick, visited the camp's renowned hospital. Today, all that is left are some of the sunken gardens, concrete foundations, rusty nails, broken stoves and chimneys and smashed pottery and as I walked over the site under a moody, cold late afternoon sky with Jane Beckwith, who is leading efforts to build a museum dedicated to the camp, I could not help but think that I was tiptoeing over a graveyard.

People ask 'Why?' and we say it was because of the war. People ask 'How?' and we say it was because of wartime hysteria and racism. People ask 'Ever again?' and we shrug, hoping we know now enough not to repeat history, but wondering if we really do. Either way, this desolate and flat patch of land slowly being reclaimed by the desert about 15 miles northwest of Delta in Utah's broad, powerful West Desert is a stark reminder to a time when we as Americans did not act with the normal judiciousness we pride ourselves on.

Executive Order 9066

Topaz CampIn February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which mandated that the roughly 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, the vast majority of whom lived along the West Coast, be taken inland to internment camps where they could remain under guard - and suspicion - until the war ended. Military thinking was that the Americans of Japanese ancestry - and most of them were actually U.S. citizens - posed a threat to national security. In March authorities began rounding them up, often with little or no warning, and took them to temporary holding camps while permanent facilities were found and developed. When taken from their homes, the Japanese-Americans often lost everything, even their businesses, unless a kind neighbor agreed to watch after their belongings. There were few such cases.

The U.S. built ten permanent residential facilities - two in California, two in Arizona, one each in Idaho, California and Wyoming, two in Arkansas and Topaz in Utah. Each were remote, served by rail lines, close to agricultural areas in need of help, and had enough water and electricity. The Topaz site was chosen after two local landowners, Homer and Nels Petersen, traveled to San Francisco to convince the War Relocation Authority that their site had the requisite land and water. The relocation officials came out to Topaz - the area was actually a loose-knit community called Abraham - agreed, and soon afterwards purchased 20,000 shares of water (an immense sum) and began coordinating the construction efforts. Construction began in June; the huge influx of carpenters, electricians and plumbers overwhelmed tiny Delta, where families took in boarders when hotels filled up, and every available truck was summoned to haul building supplies to the relocation site. By September enough of the camp had been completed that the Japanese-Americans could begin arriving. An advance group of about 250 came and set up the hospital, and soon after that Japanese-Americans arrived at the rate of 500 a day until the population topped 8,000.

One Square Mile of Dust and Mud

Topaz CampWhat the Japanese-Americans found when they stepped off the bus at Topaz and sat their bags down in the dust was one square-mile of fenced-in land, which was divided into 42 blocks. Each block in the residential section contained 12 barracks with a mess hall, a bathroom and washroom block, laundry room and recreation hall. Each barrack was 20 feet wide and 120 feet long and usually divided into six rooms, each room holding a family. The rooms were not finished and came only with a spring frame - no mattress - and an Army-issue coal stove, which was not hooked up. In the center of the town were two elementary schools - Desert View and Mountain View - a high school, several churches, two libraries, administrative buildings and art and adult education rooms. There was a cemetery, but no one was buried in it. Instead, the Japanese-Americans who died in Topaz were cremated and taken back to California or wherever home became at war's end. Outside the fence were guard towers and administrative buildings for the white Americans.

The population of Topaz was uncharacteristically well off, said Beckwith as we walked about the abandoned camp. They came almost exclusively from the San Francisco Bay area, where they were business owners, shop keepers, artists and architects. At Topaz, out of necessity, they became farmers, but they also had a lot of time to read, paint and draw. Also in the camp were stores, cold-drink shops, barber and beauty shops. Periodically, they were permitted to travel to Delta to shop. To meet demand, Delta even had a fresh fish shop during this time.

'The Japanese that come here are the cream of the crop,' reported the Millard County Progress-Chronicle in September, 1942, as the first internees were arriving. 'They have been mainly from the Bay area...and represent a very high type of Japanese. They include mainly city people, with a portion of rural people for farming at the center. They will make camouflage nets and brooms.' 'The Japanese may worship where and how they please,' the Progress-Chronicle reported later. 'With the exception that Shintoism, the pagan creed of the warrior clan in Japan, is barred.'

'This place shows human strength,' says Beckwith, combing through the sand at sunset. But the strength she speaks of is strength expended in an attempt to overcome or cope, not a simple flexing of muscles. 'No one wants to see that. When people do come here - people who lived at Topaz - it brings back a flood of emotions. It takes energy to put their memories together and one way to reach back is to come out here and see it again. And what they see is a serious aberration of American jurisprudence.'

Though things were bad, Beckwith said, they weren't necessarily abominable. For starters, back in California the Japanese-Americans were minorities, pure and simple. In Topaz, they were the majority. Unlike in California, said Beckwith, in Topaz the Japanese-Americans could be the cheerleaders, the football players, the Big Men On Campus.

In the relocation camps, wrote Leonard J. Arrington in 'The Price of Prejudice,' a report published in 1962, Japanese-Americans learned forms of democratic self-government. The forced relocation also fostered a rise out of second-class citizenry, he wrote. After World War Two, he wrote, the 'Little Tokyos' largely disappeared as Japanese learned how to be independent and fit in with mainstream American culture.

Happiness from the Sky

Topaz is not a great tourist stop, and definitely does not have the draw that a Holocaust or slavery museum has. The Japanese internment during World War Two has largely been a forgotten chapter in American history.

'Sometimes it takes a long time to come back,' Beckwith said. 'The kids, maybe, they can come back quicker. Older adults I don't think would come back. One woman came here and when she did, it was not tears. But you could tell her emotions by the memories she had. Often when they come back here they remember things in incredible detail. They remember their vulnerability. A lot of the nisei, the second generation Japanese, were very successful; it is as though they spent their whole lives trying to make up for in life things positive that had been negative. When they come back, it is almost a sacred place. Their rights as citizens were so delicate, fragile. It was symbolic of all of this.'

Ultimately, the tragedy of Topaz is part of a circle of learning, an indelible part, however forgotten, of who we are today. 'This tells us that if we aren't protective of minority rights - the majority has to be protective of minority rights because the minority is not strong enough to do it for themselves - if this is a forgotten chapter in history then there is no way we can learn that lesson. That is why the Topaz museum is important.'

The Topaz museum, which will be in Delta, is still just a proposal, though the camp has been listed as a heritage site and is eligible for grants and other funding. For now, most artifacts and information on the site can be found at the Great Basin Museum in Delta. Beckwith is optimistic that a museum will be built not only to preserve the history of Topaz but also to serve as a learning center and center of remembrance.

'Hopefully this is something we will be able to talk about,' said Beckwith. We were in my truck, with the heater slowly warming our frozen fingers to tingles. 'Nothing is being suppressed - it's not like Big Brother. But it is not being illuminated, either. Some people chose to ignore.' Beckwith said it was not until 1984, when Congress recognized the injustice of the relocation, apologized and gave $20,000 to each family as a suggestion of compensation, that America could even really talk about what happened in Utah and across the West.

There are certain periods of time when we are able to see with greater clarity what happened in the past, and we may be entering one of those periods for the Japanese-American internments. Many Japanese who were infants when in the camp, or who were not born until afterwards, did not learn about the camps until they got to college. It just was not something their parents talked about, or if they did, they talked about it in code. 'The wasted years.' Beckwith thinks things may have healed enough so that more discussion can begin.

In Topaz, the Japanese-Americans had dust, mud, storms, armed guards and none of the lush surroundings they enjoyed in California. They did have sky and mountains, however. One Topaz artist told his fellow residents that if they looked at the ground they would become depressed, but if they looked up towards the sky and mountains, they would find happiness. The sky tonight is an enormous panorama of color and feeling. A storm is coming. Jane Beckwith and I drove back to Delta in the twilight.

A special thanks to Best Western Motor Inn.

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