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Hundreds help dedicate Topaz as a history landmark

DELTA — Hundreds of people from across the nation gathered Saturday at a barren, dusty patch of desert in central Utah, where more than 8,000 Japanese Americans were held during World War II.

They came to recognize the site as the state's newest National History Landmark.

More than 100 of those in attendance were forced to live at the Topaz internment camp between 1943 and 1945. They came to reflect and to remember.

"Here we face the best and the worst of what we are as a country, and the courage and the resilience and determination of those who were interned here," said Mike Snyder, intermountain regional director of the National Park Service.

"Topaz is an important part of our nation's story — a story that should sound a note of caution to all who may be feeling threatened and seek an easy way to make themselves feel safer. It's the story of the need to protect our freedoms in the face of fear. And it's a story of the dignity, courage and power of people who have suffered a great loss yet rose above it."

Naomi Yamamoto, from Turlock, Calif., was in her early teens when her family was sent to Topaz in October 1943.

"We were citizens, but that didn't cut any ice — it didn't matter. They just picked up all of us and said, 'You go on that bus,"' Yamamoto said.

She said her family had previously been interned in a camp in San Bruno, Calif., where many families stayed in horse stables.

But according to Yamamoto it was still better than Topaz.

"We weren't used to the heat, we weren't used to the cold and we weren't used to the living conditions. Sand would come through the walls of the barracks and around the windows and it was really hard to take," she said. "It was a hardship for all of us."

She did go to school and had many friends. But Yamamoto said family ties were often broken because, without a home environment, parents often lost control of their kids.

Like many others, Yamamoto was at Topaz for three years. But most of the internees who attended Saturday's event said their memories are clear and the visit reinforced them.

"We came here to remember how fragile our freedoms are and are here to remind ourselves how quickly those freedoms can be lost due to prejudice and fear," Snyder said. "It often takes time to overcome the past and is a tough road that involves forgiveness and understanding."

Topaz joins 12 other national historic landmarks in Utah. It was designated in March by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne because of its artifacts, including the original barbed wire, guard tower footings, foundations of mess halls and latrines. Each block used as a residential area shows walkways, stone gardens and evidence of life at camp.

"Our nation was a different place then, and it is important to learn the lessons of the past that came from wartime hysteria, prejudice and failure of political leadership," said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who attended the event. "I like to think we have come a long way since then, but I have the suspicion we are still making those mistakes. This site allows the future generations to learn from the past. "

According to the Topaz Museum, the government and the U.S. Army, citing "military necessity," locked up more than 110,000 men, women and children in 10 remote camps.

They were never convicted or even charged with any crime but were incarcerated for up to four years in the camps, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

Topaz opened Sept. 11, 1942, and housed more than 8,000 internees from the San Francisco area.

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