clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Internees recall life in barracks of Topaz

Group is gathering funding for museum, preservation efforts

In the 1942 photograph, the sign on the building is newly painted and full of hospitality. "Welcome to Topaz, Jewel of the Desert," it says — a fact that brought a wry chuckle from the audience gathered Saturday for the Japanese American Citizens League's Day of Remembrance 2008.

It's been nearly 66 years since Grace Fujimoto Oshita was a 17-year-old girl arriving at the Topaz Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. Now in her early 80s, Oshita has spent a lot of time thinking about what the government did then and has spent the past 40 years speaking to school children and community groups, in the hope that if people remember what happened, future Topazes might be avoided.

For those decades of educating Utahns, Oshita was honored Saturday at a ceremony at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, attended by Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and Palmer DePaulis, executive director of the state Department of Community and Culture.

Her award was part of a presentation called "Topaz: Then and Now" that included historical photos as well as current plans to create a Topaz museum in Delta.

In 1942, Grace Oshita's father — a prominent Japanese-American businessman who owned the Fujimoto Miso Co. in San Francisco — had been shipped off to an internment camp in North Dakota. The rest of her family was bused first to a temporary camp in San Bruno, Calif., where they were housed for six months in a horse stable. Or "building 8, apartment 6," as the government put it.

Like other internees, the family had been allowed to bring only some bedding and whatever they could stuff into a few suitcases.

Later, labeled as Family No. 14701, they were put on a train for Topaz: one square mile of dust and barracks in central Utah. Photos show one-room apartments lit by a bare bulb; trees planted by the government — a thousand trees in all — most of which quickly died in the alkaline soil; "Gold Star" mothers, whose sons had died fighting for the U.S., receiving their medals behind the barbed wire; cribs full of orphans who had been deemed too dangerous to remain on the West Coast.

In all there were more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans sent to 10 relocation camps across the U.S.; 70 percent of these were American citizens.

With plans to erect a museum housing photos and artifacts of the period and to preserve the site, the Topaz Museum board has purchased 627 acres of the original 640-acre camp, according to board President Jane Beckwith. Last summer, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

In 2006, Congress appropriated $38 million to preserve the 10 sites; it must now be met with matching money from local organizations. The Topaz Museum board has begun discussions with the Legislature and will continue to raise money from private sources.

Eventually the Topaz Museum will be part of a larger building that will also house the Great Basin Museum, the West Millard Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, and the Delta City Community Center.