Construction on Topaz began in the summer of 1942, and the camp opened on September 11, 1942 although most 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, 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, 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. Six blocks were designated for recreation. The remaining 34 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 16’ or 20’ by 20’ or 20’ by 24’. 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 the end of September 1942, and the first snowfall was on October 13. The winter temperatures in the area typically hover near or below freezing, and in the summer soar to 100 degrees. Many of the barracks were not finished when people arrived.

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 provided meals for the residents, about 240 people in each block, three times a day.

Internees 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 have made at Topaz, subsequently his wife and child were charged “rent” at the camp.

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.

On April 11, 1943, James Hatsuaki Wakasa was shot and killed by a military sentry as he was walking his dog near the fence. His killing was ruled as “justified” during a court martial trial. Outcry from the camp population led to a change in the guarding procedures. Nearly 2,000 Topaz incarcerees attended Mr. Wakasa’s funeral and later a memorial was erected by Issei friends and members of the landscape committee. Soon after, they were ordered by the War Relocation Authority administration to destroy the monument. The builders, instead, buried the stone and its location was unknown until it was rediscovered in 2021.

Once Topaz closed on October 31. 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 Museum exterior

Photo: Brian Buroker

Help Support Our Museum