The wind started blowing this morning and continued all day. With the wind came dust. We went to the Topaz War Relocation Center Museum in Delta and then took a ride to the actual site about 15 miles west of town. Today was a good day for the visit because it allowed us to see what it would have been like for the Americans of Japanese descent to live on this high desert location during WWII. In addition to Japanese-Americans, the Topaz War Relocation Center also housed immigrants who had come to the United States from Japan. There were 10 such camps used during WWII located west of the Mississippi River as a result of FDR’s Executive Order 9066. Over the last 4 or 5 years, we’ve visited 8 of the locations. These centers were under the control of the War Relocation Authority and housed about 120,000 people between 1942 and 1945.
Topaz, named after a nearby mountain, consisted of 19,800 acres. The camp opened on September 11, 1942 and became the 5th largest city in Utah when is was fully occupied by 9,000 internees. It was the only relocation center in the state. The camp is laid out in a one-mile square and most Topaz internees lived in this central residential area. Within the “city”, forty-two blocks were reserved for internees of which thirty-four were residential. Each block housed 200-300 people in barracks that each held five people within a single 20x20ft room. Barracks were built out of wood frame covered in tarpaper, with wooden floors. The barracks were eventually lined with sheetrock, and the floors filled with masonite, but not until many internees had already moved into the camp, experiencing conditions that let in the wind and dust. Families were generally housed together, while single adults would be housed with four other unrelated individuals. Residential blocks also contained a recreation hall, a mess hall, an office for the block manager, and a combined laundry/toilet/bathing facility. Each block contained only four bathtubs for all the women and four showers for all the men living there. Having spent basic training in WWII era barracks, the living arrangements were not dissimilar from what GI’s of the era experienced while going through training.
Before we drove out to the site, we visited the recently built Topaz Museum. It is scheduled for a grand opening in July so many of the displays are still being prepared. The museum provides information on the history of the site and the experiences of the internees through static displays, interactive exhibits, and several videos. Even though all of the buildings on the camp site were sold off in 1946 and moved, a local resident who purchased half a recreation hall and used it for some 60 years for storage donated the building to the museum and it has been restored to 1940’s condition and was placed behind the museum. If you are interested in learning more about Topaz, the museum has a pretty good web site at http://www.topazmuseum.org/topaz-camp
The Topaz Museum Board is dedicated to preserving the history of Topaz and the Foundation owns 634 acres of the Topaz site, which has mostly remained undisturbed since the camp was dismantled after it closed in 1945. When we went out to the site you can still see the roads, outlines of barracks and even an occasional garden which internees created. Concrete foundations of mess halls, latrines, and the fire house remain. There’s also a monument with plaques commemorating those internees who served and died in WWII in the US Army 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the European Theater.