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Desert Trip to Topaz

By

It's Our History

topaz internment camp

Bright orange wildflowers bursting with color and a gradient from center to edge like the morning sunshine dot fields of Big Sagebrush and Shadescale Salt Bush.  Jack rabbits blast with Olympic speed through the mustard yellow Rubber Rabbit Brush. Scattered concrete remnants of ruins from long ago decorate the square plots once organizing the camp. The Earth is hallowed and stained with both shame and honor forged from fear and necessity.  Wind whips my ears and behind me a solemn monument of brass and concrete is watched over by a singular American flag snapping and cracking in the breeze.

shadescale

Topaz War Relocation Center, or internment camp, housed Americans of Japanese descent and immigrants who arrived in the United States from Japan. Being one of several internment camps in the US and the only one of its kind in Utah, Topaz remains a scarce example of a great injustice.  The camp Topaz opened September 11, 1942 with over 9000 internees. Covering approximately 31 square miles, mostly agricultural, the camp quickly became Utah's fifth largest city sitting northwest of Delta Utah. The site is currently a national historic landmark.

topaz internment camp plaque

Surrounded by desert and an entirely new environment for internees most of which were relocated from the San Francisco area, the area is hostile. Topaz sits at an altitude of approximately 4500 feet above sea level. Meteorological conditions in this area of the desert are volatile and subject to large dust storms and widely varying temperature swings during the day and night. On my recent visit the daytime was warm bordering on hot, even with a cool wind, while the nighttime was freezing and in the comfort of my RV I found the need for a heavy blanket.

Life at Topaz was intended to be as normal as possible, though the camp sat within the bounds of the large barb wire fence. Barricks, Mercantiles, and even the Elementary School were given street addresses. Internees were encouraged to plant gardens and decorate the inside of their barracks which were mostly unfinished upon their arrival. The local high school had a mascot, the Rams, another effort to mainstream the internment. A number of young men from Topaz joined the Army and fought in Europe with the for 442nd regimental combat team. The regiment remains one of the most highly decorated in U.S. Military history.

There are so many stories and plentiful history on the area known as Topaz I find myself spending hours reading. My visit was short and as I walked the gravel streets the story that stuck in the front of my mind was that of the burials. Although there was a cemetery on site, and it had been dedicated, there are no records of it being used. Instead loved ones were transported 150 miles to Salt Lake City, cremated and returned to the family at Topaz. This was done so the loved one could be taken with them when they left and returned to their homes.

There is a sense of sadness at the site but also a sense of pride. American people were taken from their homes and forced to live here, but they did not break. They remained steadfast in their patriotism for their country. These people continue to live life, to educate their children, and to serve in the military. Though their country doubted them they never doubted their country and as the plaque beneath the stars and stripes reads, not a single count of espionage was ever uncovered.

Take your hiking boots and snug up your no tie laces as the soil a soft and there are plentiful rabbit holes. Walk the gravel, read the signs and look at the ruins. Before you go spend some time reading the history and understanding exactly what happened there. The trip is a short jaunt from Salt Lake City and well worth the time. If you are a camper there is plenty of BLM nearby to set up your hammock. If you're not into the camping thing Delta is about 15 miles away where you can find a pretty tasty steak dinner.  Be safe and Have fun!

www.wadehaggard.com



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  • Patti Swallie Choy on

    Who knew? So interesting. First of all, I am very impressed with the writing. I was drawn in right away. It was descriptive while being informative. Secondly, the subject matter itself. I don’t know if this is common knowledge, but I grew up in Utah, and did a bit of camping, and this was news to me. I never heard of a Japanese internment camp in Utah in my whole life! Well done, Wade Haggard!


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