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Testament to Topaz

Written by Eileen Hallet Stone for Pioneer Memorial Theater’s display of art created at Topaz 

To be an American citizen and lose one’s constitutional rights and civil liberties because of racial bias, public sentiment, and wartime hysteria is almost unthinkable.  Yet after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fifteen hundred Japanese Americans considered enemy aliens by the FBI were immediately picked up for questioning and imprisoned, although they were never tried.  And in February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 sanctioned the evacuation and internment of more than 112,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in coastal areas from Washington to California and as far inland as southern Arizona.

Within weeks, 40,000 Japanese immigrants prohibited from becoming citizens by the anti-Asian U.S. Naturalization Acts of 1870 and 1920, and 70,000 American-born U.S. citizens and third-generation Japanese Americans were forced to surrender their homes and possessions.  Without legal recourse, and taking only what they could carry, these people were temporarily housed in horse stalls in overcrowded assembly centers, and then herded onto trains with the windows covered for transport to one of the ten remote and hastily constructed internment camps in the United States. 

Some 11,000 stunned and bewildered people were confined in the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah’s Millard County.  “When we arrived, the camp’s Boy Scout bugle corps played, and an oversized banner greeted us with ‘Welcome to Topaz: Jewel of the Desert,’ but rifles were pointed at us, not outward,” said Grace Fujimoto Oshita.

Surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers with armed soldiers, Topaz was built on 20,000 acres of barren desert often plagued with mosquitoes and temperatures that soared above 105 degrees in summers and below zero in winter. The internment camp was comprised of 42 blocks.  Thirty-six of those blocks, used for housing, were comprised of 12 barracks framed in pine and covered with tarpaper.   Each barrack had cots and mattresses, a coal-burning stove, an electric light, no insulation, and no running water.  Housing in the barracks was cramped and restrictive. Communal, crowded, and noisy, privacy in the barracks was nearly impossible.

Throughout the course of this shameful injustice, the internees remained resilient. In the spirit of shikataganai, or “It can’t be helped,” they strived for normalcy.  Men built furniture from scrap lumber, women swept out the endless dust, and children carried coal-filled buckets to tend the pot-bellied stoves. School classrooms were set up, dances were held, dates were made, and sports were played.  Seashells found in the dirt were glued and painted into blooming flowers, and artists painted their enduring testimony to Topaz.