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8 things you may not know about Japanese-American internment in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — On Feb. 19, 1942 — roughly 10 weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor — U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This document set in motion the relocation and internment of about 117,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens born in the United States.

A 1941 State Department study and a follow-up report both found overwhelming American loyalty among ethnic Japanese living in the United States and concluded they presented no significant threat to national security. Regardless, Americans were gripped by widespread fear of Japanese-American sabotage.

By March 1942, the first military evacuations in the name of national safety began, with residents given six days to dispose of nearly all their belongings, pack what they could carry and travel to makeshift assembly centers along the American West Coast.

Here are eight facts you might not know about how this painful period of American history played out in Utah.

One of 10 major Japanese internment camps was located in Millard County.

After spending about six months in assembly centers hastily constructed on fairgrounds and racetracks, the evacuees were then transferred to ten larger internment camps — or what political activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga said were more accurately labeled as "concentration camps."

Formally named the Central Utah Relocation Center, the Utah camp was located about 15 miles outside of Delta. But it was more commonly referred to as "Topaz," named for the nearby Topaz Mountain that overlooked the camp.

Nearly all the Topaz internees came from the San Francisco Bay Area.

The prisoners at Topaz were accustomed to a far more temperate climate than the desert of central Utah. With only a few exceptions, the Topaz internees originally lived in California's Bay Area and were transferred from California assembly centers. About 65 percent of those incarcerated at Topaz were also born in the United States.

Unlike the mild weather of San Francisco, the temperature at Topaz ranged from 106 degrees in the summer to 30 degrees below zero in the winter. It also didn’t help that the camp was only two-thirds completed when prisoners began arriving, with drafty buildings and open trenches. Cold winds and sand constantly invaded internees' cramped living areas, adding to the camp's hostile conditions.

Topaz became the fifth largest "city" in Utah during the time of its operation.

Topaz was designed to hold 9,000 prisoners housed in 42 blocks, with six blocks left open for recreation and two more for administration housing, according to Densho Encyclopedia. The entire project — encircled with four strands of barbed wire — spanned 19,800 acres. Yet the developed living and recreation area was only one square mile (just 640 acres).

A family is pictured standing outside a tar paper shack at Topaz, Utah, in this undated photo.
A family is pictured standing outside a tar paper shack at Topaz, Utah, in this undated photo.
Utah State Historical Society

According to Densho Encyclopedia, each residential block had:

  • a dining hall.
  • a bathroom and laundry facility.
  • a recreation hall.
  • 12 housing barracks.
  • an office for the block manager.

Topaz also included a post office, a fire station, churches, two libraries, two elementary schools, one high school and a 15-acre garden.

Over 11,000 internees were processed through Topaz during its period of operation from 1942–1945, making it the fifth largest "city" in Utah at the time.

While living at Topaz, internees worked, created art, got married and tried to continue their normal lives.

Despite their unfamiliar and very uncomfortable surroundings, internees at Topaz tried to resume their daily lives as much as possible.

Many prisoners worked in the camp, serving food in dining halls, finishing construction on buildings, teaching in schools and performing a variety of other necessary tasks. Some even served in community government. But they were never permitted to earn more than $21 a month — the minimum pay of an American soldier.

One of the key distinguishing features of the Topaz population was the number of writers and artists within the community. A daily camp-run newspaper called the Topaz Times documented happenings within Topaz. The internees also published a quarterly literary magazine called Trek, featuring the work of resident writers.

A prisoner and well-known Bay Area artist named Chiura Obata formed an art school at Topaz and taught over 600 students techniques from sketching to oil painting. For Obata and many other internees, art was their salvation. "The only way we're going to get through this is through art," he once said.

Even behind barbed wire, prisoners played sports, formed swing bands and participated in Boy Scouts. While living at Topaz, 136 couples got married, though they had to travel 54 miles to Fillmore to obtain marriage licenses.

The most challenging aspect of Topaz for many internees was a complete lack of privacy.

Though Topaz internees tried to create structure in their days and find time for recreation, their lives were far from pleasant. According to Utah historian Leonard J. Arrington, the "most objectionable aspect" of life in Topaz was the total denial of residents' privacy.

Topaz, Utah, is pictured in this undated aerial shot.
Topaz, Utah, is pictured in this undated aerial shot.
Utah State Historical Society

Each barrack room ranged from 16 by 20 feet to 20 by 25 feet and housed a whole family with several children or a group of four to five unrelated prisoners. The rooms were furnished with pot-bellied stoves and cots, but they often lacked bedding. The internees had to build their own partitions, tables, chairs and other furniture from scrap lumber.

The only washing and toilet facilities were housed in a central building on each block, with four bathtubs for all women and four showers for all men. Furthermore, all meals were eaten communally in dining halls.

Topaz residents were administered exams to prove their loyalty to the United States.

In February of 1943, all internees over the age of 17 had to respond to a series of questions assessing how "Americanized" they were. Known informally as the "loyalty questionnaire," this test asked about everything from prisoners' hobbies to religious affiliation to language skills.

In April 1943, the government began administering a controversial loyalty exam to the Topaz Japanese Americans.
In April 1943, the government began administering a controversial loyalty exam to the Topaz Japanese Americans.
Utah State Historical Society

Most controversially, it questioned whether they would "swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear any form of allegiance to the Emperor of Japan" and whether men would be willing to enlist in combat duty and women to assist the war effort in other ways.

This examination was designed to help the War Department recruit an American combat unit made up of ethnic Japanese people born in the United States. Yet it had an unintended side effect of stoking deep resentment within the Topaz population, particularly among internees who were born in Japan and therefore denied American citizenship.

One Topaz internee was shot and killed by a camp guard.

On April 11, 1943, 63-year-old internee James Hatsuki Wakasa was shot and killed by a Topaz guard for walking too close to the camp's fence.

Afterward, prisoners reported feeling incredibly traumatized by this incident, stating that it prevented them from ever feeling safe in the camp.

Japanese-American internment at Topaz lasted three years. But its effects lasted much longer.

Topaz formally closed its gates on Oct. 31, 1945. Although its prisoners were finally free after this date, many continued to face discrimination as they returned to their private lives. Moreover, many suffered great economic losses during internment and endured lasting psychological and physical health problems.

In 1976, chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League in Salt Lake City erected a monument at the Topaz camp site.

But it wasn't until Feb. 24, 1983, that a Congressional commission officially denounced Japanese-American internment as unjust, stating it was caused by "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." This paved the way for the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which offered a formal apology and paid $20,000 to each victim who survived internment. Unfortunately, many internment survivors were no longer alive.

Today, the Topaz Museum in Delta preserves Utah's bitter memories of Japanese-American internment in an effort to, as the museum's board president Jane Beckwith said, ensure that history never repeats itself.