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Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz)
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. National Historic Landmark
Sign, written in barbed wire, located at the memorial site at Topaz War Relocation Center (Photo: Keith R. Wood, 2006)
Location: Millard County, Utah, USA
Nearest city: Delta, Utah
Built/Founded: 1942
Architect: Daley Brothers
Architectural style(s): No Style Listed
Governing body: Private
Added to NRHP: January 2, 1974[1]
Designated NHL: March 29, 2007[2]
NRHP Reference#: 74001934

The Topaz War Relocation Center, also known as the Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz), was a camp which housed Nikkei -- Americans of Japanese descent and immigrants who had come to the United States from Japan. There were a number of such camps used during the Second World War, under the control of the War Relocation Authority.

The camp consisted of 19,800 acres (8,012.8 ha), nearly four times the size of the more famous Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. Most Topaz internees lived in the central residential area located approximately 15 miles (24.1 km) west of Delta, Utah, though some lived as caretakers overseeing agricultural land and areas used for light industry and animal husbandry.

The site is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.[2]



Overview of the area

Since the end of World War II, there has been debate over the terminology used to refer to Topaz and the other camps in which Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents were imprisoned by the United States Government during the war.[3][4][5] Topaz has been referred to as a "War Relocation Center," "relocation camp," "relocation center," "internment camp," and "concentration camp," and the controversy over which term is the most accurate and appropriate continues to the present day.[6][7][8]

In 1998, use of "concentration camp" gained greater credibility prior to the opening of an exhibit about the American camps at Ellis Island. Initially, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the National Park Service, which manages Ellis Island, objected to the use of the term in the exhibit.[9] However, during a subsequent meeting held at the offices of the AJC in New York City, leaders representing Japanese Americans and Jewish Americans reached an understanding about the use of the term.[10] After the meeting, the Japanese American National Museum and the AJC issued a joint statement (which was included in the exhibit) that read in part:

A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term 'concentration camp' was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish American and Boer Wars. During World War II, America's concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany's. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments and summary executions; some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many others, including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and political dissidents were also victims of the Nazi concentration camps. In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia and Bosnia. Despite differences, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.[11][12]

The New York Times published an unsigned editorial supporting the use of "concentration camp" in the exhibit.[13] An article quoted Jonathan Mark, a columnist for The Jewish Week, who wrote, "Can no one else speak of slavery, gas, trains, camps? It's Jewish malpractice to monopolize pain and minimize victims."[14] AJC Executive Director David A. Harris stated during the controversy, "...We have not claimed Jewish exclusivity for the term 'concentration camps.'"[15]

History of Topaz

Following American entry into World War II, approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent and Japanese-born residents of the West Coast of the United States were forced to leave their homes in California, Oregon and Washington as a result of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt.

About 10,000 left the off-limits area during the "voluntary evacuation" period, and avoided internment.

The remaining 110,000 were soon removed from their homes by Army and National Guard troops. First housed in places such as racetrack stables, eventually they were moved to various camps, hundreds or even thousands of miles from home.

Topaz was the primary internment site in the state of Utah. A smaller camp existed briefly at Dalton Wells, a few miles north of Moab, which was used to isolate a few men considered to be troublemakers prior to their being sent to Leupp, AZ. A site at Antelope Springs, in the mountains west of Topaz, was used as a recreation area by the residents and staff of Topaz.

Topaz was originally known as the Central Utah Relocation Center, but this name was abandoned when administrators realized that the acronym was naturally pronounced "Curse." The camp was then briefly named for the closest settlement, until nearby Mormon residents (with their own heritage of forced relocation) demanded that their town name not be associated with a "prison for the innocent." The final name, Topaz, came from a mountain which overlooks the camp from 9 miles (14.5 km) away.

Utah governor Herbert B. Maw opposed the relocation of any Japanese Americans into the state, stating that if they were such a danger to the West Coast, they would be a danger to Utah (the only governor who did not oppose bringing the Japanese Americans to his state was Colorado governor Ralph Carr).

Topaz was opened September 11, 1942, and eventually became the fifth-largest city in Utah, with over 9,000 internees and staff, and covering approximately 31 square miles (80.3 km2) (mostly used for agriculture). It was closed on October 31, 1945.

Most of the internees lived in a central living area, which covered approximately one mile square.

Life at Topaz

Remains of sewage pump house at Topaz. The small memorial sign at the right notes that internee James Wakasa was killed near this spot.

Surrounded by desert, Topaz was an entirely new environment for internees, most of whom had been rounded up in the San Francisco area. At an altitude of 4,600 feet (1,402.1 m) above sea level, arid and subject to dust storms and wide temperatures swings during night and day, nonetheless it was an improvement over the conditions found at the Tanforan and Santa Anita racetracks which had been interim internment locations.

While many of the older generation were from Japan, most of those under 30 years of age were Nisei, first-generation American citizens of Japanese descent, and Kibei, Nisei who had been sent to Japan as children for periods of traditional schooling.

Though built with a barbed-wire fence and seven guard towers, there were attempts to make life at Topaz as "normal" as possible. Barracks were given "street addresses" and internees were encouraged to create gardens. The barracks themselves had been built with sliding windows, rather than the hinge-and-stick windows used at other camps, providing slightly better weather sealing, but most were unfinished inside when the internees first moved in. Drywall interiors walls were later added. Linoleum was also eventually laid down over the bare wood in many barracks.

The Topaz High School sports teams were known as the "Rams." The banner displayed at the Topaz High School 40th Reunion featured a drawing of a ram.

Following two shooting incidents in 1943, one of which resulted in the death of 63-year-old James Hatsuaki Wakasa, security at Topaz was reevaluated. It was determined that fears of subversive activity at the camp were largely without basis, and security was relaxed significantly. Internees were able to get permission to leave the camp for hiking and even employment in nearby Delta, but Topaz was still a concentration camp, with residents subject to the control of the War Relocation Authority. The more open atmosphere dampened nearly all of the anti-Army agitation.

One internee, Dave Tatsuno (1913-2006), had a movie camera smuggled into the camp, at the urging of his supervisor, Walter Honderick.[16] Film which he shot from 1943 to 1945 became the documentary Topaz. This film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress in 1997, and was the second film to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry (behind the "Zapruder" film of the JFK assassination). Until his death, Tatsuno was an Emeritus member of the board of the Topaz Museum, which is working to preserve the site.

A former Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Antelope Springs, in mountains 90 miles (144.8 km) to the west, was taken over as a recreation area for internees and camp staff, and two buildings from Antelope Springs were brought to the central area to be used as Buddhist and Christian churches. The airstrip at Antelope Springs was used by liaison planes which flew some camp administrators for brief trips to the mountains. Internees and most staff had to endure a three-hour truck trip each way.

Internees in all of the camps left their mark on many of the improvements made during their imprisonment. Names, comments and even poetry were impressed into drying concrete in a number of projects, some in English and others in Japanese. These can be seen today, though visitors must search for them on their own.

A number of young men from Topaz joined with their counterparts from other camps to sign up in the Army to fight in Europe with the highly-decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Photographs of Topaz activities include visits from soldiers, home on leave, and the mothers of Nisei soldiers killed in action in Italy and France.

While a cemetery site was dedicated, there is no record that it was ever used. Although Yoshiko Uchida reported that there were several burials, it is believed that she was remembering funeral services as being followed by burial. Internees' bodies were transported 150 miles (241.4 km) to Salt Lake City, cremated, and returned to their families so that they could be taken when they left Topaz.

Notable Topaz internees

  • Karl Ichiro Akiya (1909–2001), a writer and political activist.
  • Richard Aoki (1938–2009), an American civil rights activist.
  • Yuji Ichioka (1936–2002), an American historian who coined the term "Asian American".
  • George Ishiyama (1914–2003), a Japanese American businessman and former president of Alaska Pulp Corporation. Also interned at Heart Mountain.
  • Fred Korematsu (1919–2005), who challenged the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066 in Korematsu v. United States.
  • Toshio Mori (1910–1980), author.
  • Robert Murase (1938–2005), a world renowned landscape architect.
  • Chiura Obata (1885–1975), a Japanese-American artist.
  • Miné Okubo (1912–2001), a Japanese American artist and writer, noted for her book, Citizen 13660.
  • Mary Yamashiro Otani (1923–2005), a community activist.
  • Goro Suzuki (1917–1979), the Oakland-born entertainer remembered by millions under his stage name, Jack Soo, star of the original stage and movie productions of Flower Drum Song and remembered for his role as Detective Nick Yemana on the 1970s sitcom Barney Miller. Suzuki was a favorite performer at Topaz gatherings.
  • Dave Tatsuno (1913–2006), a Japanese American businessman who documented life in an American concentration camp on film.[16]
  • Yoshiko Uchida (1921–1992), a Japanese American writer, most notable for her books, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family[17] and Picture Bride.[18]

Topaz in film

Topaz War Relocation Center is the setting for the film American Pastime, a dramatization based on actual events, which tells the story of Nikkei baseball in the camps. A portion of the camp was duplicated for location shooting in Utah's Skull Valley, approximately 40 miles (64.4 km) west of Salt Lake City and 75 miles (120.7 km) north of the actual Topaz site. The film was released in May 2007.

Topaz in literature

Yoshiko Uchida's young adult novel Journey to Topaz recounts the story of Yuki, a young Japanese American girl, whose world is disrupted when, shortly after Pearl Harbor, she and her family must leave their comfortable home in the Berkeley suburbs for the dusty barracks of Topaz. The book is largely based on Uchida's personal experiences: she and her family were interned at Topaz for three years. Julie Otsuka's Novel "When The Emperor Was Divine" tells the story of a family forced to relocate from Berkeley, CA to Topaz in September 1942. The minimalist novel confronts the issues of freedom, loyalty, and identity for the Japanese American Family during World War II. The characters must adjust from their comfortable life in California to the uncertainty of the camps and then return to a town that is not what it once was.

Topaz in recent years

Sewer system at Topaz
Left-hand plaque from memorial
Right-hand plaque from memorial
The remains of the camp as seem from 20,000 feet in 2009.

After Topaz was closed, the land was sold and most of the buildings were auctioned off and removed from the site. Even the pipes used to provide water to the camp were sold, and the trenches remain following their removal years ago.

Many of the buildings from the camp still stand, used as farm buildings throughout central Utah, and an alert observer will see several of them during the drive to and from the central area site. Generally in disrepair, a few are well-maintained by their current owners and used for storage or as seasonal apartments for migrant workers.

The remains of the central living area, approximately one square mile, are located southwest of the intersection of 10000 West and 4500 North streets, in Millard County. One of the barracks has been moved to Delta, where it now sits behind the Great Basin Museum. Most of the central area now belongs to the Topaz Museum. Other portions are still used as residential sites.

In 1976, the year of the United States' Bicentennial, a monument was placed on the northwestern corner of the central area. Having been vandalized several times, it was eventually replaced in 2002 by another monument of more modern design.

Other areas of significance within the camp's outer boundaries include turkey and hog farms, a cattle ranch and farmlands, all built on land which was bare and unused when the internees arrived. Today, these sites belong to various private owners, a number of whom have made plans to transfer the properties to Topaz Museum.

Numerous foundations, concrete-lined excavations and other ground-level features can be seen at the various sites, but few buildings remain, and natural vegetation has taken over most of the abandoned areas.

The runway at Antelope Springs has been destroyed by numerous trenches which have been dug across it, put there solely to prevent any plane from being able to use it.

On March 29, 2007, United States Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne designated "Central Utah Relocation Center Site" a National Historic Landmark.[19]


The Topaz Museum (PO Box 241, Delta, Utah 84624) works to preserve important sites at Topaz, and to provide information to those interested in the history of the camps.

Topaz Museum mission statement:

To preserve the Topaz internment experience during World War II; to interpret its impact on the internees, their families, and the citizens of Millard County; and to educate the public in order to prevent a recurrence of a similar denial of American civil rights.


  • Camp opened: September 11, 1942 (first internees arrived)
  • Camp closed: October 31, 1945 (last internees left)
  • Total number interned: 11,212
  • Peak number of internees: 8,316
  • Internee deaths at Topaz: 130 by natural causes, 1 killed by gunfire
  • Nisei who joined United States Army while interned at Topaz: 451 (80 volunteers, 371 drafted)
Killed In Action: 15

See also


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23.  
  2. ^ a b "Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz) Site". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-06-12.  
  3. ^ "The Manzanar Controversy". Public Broadcasting System. Retrieved July 18, 2007.  
  4. ^ Daniels, Roger (May 2002). "Incarceration of the Japanese Americans: A Sixty-Year Perspective". The History Teacher 35 (3): 4–6. Retrieved 2007-07-18.  
  5. ^ Ito, Robert (1998-09-15). "Concentration Camp Or Summer Camp?". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2007-07-19.  
  6. ^ Manzanar Committee (1998). Reflections: Three Self-Guided Tours Of Manzanar. Manzanar Committee. iii–iv.  
  7. ^ "CLPEF Resolution Regarding Terminology". Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. 1996. Retrieved July 20, 2007.  
  8. ^ "Densho: Terminology & Glossary: A Note On Terminology". Densho. 1997. Retrieved July 15, 2007.  
  9. ^ Sengupta, Somini (1998-03-08). "What Is a Concentration Camp? Ellis Island Exhibit Prompts a Debate". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-30.  
  10. ^ McCarthy, Sheryl (July/August 1999). "Suffering Isn't One Group's Exclusive Privilege". HumanQuest. Retrieved 2007-12-31.  
  11. ^ Japanese American National Museum and American Jewish Committee (1998-03-13). "American Jewish Committee, Japanese American National Museum Issue Joint Statement About Ellis Island Exhibit Set To Open April 3". Press release. Retrieved 2007-12-30.  
  12. ^ Sengupta, Somini (1998-03-10). "Accord On Term "Concentration Camp"". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-31.  
  13. ^ "Words for Suffering". New York Times. 1998-03-10. Retrieved 2007-12-31.  
  14. ^ Haberman, Clyde (1998-03-13). "NYC; Defending Jews' Lexicon Of Anguish". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-31.  
  15. ^ Harris, David A (1998-03-13). "Exhibition on Camps". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-31.  
  16. ^ a b Fox, Margalit (2006-02-13). "Dave Tatsuno, 92, Whose Home Movies Captured History, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-27.  
  17. ^ Uchida, Yoshiko (1982). Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-96190-2.  
  18. ^ Uchida, Yoshiko (1987). Picture Bride. Simon & Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0-671-66874-9.  
  19. ^ National Park Service (2007-04-04). "Interior Secretary Kempthorne Designates 12 National Historic Landmarks in 10 States". Press release. Retrieved 2008-06-27.  

Additional reading

  • "Journey to Topaz" novel for children by Yoshiko Uchida, Grade 4 and up.
  • "Journey Home" sequel to "Journey to Topaz."
  • The Price of Prejudice—The Japanese-American Relocation Center in Utah During WWII Leonard J. Arrington, 1962, 25th Faculty Honor Lecture of Utah State University; 1997, with photographs and update, The Topaz Museum
  • Jewel of the Desert—Japanese American Internment at Topaz Sandra C. Taylor, University of California Press
  • Citizen 13660 Miné Okubo, 1946, Columbia University Press

External links

Coordinates: 39°24′40″N 112°46′20″W / 39.41111°N 112.77222°W / 39.41111; -112.77222



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