Topaz History

Construction on Topaz, the World War II detention center that was first known as the Central Utah Relocation Center, then changed to the Abraham Relocation Center, began in the summer of 1942. The camp opened on September 11, 1942, although many barracks including those used for schools were not completed. Japanese Americans from the San Francisco area, who had been housed at the Tanforan and Santa Anita race tracks after hasty retrofitting for human inhabitants, 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, incarcerees 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, gymnasium, and a hospital constituted the major structures of the camp. Administration buildings, warehouses, military headquarters, and government workers’ housing were located along the northern side and the first few blocks of the forty-two-block camp. The remaining blocks were for internee housing. Each block had twelve barracks, a recreation hall, latrines for men and for women, and a mess hall. The barracks were sectioned into six apartments of different sizes to accommodate families of two, four, or more people. Larger families were given two or more rooms. The six rooms came in three sizes, 20’ by 14’ or 20’ or 26’. Each room had a coal stove.

Furniture for the rooms only included army cots, mattresses, and blankets. Residents constructed 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 at 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 100 degrees. Some of the rooms had no windows and no roof when the camp opened.

Only the latrines and mess halls had running water. People could cook in their rooms, but with no running water, it was more convenient to eat at the mess halls. Japanese cooks and staff in each block provided meals for the residents, over 200 people, three times a day.

Incarcerees were employed at different jobs around the camp and were paid wages ranging from $14.00 for laborers 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 and other places outside of Topaz. One man who was employed at the local newspaper beginning in October 1942, made more money than he could at Topaz, and his wife and child were subsequently charged “rent” at the camp.

On April 11, 1943, James Hatsuaki Wakasa was shot and killed by a military sentry as he was walking his dog near the fence that encircled Topaz. His killing was ruled as “justified” during a military trial although no evidence exists to explain why. Nearly 2,000 Topaz incarcerees attended Mr. Wakasa’s funeral and a memorial was erected by Issei friends and members of the landscape committee, in defiance of the authorities’ orders not to build a monument. Soon after, they were ordered by the War Relocation Authority administration to destroy the monument.The builders, instead, buried the stone. The stone was half-buried, its face unseen and its location unknown for almost 80 years, until it was rediscovered in 2021. Further outcry from the camp population led to a change in the guarding procedures.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced in January 1943 that volunteers would be accepted in an all-Japanese American combat unit. At about the same time, residents 17-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, or 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 possibly leave them without a country. After a protest by many residents, the questions were altered; but the damage had already been done. Some became “No No boys” by answering “No” to both questions. Dissidents from all ten relocation camps were sent to the segregation center at Tule Lake, California. Of those answering “Yes Yes” and qualifying for military service, 105 volunteers soon left Topaz for active duty.

About 1,400 people from Topaz were transported to Tule Lake and the same number was transferred to Topaz from Tule Lake in September 1943. After that Topaz residents continued the routine of cultivating gardens, attending classes at schools or the recreation halls, and working.

From the first few weeks of Topaz, residents with sponsors, jobs, or acceptance into educational institutions were encouraged to leave the camps. Some people left Topaz for cities east of the West Coast. Many people went to Salt Lake City, Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis. People who preferred to return to California stayed in Topaz until the camp closed in October 1945.

The buildings at the camp site were moved to locations throughout Utah, or dismantled. When that work ended in 1947, all that was left of Topaz were cindered roads, foundations for latrines and mess halls, 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 still alive.


See: Leonard J. Arrington, The Price of Prejudice: The Japanese-American Relocation Center in Utah during World War II (1962); Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660 (1946); 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).

Topaz Facts

  • Opened on September 11, 1942
  • Closed on October 31, 1945
  • The original name, Central Utah Relocation Center, was changed to Abraham Relocation Center, and then to Topaz. Because the original name was too long to fit on postal forms, and the nearby town of Abraham already had a post office, the name was changed to Topaz, after a nearby mountain. The camp was never named after Delta.
  • Location: 10000 to 11000 West on 4500 North, 16 miles northwest of Delta, Utah, which is 130 miles southwest of Salt Lake City
  • Climate: Arid desert temperatures range from over 100 degrees in the summer to below zero in the winter.
  • Cost to build: $3,929,000
  • Incarcerees: 11,212 were processed into the camp. Peak population was between 8100 and 8300. Most of the people came from the San Francisco Bay area.
  • Size: 19,800 acres (31 square miles), including farm land
  • Living area: 640 acres (one square mile) surrounded by 4 foot high barbed wire fence and guard towers every half mile on three sides. Of the 42 blocks, 36 were used for housing.
  • Blocks held about 250 incarcerees and were comprised of 12 barracks, a mess hall, latrine and laundry, and recreation hall. Each recreation hall was used by the entire community and functioned as co-op stores, churches, art school, libraries, pre-schools, and other uses.
  • Living spaces: Each 20’ x 120’ barrack was divided into six rooms of three different sizes: 20’ x 14’, 20’ x 20’, and 20’ x 26’. Families were assigned rooms depending on the number of people in the family. If the family was larger than six people, they had multiple rooms. The barracks had no running water, a single light, and were heated by a coal stove.
  • Assembly center: Prior to being taken to Topaz, people were detained in the Tanforan and Santa Anita Race Tracks in California. Many incarcerees were forced to live in horse stalls while waiting for Topaz to be completed.
  • Once at Topaz, incarcerees were hired to work at the camp. Pay ranged from $14 a month for secretaries and janitors to $19 per month for professionals, including medical doctors.
  • People could leave Topaz and go farther east away from the West Coast, if they had a job or were admitted to a school. They could not return to California until January 1945.
  • After the War Relocation Authority (WRA) required all people 17 or older to answer loyalty questions, men were drafted and volunteered for military service from Topaz.
  • The soldiers were part of the 442nd RCT and the Military Intelligence Service, while many of their families were still interned.
  • If people answered “No” to two questions on the loyalty questionnaire, they were sent to the segregated camp, Tule Lake, and threatened with deportation to Japan.
Topaz Museum exterior

Photo: Brian Buroker

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