1942–1945: Topaz Internment Camp

In short

During World War II, the United States removed over 120,000 American citizens and legal residents from their homes into incarceration camps. The reason? These people were of Japanese descent, and the US government thought they might assist Japan during the war. One of these camps was in a windy, dusty desert near Delta, Utah. Its name was Topaz.

More of the story

An aerial shot of the Topaz internment camp.

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack aiming to disable the US Pacific naval fleet and settle long tensions with the American government. Quickly, the US government decided to remove all of the Japanese Americans who lived in California, Oregon, Washington, and parts of Arizona to incarceration camps in the interior. These communities included elderly people and adults who had immigrated from Japan beginning in the 1890s, and their children, who were US citizens by birth. 

Japanese communities had faced decades of racism and discriminatory laws in the United States. The Pearl Harbor attack ignited even more fear and mistrust of Japanese people. The government argued that, because of their ties to Japan, these Americans might become spies for the Japanese military or help carry out attacks against the United States. 

Utah’s camp

The Topaz Internment Camp mostly housed Japanese Americans from the San Francisco area. The government forced these families to abandon their businesses, homes, and most of their possessions with very little notice, before the camps were even built. For six months, they lived in horse stalls at the Tanforan race track in California. In September 1942, Topaz opened and the federal government moved the internees from Tanforan to Utah by train. By the time the camp closed in 1945, more than 11,000 people had lived there under armed guard.

Coping with many challenges

When the prisoners arrived, they found a dry, windy landscape. Topaz was hot and dusty during the summer, and bitterly cold during the winter. Dust and snow blew through the cracks in the barracks walls and covered everything inside. Families lived in small, crowded rooms in barracks made of plywood and tar paper. Coal stoves provided heat in their rooms. But they had to share communal toilets and showers, and stand in long lines to eat in the mess hall. Many suffered from malnutrition and other illnesses due to the poor conditions.

The camp had two elementary schools, a high school, and a hospital. Adult internees could work for small wages inside the camp, such as teaching or hospital jobs. Others worked on nearby farms or in Delta. Many residents planted gardens or created art to bring a little beauty to this stark place. There was a Boy Scout troop, and youth sports were popular. The community celebrated both Japanese and American holidays, such as Independence Day.

Under armed guard

Topaz was surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and the prisoners were monitored by armed military guards stationed in watchtowers along the perimeter. People needed permission to enter and leave the camp. On April 11, 1943, a guard shot and killed James Wakasa, 63, as he was walking his dog inside the barbed-wire fence. The guard claimed the shot was meant as a warning.

Japanese Americans fight in the war while their families are imprisoned

As the war grew, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a Japanese American army unit to fight in Europe. More than a hundred young men from the camp volunteered to serve, while their families were forced to remain in the camps. Many families saw war service as a way to prove their loyalty to the United States, in spite of the injustices they faced.

In 1943 the government began encouraging internees who had friends or family in the interior United States to leave the camps and go live with them. The camp finally closed in October 1945.

In 1988, President Reagan formally apologized to the Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII and asked Congress to compensate them.