Between 1942 and 1945, more than 11,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes in California by the federal government and moved to the Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz) in Utah's West Desert. In 2007, this site became a National Historic Landmark and although most of the evidence of human habitation has been removed, visitors to the site can view this barren and desolate landscape where Japanese Americans lived. The Topaz Museum, which interprets the history and shares these stories, opened January 2015 with an inaugural art show: When Words Weren't Enough: Works on Paper from Topaz 1942-1945, which is currently on display. The museum is located at 55 Main Street in Delta and is open Monday through Saturday from 11 am to 5 pm except for major holidays.
In 1942, more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, were uprooted from their West Coast homes and incarcerated by their own government. Following Pearl Harbor, wartime hysteria was at its peak. The Japanese Americans, including women and children, were imprisoned in ten camps where many of them remained behind barbed wire, under suspicion and armed guard for up to 3 ½ years. Topaz, Utah, located 16 miles from Delta, was one of the ten camps. By April 1, 1943, Topaz, named after a nearby mountain, was Utah’s fifth largest city.
Though Topaz was not a forced labor camp or a death camp like the ones American soldiers later uncovered in Nazi Germany, the imprisonment was an act of injustice since the internees had neither hearings nor trials. Their incarceration was based solely on the color of their skin and their ancestry. They were victims of wartime hysteria, racial animosity and economic opportunism on the West Coast. Told their internment was “for their own safety, or military necessity” America’s fear and distrust of these citizens was placated.
Within this rush to judgment were the denial of constitutional rights, major losses of personal property and the stigma of being labeled potential saboteurs. Ironically, though this mass incarceration was spearheaded by the assumption of disloyalty, not a single case of espionage by Japanese Americans was ever prosecuted.
Indeed, the 442nd RCT and 100th Battalion, composed entirely of Japanese-American boys (many of whom volunteered from internment camps), suffered major war casualties and became the U.S. Army’s most highly decorated combat unit for its size and duration in history.
Even with soldiers in the guard towers around the camp, people roamed beyond the barbed wire fences into the desert. They could travel into Delta to shop or work. If they were approved, they could relocate to cities farther to the east.
After an internee was killed by a guard at Topaz, the director relaxed the surveillance when it became obvious that internees were not engaged in subversive activities. Without security they were free to roam beyond the barbed wire fences into the desert. People could travel into Delta to shop or work.
Despite the hardships of incarceration, the Japanese made Topaz a community. There were three schools, churches, adult education classes, a well-staffed hospital, sporting leagues and a newspaper. The internees created an art school with 16 instructors offering 95 classes a week. Nearly 600 people enrolled from six years old on up. Delta and Topaz even exchanged talent programs.
Topaz closed October 31, 1945. Those who left the camp were given a train ticket and twenty-five dollars to begin rebuilding their lives.
The memory of Topaz remains a tribute to a people whose faith and loyalty were steadfast – while America’s had faltered.
After the war, the government dismantled all the barracks or sold them. Many were moved into Delta and used as sheds or remodeled into houses. At Topaz, foundations, cinder walkways, gardens, outlines of where the buildings stood and small artifacts are all that remain. It is worth a trip to the site to experience the solitude and reflect on the magnitude of this nearly forgotten piece of American history. Please refrain from removing artifacts from the site and drive only on established roads.
The Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz) was designated as a National Historic Landmark March 29, 2007. National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Today, fewer than 2,500 historic places bear this national distinction with only 14 such places in Utah.
The Museum opened to the public in January 2015.
May this grim episode of basic American principles gone astray remind us to work for understanding, goodwill and justice for all.
Topaz Interpretive Site
Delta Historic Marker
Topaz Museum exhibits
Delta, Utah 16 miles.
Northwest of Delta on well-maintained gravel roads near Abraham.
10,000-11,000 West on 4500 North
For more information:
Topaz Museum, 55 West Main Delta, Utah 84624 (435) 864-2514
Hours: 11:00-5:00 Monday through Saturday except for major holidays
Donations to the Museum are encouraged
For more information, visit www.topazmuseum.org