The military tore Japanese Americans from their homes and farms on the Pacific coast and relocated them to camps inland. One internment camp, named Topaz, was built near Delta, Utah.
Both those who were interned and those who were not suffered as the country turned on Japanese Americans with fear, bigotry, and hatred.
What happened then became a dark stain on the American values of liberty and justice for all.
(Excerpts from “Japanese Life in Utah,” in The Peoples of Utah, edited by Helen Z. Papanikolas)
Japanese in the United States were stunned by the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The traumatic mass movement of the Japanese from the West Coast began. Under the infamous Executive Order 9066, the army was empowered to oversee the "enemy alien problem." Houses, shops, and property of the deportees were sold for a fraction of the cost or abandoned. Decades, even generations, of hard work were swept away with the arrival of the United States soldiers.
In Utah, as elsewhere in the United States, reactions to the Japanese varied from threats to bewilderment. Japanese and people who had known and worked with them were uneasy at facing each other. Dr. Edward Ichiro ("First Born") Hashimoto, son of the Mikado, entered his gross anatomy class at the University of Utah Medical School, where he was to teach for forty years, to a profound silence. "What are you fellows staring at?" he said. "I'm Irish. I was home in Dublin at the time!" With relief and delight, Dr. Hashimoto's students relaxed.
Known for being able to draw human figures with both hands simultaneously, the doctor was called, from then on, the "Ambidextrous Irishman."
Ten relocation camps were hastily built to house a hundred ten thousand Japanese Americans. Neither German nor Italian nationals were subjected to this kind of treatment. The evacuation was under the direction of Gen. John L. De Witt, commander of the Western Defense Command. His derogatory pronouncement "A Jap's a Jap" and his curfew orders from 8:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. still rankle in the memory of Japanese Americans and their sympathizers.
The Japanese were given as little as six days to dispose of their property and be ready for evacuation. There was pandemonium, with certain areas interpreting army orders more strictly than others. Initially the evacuation was to be voluntary; the Japanese were to find inland locations to settle themselves. Men left their families and traveled to the Mountain States hoping for help from relatives and friends. Fearful of what could happen to their families in their absence, of the possibility of mob action as they drove on, of the signs in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, "No Japs Wanted Here," they slept in their cars and ate cold food at the side of the road. The voluntary program was a failure; the inland Japanese were overwhelmed by public hostility, loss of jobs, and the internment of their leading members.
One "successful" voluntary evacuee, Frank Endo, who owned the Yamato Grocery Store in Oakland, California, came with a brother-in-law to Salt Lake City….and met Fred Wada, a former Utahn who was negotiating to lease 3,909 acres of sagebrush land in Keetley, Wasatch County. Endo asked to bring his family of twelve brothers and sisters, their families, including parents-in-law, to join the colony. Hurrying back to his family, he disposed of as much of his store goods as was possible. Caucasians rushed to buy it at half cost.
The Endos loaded all staples and nonperishables into a Union Pacific railroad car and sent it on to Keetley to help feed the Endo clan. The families drove their cars from Oakland to Utah. When the Frank Endos reached Sandy, they stopped at a cafe. A sign in the cafe window read "No Dogs, No Japs."
Two of Frank Endo's brothers were already in the United States Army; two younger brothers, one of whom would die in the Korean War, sat in the crowded car. "I wonder," one of them said, "when I'm old enough to be drafted, what they would do if I walked in wearing my army uniform."
Under Fred Wada's leadership, the families, part of a ninety-member colony, cleared the land of sagebrush, tilled the valley and mountainsides, cultivated the soil, and raised "victory food." They lived in a motel next to a building used as a meetinghouse and office. One night a bomb was thrown against the building and demolished it, but no one was inside at the time. The Deseret News used a half-page to denounce the bombing.
The Matsumiyas were visited by the roadmaster in their Jericho, Utah, section house and told to leave within three days. Railroads and mines had been classified war industries and closed to Japanese. After 35 years of section work, Matsumiya went from one farm to another in the Payson area looking for work.
Years of uprooted life followed with Matsumiya thinning and hoeing beets, his wife sewing for Caucasians for as little as ten cents an hour, then moving to Salt Lake City where Mr. Matsumiya did janitor work for the Mayflower Restaurant, the kitchen of which was completely staffed with Japanese, and Mrs. Matsumiya altered suits for Hibbs Clothing store. Their daughters went to school and did housework for Caucasians.
Mr. and Mrs. Uchida were living in Idaho Falls at the time of Pearl Harbor. He was secretary of the Japanese Association there and she taught Japanese school. On December 8 the FBI sent the local sheriff to take them into custody. Orders had been given to remove all important Issei to internment camps "to leave the Japanese leaderless."
Mr. Uchida was sent to camps in North Dakota and Louisiana and Mrs. Uchida to Missoula, Montana, Seattle, Washington, and then to Seagoville, Texas, where she was placed in charge of Japanese women and children from California, Peru, and the Panama Canal Zone.
Tomoko Watanuki Yano, daughter of a community leader, said:
My father not only lost his job and seniority rights but the dignity and honor of a proud man. He was employed by the Tooele smelter as a camp boss. As a bilinguist, he also taught Japanese language classes. Since father was taken away so abruptly, mother was left without any means of support. She was ordered to leave her home...with no place to go.
Within a week, my mother was destitute, homeless, scorned and shunned by her community friends--after living there for twenty years. No one would rent them a house, so they accepted the offer of another Japanese family to use their upstairs storage space. There, my mother, sister, brother and his family, and three elderly Issei men from camp lived from day to day in very confined quarters under most inconvenient conditions.
When my younger brother was inducted into the service, my father was abruptly released after two years confinement. He came back a thoroughly dispirited and beaten person...He had never been sick a day in his life, but in camp he contracted a lung disease and died in 1948 of cancer.
Over the years, this injustice has rankled and festered my conscience every time I see my eighty-three-year-old mother and realize more fully what she had to endure.
It was left to Mike Masaoka and the Japanese American Citizens League to fight a tidal wave of irrational, anti-Japanese hysteria. Feverishly working to help the Japanese evacuees, Masaoka was jailed in North Platte, Nebraska, and held incommunicado for two days.
He was then allowed to make a telephone call but warned not to say he was in jail. "I'm stuck here in North Platte, Nebraska," he told a colleague. "I'm at the, ah, the Palace Hotel." A return call to the Palace Hotel revealed where Masaoka really was and a telephone appeal to Sen. Elbert D. Thomas effected his release. Masaoka boarded a train west only to be taken off at Cheyenne, Wyoming, when local police officers walked through and arrested him because he was an Asian. Again Senator Thomas intervened and Masaoka continued west to the Japanese in their great crisis.
Eight thousand evacuees were sent to the Central Utah War Relocation Center, which came to be called Topaz after the nearby mountains. The cold, drafty barracks were built on nearly 20,000 acres of arid land at a cost of $5 million.
A young evacuee said of Topaz: "Topaz looked so big, so enormous to us. It made me feel like an ant. Every place we go we can not escape the dust--dust and more dust, dust everywhere--I wonder who found this desert and why they put us in a place like this?"
The fine silt dust demoralized them all. Mine Okubo said on glimpsing Topaz, "the Jewel of the Desert" as it was sardonically called:
Suddenly, the Central Utah Relocation Project was stretched out before us in a cloud of dust. It was a desolate scene. Hundreds of low black barracks covered with tarred paper were lined up row after row. A few telephone poles stood like sentinels and soldiers could be seen patrolling the grounds. The bus struggled through the soft alkaline dirt--when we finally battled our way into the safety of the building we looked as if we had fallen into a flour barrel.
Until 1946 the evacuees endured Topaz while Japanese elsewhere in the state had comparative freedom but suffered continued oppression. President Elmer G. Peterson of Utah State University refused admittance of Nisei students. The Utah Fish and Game Commission denied fishing licenses to the Japanese. State Sen. Ira A. Huggins sponsored a bill that became law allowing aliens to lease land only on a renewable, yearly contract. Union miners effectively stopped the hiring of evacuees at Bingham. Business licenses were denied throughout the state. In Orem a large group of white youths attacked five young Nisei, part of the labor force of Japanese brought in to harvest the fruit crop.
Japanese rallied to help each other, and influential Utahns aided them in many ways. When the national headquarters of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Buddhist church were temporarily moved to Salt Lake City, Mayor Ab Jenkins waited at the state border to welcome caravans from San Francisco and escort them into the capital. Former Gov. Henry Blood, Gov. Herbert B. Maw, Sen. Elbert D. Thomas, and Claude T. Barnes, prominent attorney, gave assistance and quelled irrational demands, such as outcries to cut down the Japanese cherry trees on the State Capitol grounds.
At war's end the Japanese dispersed throughout the United States. Little Tokyos and Japanese Towns were not rebuilt, and assimilation became swift. Many evacuees remained in Utah; the 1950 Census reported an increase of 1,183 Japanese in the state.
The Topaz internment camp is now a National Historic Landmark. Learn more at the Topaz Museum website.