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Topaz Camp

Although Topaz opened on Sept. 11, 1942, many barracks as well as the schools were not competed until October. In fact, the Japanese American internees were hired to install the sheetrock and erect the four-foot high barbed wire fence. Since March, they had been living in the Tanforan race track in San Bruno, where many were housed in horse stalls, hastily whitewashed, but retaining the grim reminders of the former equine inhabitants. From Tanforan the internees were transported by train to Delta, Utah, to begin their confinement in Topaz. Over 11,000 people were processed through the camp during its duration. At any one time the population of the camp was about 8300.

Internees arrive at Topaz with only what they could carry.
Internees arrive at Topaz with only what they could carry.

Two elementary schools, one junior/senior high school and a hospital constituted the major structures of the camp. Administration buildings, warehouses and government workers' housing were located in the first few blocks of the forty-two block camp. The remaining blocks were for internee housing and playground areas.

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 apartments.

Living areas 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 tables, chairs 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. Some of the apartments still had no windows installed at that time. School children took their benches outside to sit in the sun until their classrooms were finished. The winter temperatures in the area typically hover near or below zero, and in the summer soar to the nineties or above.

Internees were employed at different jobs around the camp such as farming, teaching, cooking, or clerking in various businesses. They were paid wages ranging from $14 for secretaries, $16 for teachers, to $19 a month for doctors. American soldiers were being paid $21 per month and the War Relocation Authority did not want to exceed that amount for internee wages.

Residents could obtain passes to shop in nearby Delta. Some found employment in that community. One man who worked at the local newspaper was subsequently charged "rent" at camp because he was paid more than the internees who worked inside the barbed wire.

On April 11, 1943, James Wakasa, age 63, was shot and killed by a guard when he was near the southwest section of the fence. After an outcry from the camp population, guarding procedures changed.

Internees arrive at Topaz with only what they could carry.
Gardens were a means of maintaining
s
ome semblance of normalcy.

On January 29, 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that volunteers would be accepted in an all-Japanese-American combat unit. At about that time, residents seventeen years of age and older in all the camps were given a questionnaire to determine if they were loyal to the United States. The two-question test became sore points for more than just the first-generation Japanese who were not permitted citizenship in the United States as dictated by legislation. The first question "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?" and the second, "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of American and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear 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 the second question 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 who did so were sent to Tule Lake, California. Of those qualifying for military service, 105 volunteers soon left Topaz for active duty, with more following later.

Camp life at Topaz settled down and residents continued the routine of cultivating gardens, attending classes at school or the recreation halls, and working. An art school grew to having 600 students, taught by artists who had established reputations prior to the war. In 1943 residents with sponsors were encouraged to leave camp and move farther inland. People could go to college or find work as long as they weren't returning to the West Coast.

President Roosevelt announced in 1944 that the camps would close in 1945 and then people could return to their California homes. That same year the Supreme Court ruled against Gordon Hirabayashi, Min Yasui and Fred Korematsu, but in favor of Mitsuye Endo. Still, the Topaz camp didn't close until October 31, 1945. The buildings were then dismantled or were moved to other locations, leaving cindered roads, foundations of the latrines and mess halls, rock gardens, and an episode that sullied the history of American democracy and its Constitution.

In 1976 the Japanese American Citizen League erected a monument near the site of the camp. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a redr3ess bill into law, issuing and apology to those interned and calling on Congress to budget compensation for the survivors. In 2007 the Topaz site was listed as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

See: Leonard J. Arrington, "The Price of Prejudice" (1962); Allan Bosworth, "American Concentration Camps" (1967) Roger Daniels, "Concentration Camps USA"; Yoshiko Uchida, "Desert Exile" (1982); Michi Weglyn, "Years of Infamy: The Untold story of America's Concentration Camps" (1976).