The World War II Japanese Relocation Center in Delta, Utah

by WES A. HANCOCK

In the early morning of December 7, 1941, a large Japanese naval fleet attacked the U.S. Navy that was docked in the pier at Pearl Harbor. Most of the crew aboard these ships was still asleep when the attack began. The attack would last two hours, but in those two hours nearly 20 ships and 200 aircraft were destroyed, more than 2,000 men were killed, and nearly 1,000 more wounded. The following day President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war. Congress approved the declaration of war against Japan, with only one vote against. The United States was now a part of the Second World War, with enemies on two fronts; the U.S. would have to fight two wars, one in Europe and the other in the Pacific. (History.com)

Within only a few months of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American government and its citizens would succumb to the fear that Japanese-Americans were working for the enemy. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt would issue Executive Order 9066. This order would become one of the darkest stains in American history. This order allowed for the creation of what were called relocation camps. In reality they were not much different from the concentration camps found in Germany that were holding Jews. The U.S. camps were not for captured POWs; they were to hold Japanese-Americans, most of whom were citizens of the United States, and many of them were “Nisei,” the Japanese word meaning second generation, or Japanese who had been born in the United States. (HistoryMatters.gmu.edu)

The United States would build ten of these relocation camps, but for the  purpose of this paper I will focus mainly on the camp located in Delta, Utah, by Topaz Mountain, which is how the camp received its nickname, the Topaz Internment Camp. This relocation center would be in operation from September 11, 1941, to October 31, 1945.

During my initial research I was surprised to learn that a newspaper was printed at Topaz during the years of the internment camp. The paper was called the Topaz Times. The paper was started in an internment camp in California, the Tanforan internment camp, but when the Japanese-Americans who were living there were transferred to the Topaz internment camp in 1942, the paper changed its name to the Topaz Times. (Utah Digital Newspaper)

I could not imagine life as an interned prisoner, and that is exactly what the Japanese-Americans who lived at these internment camps were. They were not guests at a social club for a visit, they had been taken from their homes in America, relocated across the country and forced to live in these camps. But when you read the first issue of Topaz Times, those who wrote the articles in the paper try to paint a very different picture.

The first thing you see on the front page of the first issue in large letters along the banner is, “Welcome to Topaz.” The project director of the camp, Charles F. Erast, wrote a column on the front page called “Greetings,” in which he wrote, “You will be shown every respect as befits the dignity and importance which belongs to every human being.” Many of the articles in this issue followed the same pattern, trying to convince the Japanese-Americans that they were in the best and most humane internment camp, and that it was in their best interest to be there. (Topaz Times, September 17, 1942, 1)

Comments were made that the Japanese-American who resided at Camp Topaz would enjoy luxuries such running water and toilets that flushed. The writers of the paper even went as far as changing the language and terms that the Japanese-Americans had become accustomed to at other internment camps. The “Mess Hall” became the “Dining Hall,” “Internal Police” would be known as the “Safety Council,” and the “Evacuees” were to be known as “Residents.” All these changes were attempts at creating the illusion that the American government/people had done nothing wrong by imprisoning Japanese-Americans solely on the connection that they were descendants from Japan, and could be a potential enemy inside the borders of the United States. (Topaz Times, September 17, 1942, 2)

Though the United States believed that interning Japanese-Americans was the right thing to do during a time of war, the United States was exactly that, at war, and not just a war on one front but two. The United States needed men to fight on these two fronts, and they needed them badly enough that the idea of those who were in the relocation centers that could prove their loyalty to the United States would be allowed to enter military service and leave the camps.

It would seem that many Japanese-Americans who were at Topaz elected this option, for not only if they entered the service, those with family would be allowed to leave and live in homes outside of the relocation centers. An article in the Topaz Times called “Restrictions on Evacuees in Utah Counties Relaxed,” informs those who are considered fit for military service that they will be allowed to leave the camp with their family, and that when their husband leaves for the military the family will not be expected to return to the internment center. Simply put, they had earned their freedom; it might only cost them the life of their husband as he fought on the frontlines, for a freedom that had been taken away from them. (Topaz Times, April 19, 1944, 5)

I found it interesting that the United States had excluded an entire group of people from living among the general population, unless individuals proved their loyalty and served in the military. But the rest who could not serve or would not take the test to prove their loyalty would still be used in other facets. One article noted that the Japanese-Americans who were living in the relocation centers would be allowed to vote during an upcoming election. Here we have a country that was afraid that the enemy had people living within the United States borders, but would allow them to vote and influence who would be elected to office. The United States treated these people as an enemy by locking them up, taking away the basic right to live freely, but yet they were expected to vote in an election for the same government that had just taken their basic right of freedom away. (Topaz Times, April 12, 1944, 4)

As the war neared an end in the Pacific Front, opinion toward those interned in the camps would change as well. An article titled “The Nisei will Rise Again” gives light to those who elected to serve in the military. Even though they had been discriminated against they answered the call to rise and fight a war against what was called “a common enemy,” despite the fact that they were descendants of Japanese immigrants. It was said in this article that these men had proved beyond any doubt that they were faithful to the cause of democracy. (Topaz Times, April 6, 1944, 2)

At this same time in the nation, the war was coming to a close, though it was not known how the war was going to end. A published article discussed that the American people needed to start readying for the return and release of the Japanese-Americans who had been interned in the relocation centers. The article gave the sense that the American people now missed their American-Japanese neighbors, and that it was now time to make them feel welcome at home upon their return. (Topaz Times, April 12, 1944, 5)

I don’t know how I would react upon my release from a prison sentence, especially one that was imposed against me just because of my race or ethnicity. I don’t know how I would feel about the country that had just imprisoned me or if I would have any loyalty left toward such a nation. I wonder how many Japanese-Americans left the States, or even returned to Japan due to their treatment at these relocation centers. We have to remember the treatment of those that were forced to relocate to these camps, mainly so that we never make this same mistake in our history again.

Wes Hancock served in the United States Navy during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Upon discharge from active duty, he began his studies at The University of Utah, majoring in mass communication/new media with a minor in art and entertainment.


Sources

“Restrictions on Evacuees in Utah Counties Relaxed,” Topaz Times, April 19, 1944, 5.

Donald Culross Peattie, “Persecutors of Nisei Denounced by AAF Captain In TIME Magazine,” Topaz Times, April 19, 1944, 4.

“Nisei May Still Register for November 7 Elections,” Topaz Times, April 12, 1944, 4.

“Nisei Feels Like a Child ‘Kicked Out’ from Home,” Topaz Times, April 12, 1944, 5.

“The Nisei Will Rise Again,” Topaz Times, April 8, 1944, 2.

Charles F. Ernst, “Greetings,” Topaz Times, September 17, 1942, 1.

“Pearl Harbor,” History.com, http://bit.ly/h7rEKt

Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Executive Order No. 9066,” HistoryMatters, http://bit.ly/ft7KZ8

“Teaching with Documents: Documents and Photographs related to Japanese Relocation During World War II,” National Archives, http://1.usa.gov/695LHZ

“Topaz Times Archive,” Denso Digital Archive, http://bit.ly/yIjX9i

“About World War II Japanese-American Internment Camp Documents, 1942-1946,” Ancestry.com, http://ancstry.me/zfFSxh

“Topaz Times,” Utah Digital Newspaper, http://bit.ly/GZcdy3

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