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The camp opened on September 11, 1942 although many barracks as well as the schools were not completed. Japanese Americans from the San Francisco area, who had been housed at Tanforan Race Track since its hasty reconstruction for human inhabitants in March, were transported to Delta, Utah, by train. The number of people processed through the camp was over 11,000 with a peak population of about 8,100. Once at the Topaz location, some internees were hired to finish building their own barracks, put up the barbed wire fence, and complete other structures at the site.
Two elementary schools, one junior/senior high school, and a hospital constituted the major structures of the camp. Administration buildings, warehouses, military headquarters, and government workers' housing were located in the first few blocks of the forty-two-block camp. The remaining blocks were for internee housing. Each block had twelve apartment buildings, a recreation room, latrines for men and for women, and a mess hall. The apartment buildings were sectioned into six apartments of different sizes to accommodate families of two, four, or more people. Larger families were given two apartments. The six apartments came in three sizes: 20' x 14' 20' x 20' and 20' x 26'.
Apartments were heated by coal stoves, but cooking in the residential area was discouraged. Furniture for the apartments included only army cots, mattresses, and blankets. Some residents constructed rough chairs, tables, and shelves out of scrap lumber left lying around the camp. The barracks, crudely constructed of pine planks covered with tarpaper as the only insulation, and sheetrock on the inside, provided little protection against the extreme weather of the semi-arid climate. The first killing frost was recorded the end of September 1942, and the first snowfall was on October 13. The winter temperatures in the area typically hover near or below zero, and in the summer soar to the nineties. Some of the apartments still had no windows installed when the camp opened.
Internees were employed at different jobs around the camp and were paid wages ranging from $14.00 up to $19.00 a month for doctors and other skilled workers. Residents could obtain passes to shop in nearby Delta, and some found employment in that community. One man who worked at the local newspaper was subsequently charged "rent" at the camp. On April 11, 1943, James Wakasa, age 63, was shot by a guard when he was standing near the southwest section of the fence. After an outcry from the camp population, guarding procedures changed.
On January 29, 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that volunteers would be accepted in an all Japanese American combat unit. At about the same time, residents seventeen years of age and older in all the camps were given a questionnaire. Two questions became sore points for more than just the first-generation Japanese, who were not permitted citizenship in the United States. Question 27 asked, "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?" Question 28 followed with "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?" Since the Issei, or first-generation Japanese, were denied citizenship in the U.S., answering "yes" to question 28 would leave them without a country. After a protest by many residents, the question was altered; but damage had been done. Some became "No No boys" by answering "No" to both questions. Dissidents from all ten relocation camps were sent to Tule Lake, California. Of those qualifying for military service, 105 volunteers soon left Topaz for active duty.
Camp life at Topaz settled down and residents continued the routine of cultivating gardens, attending classes at schools or the recreation halls, and working. In 1943 residents with sponsors were encouraged to leave the camps and move farther inland. But the camp didn't close until October 1945. The buildings were then dismantled; some were moved to other locations, leaving cindered roads, foundations for latrines and mess halls at the Topaz site and an episode that sullied the history of American democracy and its Constitution.
In 1976 the Japanese American Citizen League chapters from Salt Lake City erected a monument near the site of the Topaz camp. On August 10, 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act authorizing redress, and later President George H.W. Bush issued a formal apology and compensation of $20,000 to those who were survivors of internment.
See: Leonard J. Arrington, "The Price of Prejudice: The Japanese-American Relocation Center in Utah during World War II" (1962); Allan Bosworth, "American Concentration Camps" (1967); Roger Daniels, "Concentration Camps of North America, Japanese in the United States and Canada During World War II" (1981); Yoshiko Uchida, "Desert Exile" (1982); Michi Weglyn, "Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps" (1976).