Sandy Library hosts presentation discussing new topaz museum
Rick Okabe poses with a book about the children of the Topaz Internment Camp in front of an image of the new Topaz Museum, to open in spring 2017. (Keyra Kristoffersen/City Journals)
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On Sept. 11, 1945, thousands of Japanese-Americans arrived on the edge of the Sevier Desert after a three-day journey from Northern California. Most came from the Bay Area where they had been given two weeks to get their affairs in order, selling or giving away property, possessions, homes and businesses before they were rounded up, tagged and sent south for a six-month stay at a converted racetrack and then on to Utah.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, the Sandy Library held a presentation discussing the internment of 11,000 Japanese-Americans at the Topaz Internment Camp in Delta, Utah from Sept. 11, 1945 to Oct. 31, 1945. They also discussed the upcoming opening of the Topaz Museum in March.
“I’ll talk to anyone about this story,” says Rick Okabe, a third-generation Japanese-American. His grandparents and his parents, who were only in their early 20s, were removed to an internment camp at Tule Lake, CA. Okabe travels around Utah, telling the story of the people in these camps to whoever will listen, describing how “everywhere you go, you had to stand in line.”
Within four months of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941, anyone of with at least 1/16 Japanese blood within an exclusion zone of the west coast of the United States was forcibly removed under military guard to more interior sections of the country like eastern California, Utah and Arkansas, though none of the interned was ever charged or convicted of espionage.
A one-square-mile plot of land in the middle of the Utah desert was given over for the camp, which housed 408 hastily created wood and tar-paper barracks and was surrounded by a five-foot-tall barbed wire fence and armed guard towers.
Each family was allotted a 20-by-20 room that housed a single military cot, blanket, lightbulb and pipe stove. Okabe described how “chairs, tables and other furniture could be put together using scrap wood and materials around the camp and desert.”
An additional 19,000 acres around the camp was eventually given by the government for farming. Mess halls and latrines were communal, a hospital was eventually built and the camp had a preschool, two elementary schools and one high school, usually taught by other internees not much older than their students.
Photographers were allowed in, but had to follow very strict rules.
“The large majority of people in photos are smiling, but that does not accurately represent life in the camp,” explained Okabe.
An art school was formed by Chiura Obata in Topaz that eventually came to have a population of 600 students from ages 6–70, teaching figure drawing, still life, architectural drawing, anatomy, commercial art and eventually landscapes and portraits.
At one point, Topaz Internment Camp was the fifth-largest city in Utah.
In October 1945, the internees were released, given $25 and a one-way bus ticket to wherever they wanted, and in 1983, the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians issued a report detailing the absence of justification by the military and government to suspend the rights of American-born citizens and detain them without due process. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush issued an official letter of apology along with checks for $20,000 to the survivors of the camps still living.
Seventy-five years later, pieces of the camp still can be seen.
“You can still see the foundations of latrines, outlines of paths and the remains of rock gardens that people built to try and bring some happiness into their lives stand out against the Utah desert,” Okabe said. “Some of the barbed wire still exists. Dishware still lies in the dirt.”
In 2007 the Topaz Museum Board purchased the site and it was designated Utah’s 13th National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.
Thanks to donations and allotments from the government, the Topaz Museum has a brand-new building in Delta and will open with exhibits of artifacts detailing the stories of the people who lived there.
For more information, visit www.topazmuseum.org. The museum will be located on 55 West Main St., Delta, Utah 84624.