Japanese-American Internment Camp in Topaz, Utah, 1944.
Part 51: Topaz Japanese-American Internment Camp
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek, Muriel E. (Betty) Palecek and their son, Glen Palecek
While Dad was in France, Mom took a job teaching Japanese-Americans in an internment camp at Topaz, Utah. Dad wrote to her that she was very “broad minded” to do so, especially since the United States was at war with Japan. Rather than try to describe what the camp was like, I’ll let Mom tell you. Here are excerpts from her various articles.
“Why am I here today? To talk about my experiences teaching high school classes in an American internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. I am not an expert on Japanese-Americans, nor do I claim to be, but I can tell you what life was like in these camps during the war.
“During World War II, 119,000 persons were forcibly evacuated by the United States Army from their homes in Washington, Oregon, and California, and put behind barbed-wire fences in American prison camps in desolate places throughout the United States.
“There were 10 camps, together imprisoning about 120,000 Japanese-Americans:
Manzanar, Calif., 10,000
Tule Lake, Calif., 16,000
Poston, Ariz., 20,000
Gila River, Ariz., 15,000
Minidoka, Idaho, 10,000
Heart Mountain, Wyo., 10,000
Granada, Colo., 8,000
Topaz, Utah, 10,000
Rohwer, Ark., 10,000
Jerome, Ak., 10,000
“Of these people, two-thirds were native-born American citizens, and the others were legal residents. They had been accused of no crimes, tried in no courts. They were stigmatized as spies and potential saboteurs solely on the basis of their ancestry. Amid the tensions and panicky fears of a bitter and desperate war, the Japanese among us were subjected to a mass detention unprecedented in our history. It was our worst wartime mistake.
“Tule Lake, Calif., became the one true concentration camp, housing all those deemed disloyal by the FBI on the basis of a contrived loyalty oath questionnaire.
“Remember that we had been at war with Germany and Italy at the same time; there were over 80,000 German and Italian aliens on the West Coast, but they were never interned.
“Since no preparation had been made for so vast an exodus, fairgrounds and racetracks were used as temporary assembly centers. Meanwhile, at the 10 hastily erected relocation projects, army engineers built camps. Two were in swamplands in Arkansas, and the others in desolate places.
“I am going to tell you about the camp called Topaz, located in the dry desert region of central Utah, about 160 miles south of Salt Lake City.
“All the camps were built on the same style. Location was always some miles from the nearest settlement on government land not therefore occupied. At first Topaz looked like an endless procession of tar-paper barracks. How could anyone find his way among them? However, I soon learned they were numbered in a very orderly fashion. There were 34 blocks of 12 barracks each. These barracks, or shacks, were each made of wood covered with tar paper, about 100 feet long, and each housed three families. Their one-room apartments were furnished with an army stove and cots. All other furniture, if any, was hand-made by the residents. Usually they divided the room up by hanging curtains across it and did their best against the summer sand storms and winter winds that no tar paper shack could keep out. Many tried to make the exteriors more attractive by making Japanese rock gardens in front, but trying to raise things there was pretty hopeless. Topaz was completely treeless. In each group of 12 barracks there was a separate barrack for laundry and washrooms and a mess hall where Japanese cooks prepared meals.
“I was ‘Hakujin’ among ‘Nihojins’ – we certainly didn’t use such terms as ‘white’ or ‘non-white.’ And how could we say ‘American’ and ‘Japanese’ when they were Americans? ‘Caucasian’ and ‘Japanese’ might be more acceptable, but the terms that those most in sympathy with each other used were ‘Hakujin’ and ‘Nihojin,’ the Japanese language words for Caucasian and Japanese. Also, we could call ourselves ‘staff’ and them ‘residents.’
“It was almost like going into another world that August 1944, to enter life in a relocation center, for after a while you really did begin to feel cut off from the rest of the world. When one leaves Salt Lake City or Ogden, the two largest Utah cities, it doesn’t take very long to be in the middle of the desert. The Mormons of Utah have literally made cities spring up from the wilderness. Topaz was a dry ancient glacial lake bed, ringed entirely by steep mountains. When I arrived that August, most of the restrictions on relocation centers had been lifted, so that, contrary to expectations, there were no longer any armed guards in the watch towers, though the camp was still surrounded by high wire fences.
“I was met by the high school principal at Delta, the tiny town 15 miles from the camp, and the only town anywhere near. It was an easy matter to get through the gate with a voucher along – just a few papers to sign. The Japanese who wished to leave camp had to present passes and also had to wear large white identification buttons on their coats.
“We hakujins lived near the entrance to the camp, just beyond the main gate. All of the administration buildings were in this area, also a 175-bed hospital.
“There were four long dormitories for single persons, two for women and two for men. There were also a few rows of one-story apartment buildings for married couples on the staff. These apartments were very comfortable and certainly luxurious compared to what a Japanese family had to live in. I don’t believe that the average staff member was there enduring hardships for the sake of the poor Japanese. The staff was well paid. My best illustration of this idea is that although the Topaz schools were open to all children, only four Caucasian families sent their children there to learn with the Japanese: a schoolteacher, the head of the Motor Vehicle Administration, the head of the education section, and a general – all people of better than average education. The rest of the Caucasian staff preferred to send their youngsters to Delta – 30 miles round trip – to go to a white school with Utah children. Racial prejudice is insidious. It creeps in even among those working with minorities.
“Approximately 2,700 residents were employed at Topaz to assist in the various operations of the camp; their wages were $14 a month for common labor and $19 for professional services. I received $200 a month for the same job a Nisei teacher who got $19.”
We moved to Winona, Minn., in 1964 where Dad took a job as a professor at Winona State and Mom as a professor at the College of St. Teresa. Later, Mom joined Dad to teach at Winona State.
That’s all I have room for of Mom’s story in this episode. I will try to give you a little more in the next episode, but mostly I want to tell you next about how Japanese-American soldiers fought bravely in the war against the Germans and how they also helped win the war against Japan. I will include both writings from Dad in France and Mom in the camp. I also want to tell you how Dad’s brother, Alvin, was killed in the war against Japan. After that I will get back to the war as Dad’s Thunderbird Division prepares to lead the American Seventh Army into Germany.