In 1942, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forced to leave their homes. About 10,000 of these moved voluntarily, but the remaining 110,000 were placed in internment camps, or “war relocation centers,” throughout the west. One of these centers was Topaz, located in central Utah.
Topaz operated from September 1942 through October 1945, housing overall about 11,000 Japanese Americans, with a stable population of around 8,000. Built on 19,800 acres, there were 623 buildings at the camp, divided into 42 blocks, each including barracks, a mess hall, a recreation center, and a bathroom/laundry. There were also administration buildings, warehouses, schools, libraries, a hospital, and athletic fields.
The administration at Topaz tried to relocate as many internees as possible to surrounding communities on a year-round or seasonal work basis, but the majority of the prisoners remained in the camp, working on the hog, cattle, and poultry farms, in the schools or hospital, or doing manual labor or administrative work. The internees also formed a successful co-op, which allowed them access to clothing and other goods. They started a chapter of the YMCA, and adult enrichment programs were also offered. About 180 young men from the camp served in the U.S. military, almost exclusively in the European Theater.
Being mostly from the San Francisco area, many of the internees weren’t prepared for Topaz’s extreme weather, which could reach below freezing in the winter and above 100 degrees in the summer. It was almost constantly windy, creating frequent dust storms. The soil wasn’t suitable for growing much, so people’s personal gardens struggled and most of the decorative trees and shrubs in the compound died.
Though the government tried to make life in the internment camp seem as normal as possible, there was no avoiding the fact that it was surrounded by barbed wire and overseen by seven guard towers and a military police compound. The internees tried to make the best of their situation and generally dealt with the hardships they faced with dignity and acceptance. A young father, Dave Tatsuno, with the help of his boss, managed to sneak a video camera into the camp and documented day-to-day life in the internment camp. His short films were compiled into a documentary called Topaz, which was only the second amateur documentary to be listed in the National Film Registry.
Topaz was slated to close in 1945, and people were free to leave beginning in January, although fewer than 200 left in that first month. As the center was only emptying slowly, in June officials established quotas of internees that had to leave each month, first on a voluntary basis, then on a mandatory one. Less than half of the Japanese Americans at Topaz returned to the West Coast to started over (their homes and businesses had usually been sold in their absence), while others decided to stay in Utah or move east to cities like Chicago.
Find out much more about Topaz at the Topaz Museum website, or in the online books Pride of Prejudice and Confinement and Ethnicity. Or find other stories about the war in Fold3′s World War II collection.