The photos that accompany this story were taken by me on December 30, 2016. They were shot at the actual site of the Topaz, Utah Japanese Internment Camp as it appears today. There are also a couple of photos of crafts made by the internees during their stay at the “camp”. These crafts are on display at the Topaz Internment Camp Museum in Delta, Utah. Topaz is located about 16 miles northwest of Delta, UT which is about 120 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Delta is in the high desert of the Intermountain West. The climate is quite extreme ranging from sub-freezing temperatures in the winters to very hot, dry summers with temperatures near or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is a fictional story about what life was like in the Topaz internment camp for the Japanese-American internees. The characters are not real, but the story is based upon actual historical accounts. I am dedicating this story to some very close family friends who are getting quite elderly, Frank and Grace Shioji. Frank and Grace lived in an internment camp with their respective parents while they were growing up during World War II. They’ve never said too much about their experiences there other than that they were placed there with their parents after Pearl Harbor.
It’s so cold; really, really cold. The icy winds come off the mountains and go right through you. We been here a little more than a year, and I’m helping my dad construct some new barracks for the camp. They’re supposed to be bringing more people here in the next few weeks. I’ve been outside most of the day helping dad frame some walls. I don’t really know what’s worse, the winter here or the summer. Our “house” is a wood frame building covered in pine planks and tarpaper. We live in one “apartment” that is a section of our building. On cold windy days like this it’s almost as cold inside as out. We have a small coal stove for heat, but you can feel the cold go right through the walls. When the wind blows, as it does here a lot, you can see the curtains blowing inside. There never seems to be enough coal. There’s just no escape this time of year.
The camp is called Topaz, actually the Central Utah Relocation Center, and it’s not too far from a little town in Utah known as Delta. Delta is in the high intermountain desert pretty far from anything. This is the most desolate place I’ve ever seen. There are no trees other than the ones in town that were planted. OK, there are a couple of young trees that were planted here in the camp, but they are just babies. There is no grass. It’s so hot in the summer that your feet just cook on the hot ground. It is so dry here that our hands are always cracking and splitting open. They just don’t seem to be able to heal.
I really miss our home in California. A lot of nights I cry for hours thinking of my old home and friends in school. I try to be quiet so my parents can’t hear me as I think it upsets them to know how upset I am about this new “home”. The camp is really a prison. The government calls it an internment camp. I didn’t think my family and I were criminals. My sister and I were both great students at our school in California, and my mom and dad worked hard in their store. I loved that store because everybody came in with a smile and then they left with a bigger smile after my mom and dad helped them get what they needed. So how did we get here?
I thought I was an American; I realize we are of Japanese ancestry. But my parents and my sister and I were born here, in California. I played baseball in school. Our grandparents came here from Japan a long time ago looking for a better life. In school they were teaching us about history and government, and we were learning about the Constitution. From what I was studying it was a pretty great document, and it has the Bill of Rights. My teacher told us that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights protect us from the abuses of unjust government. I guess she forgot to tell us that it only protects the whites because here we are in Topaz living in a tarpaper barrack behind barbed wire fences surrounded by armed guards in towers.
I’m sure you know that Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor and killed a lot of sailors and other people without any warning. We were listening to the radio that morning when we heard the news, and my parents were quite upset. They could hardly speak, and my mom was crying about so many nice boys dying. After the attack things changed pretty quickly for our family. Most folks around town were not nice anymore, and there were some pretty mean things said about my parents when certain people would come into the store. My dad had to run out a few people which was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. He was always the happiest and nicest person. Everybody used to like him. We had customers who would come in and didn’t really have money to pay for things. So instead of my dad telling them to go away, he would trade with them for things that they needed. Some of these same people have been calling us “Japs” in a really mean way.
One day the soldiers came and took us all away from our home and our business. They told us we could only leave with a few things that we could carry, but my parents grabbed a few pictures and a couple of little things for my sister and I. And now here we are far from home in the middle of this desert. We had a nice little house that we rented close to our store, and we were only about a half hour away from the ocean. Growing up there had been pretty fun. And now all that is gone. I have no idea what happened to our house or my parents’ store. The soldiers took us away in buses, and then they put us on a train to Delta.
Of course that was after we were all put into a temporary facility that used to be a horse barn at a race track not too far from home in California. Yes, we lived in a horse stall for a awhile before they shipped us to Topaz. It all happened so fast, we really didn’t have time to think about anything. I got so angry though, and I was yelling and screaming mean things at the soldiers. My dad grabbed me, but not before one of the soldiers hit me with his gun. I was so full of rage that they could do this. I was shaking. I thought we were Americans. My father told me that fighting won’t do us any good; that it would only bring us more pain and suffering. That soldier hit me in the head with his rifle, and my head hurt for a very long time. So, I guess Dad was right.
I’ve been helping my father because he got hurt a while back working on some of the buildings. We have to build more buildings because they say there’s going to be about more of us coming in not too long from now. I’m afraid that if he can’t work, they might get rid of him. I am supposed to be in school here, but Dad really needs help. And the hard work calms me down. We already lost my sister earlier this winter. She had some kind of influenza, and with all of the cold she just couldn’t get any better. My mom and dad have not been the same since she died. Our house is very quiet now other than the wind that makes a constant noise out here. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seen my parents smile. Sometimes my dad smiles at me a little bit when we’re working together, but it’s not the same as the smiles he used to have before they brought us here.
We’re not alone here. They say there’s over 8000 of us in the camp. We’re all Japanese Americans, and we were all brought here the same way. I guess the government is afraid that we will join with the Japanese Army or something. But we’re Americans; at least that’s what I thought until they took us here. They have even been forcing some of the older boys to swear oaths of allegiance to the US government. Some of the boys have been put into the Army, but they still keep their families here. I really don’t know what I will do when it comes time for me to “swear my oath”; I am so angry. Some of the boys would not take the oaths, and now they are gone. They say they were sent to another prison camp for the “no-no’s” — the ones who do not swear the oaths.
I’m having a hard time understanding how our country can do this to us. Everything has changed. People that I thought were my friends before the Pearl Harbor attack started treating me really differently afterword. They would push me around, and call me a “filthy, stinking, no good Jap”. They said they couldn’t trust us because we have “slanted” eyes. I know some boys did some bad things to my sister, but she wouldn’t ever tell me what happened. She used to be really happy and outgoing, but then she came home one day all cut up and bruised. We asked her what happened, and she just said that some boys pushed her down and kicked her. I think they did more to her than that.
I hate this place so much, but by the time we left our home it wasn’t home anymore either. I keep thinking about how to get a gun from one of the guards. I keep thinking about how to get out of here, but then I can’t leave my mom and dad behind. My parents told me, and I heard this from my grandparents too, that our family is everything. In our culture, we always take care of our family first. And the younger are supposed to take care of the older. So that’s why I can’t leave. I have to help take care of my mom and dad. My father keeps telling me that these thoughts won’t do any good.
He says, “So what good would it do you to kill one guard? Then you will have his blood on your hands, and you will see his face forever. What good will that do you? It will get you killed. Look around son; there are guards everywhere. There are guards outside the fences, there are guards inside the fences, and there are the guards in the towers. And so you escape; where will you go? You can’t hide your skin, and you can’t hide your eyes. They will be looking for us everywhere. Son, you need to think about just doing your best and surviving. Maybe someday this will be over, and we can all go back to our homes.”
I don’t know how my father can keep his composure. I am always angry, and I don’t think it would be so bad to kill some of those white guards. But then I look in my father’s eyes, and I see his wisdom. I wish I could learn his patience; I am trying.
Maybe he is right; maybe someday this will all be over. Perhaps we can go home. But then I have to ask myself these questions. Go home to what? Everything has changed. Who knows if our house would still be there? Who knows what has become of our store? Maybe the government took everything and sold it. Maybe there isn’t really anything left of our home. And then what do we do about the people who started treating us so mean? Are they going to be nice to us after the war? And then there is this place. My teacher told us that the Constitution protects this. But the soldiers came anyway. And so, what are we going to do after the war? How are we going to go back to our lives knowing that we have no rights? I thought we were Americans. But I guess that’s only for the whites.
In the history books we learned about the slaves, and then we learned about the Civil War. President Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the country. But in some parts of the country, the blacks are still not really free. They cannot even go into the same stores as the whites. My teacher told us that freedom is for everyone. But now, I know that is not true. Real freedom is only for the whites. The whites are nice to us when they want things from us. The whites are nice to us when they can get us to do things for them. But now I know that we can no longer trust our government or the whites. The fact that I am here behind this fence is proof of that. This is so hard, because I really thought that we were Americans.
I wanted to tell the Shioji’s story because I think it is important that our younger generations understand the mistakes that this country has made regarding human rights. The incoming president has made a lot of talk about not allowing certain groups of people to come here because of their religion. He has even professed marking, or labeling, those same people, the Muslims. We must speak out and make sure that everyone understands the real ramifications of treating people in these discriminatory and hostile ways.
The very principles that my father fought against in the second world war are being espoused by the incoming administration. We as Americans have caused horrible injustices against so many of our people — the Japanese, the Chinese, the Irish, the Hispanic immigrants, Blacks, and even our own Native Americans. If we want the words in the Declaration of Independence, the words in the Constitution, and the words on the Statue of Liberty to have real weight, then we must stop the bigotry, the racism, and the hatred. Otherwise those words are just words.