Sunday, September 01, 2013

Welcome to Topaz: Jewel of the Desert

The terms relocation, internment and concentration have been used to describe the camps uses to incarcerate as many as 120,000 Japanese during World War II. But by 1998 the term concentration camp had become widely accepted.  According to a joint statement by the American Jewish Congress and the Japanese American Museum, “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.” In fact, none of the Japanese Americans imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II was ever charged with a crime let alone convicted of one.  It’s one of the most egregious breaches of civil rights in American history.

For an American to lose his constitutional rights and civil liberties is almost incomprehensible today or is it?  That’s precisely what happened in February of 1942 when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Within a couple of months 40,000 Japanese immigrants who had already been denied citizenship by the anti-Asian U.S. Naturalization Acts of 1870 and 1920 and 80,000 full-fledged American citizens of Japanese ancestry were forced to surrender their homes, possessions and freedom. People who were at least one sixteenth Japanese were covered under the order including children, the elderly and the mentally ill.  One sixteenth.
That German American Caucasians didn’t endure such indignities suggests that race played a greater role in the treatment of the Japanese than any plausible military risk.  Race was beyond doubt key to the anti-Japanese hysteria that swept the country.  Lt. General John L. Dewitt who was placed in charge of the War Relocation Command said that, “A Jap’s a Jap” and testified before congress that “They are a dangerous element…It makes no difference if he is an American citizen, he is still Japanese…we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped of the map.”  Emphasis applied. Substitute Jew and see where that thinking leads. Earl Warren, then Attorney General of California and later Governor of the state and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court led efforts to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast.

Columnist Harry McLemore fueled anti-Japanese fever when he wrote, “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior.  I don’t mean a nice piece of the interior either.  Herd’em up, pack’em off and give’em the inside room in the badlands…Personally, I hate the Japanese.  And that goes for all of them.” McLemore got his wish.

A Los Angeles Times editorial also embraced this view.

“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched…So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents…notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with rarest of exceptions grows up to be Japanese not American. Thus, while it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies, I cannot escape the conclusion…that such treatment…should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.” Emphasis applied.
Topaz Concentration Camp 16 miles west of Delta, Utah consisted of 42 blocks. The use of prison nomenclature is chilling. The 36 residential blocks were comprised of 12 frame and tarpaper barracks with cots, mattresses, a single electric light and no plumbing.  Living conditions were so crowded and noisy that privacy was impossible.

Unlike the Manzanar Concentration Camp in California where a number of buildings still stand, little of Topaz remains.  Yet Topaz was four times the size of the better known Manzanar.  At its peak population of 8,400 it was the third largest city in Utah a dubious honor enjoyed by camps in Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming, as well. I could identify the foot print of just one building though the 20,000 acre site is cris-crossed by cinder roads.  Two elevated non-residential structures are the only ones standing. Architecture and artifacts cannot tell the Topaz story so the sheer desolation of the site will have to speak for the 11,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned there.
“When we arrived the camp’s Boy Scout bugle corps played and an oversized banner greeted us with ‘Welcome to Topaz: Jewel of the Desert,’ but rifles were pointed at us, not outward.” remembers Grace Fujimoto Oshita.

Harry Kitano from San Francisco arrived at Topaz with six siblings and his parents.  He was sixteen. They lived on block 34-3. Harry was the starting fullback on the high school football team and played trombone in the school band.  He was senior class president and voted Most Popular Boy along with Tsuki Takaha who was Most Popular Girl.  The sound of it is achingly American. When Harry graduated high school the war was in full swing so he moved inland to Milwaukee where he worked as a farm hand and played in a jazz band. When the war ended and he could legally move back to California he earned his Ph.D in psychology at UC Berkeley. He was a professor of Social Welfare and Sociology at UCLA until his retirement. Harry Kitano wrote more than 150 books and articles the last being “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Achieved Redress” (2000) which was being revised at the time of his death in 2002.

Julie Otsuka heard stories of her family’s internment from her mother and grandparents.  Julie’s mother was ten when her family was among those “assembled” at Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno.  Her mother tells the story of how her nine year old cousin was told that the family was going “camping” so he wouldn’t be afraid. The boy brought a canteen for the hiking and camping he expected. That night they slept in horse stalls.  

In Julie’s words, “When I was a child my mother would occasionally mention ‘camp’ to me in passing. ‘That rusty fork in the back of the silverware drawer, we used it in camp,’ her mother would say. There was the story of the mess hall cook who mistakenly used Ajax instead of baking soda in the biscuits or the boy who fell through the roof of the women’s bath house while sneaking a peak at the bathers below.  Julie’s mother told her that camp was ‘an adventure.’

But tragedy occurred at Topaz on April 11, 1943 when James Wakasa, age 63, was shot and killed by an overzealous guard when he was too near the southwest section of the fence. It was the only killing of a prisoner reported at Topaz. While the record is unclear it is estimated that between six and twenty internees were killed by guards in the ten main camps. That there is no verified count is in itself telling.

Despite the injustice, the internees were amazingly resilient and in the spirit of shikaganai meaning “It can’t be helped,” made the best of the injustice that had befallen them by making life as normal, indeed as American as possible. The women swept and dusted incessantly to beat back the dirt that filled their porous barracks.  Children hauled coal for the pot-bellied stoves.  The men built furniture from scraps of lumber. Gardens were planted. Schools were established and sports were played. An art school taught by established Japanese American artists grew to more than 600 students. It may have been the largest art school in the United States.

Sociologist and Psychiatrist Alexander H. Leighton spent fifteen months in the camps before writing the 1945 book The Governing of Man. Paraphrasing from the book; Time magazine wrote that “many an American simply fails to remember that U.S. Japanese are human beings.” 

Topaz was raised immediately after its closing in late 1945 as if to excise its existence from history.

Upon release from the camp each internee was given $25, roughly the monthly wage paid an Army Private.

While widely discredited, our World War Two Concentration Camps have defenders. And there are those who see the camps as models for the treatment of dangerous racial elements in the American population today. 


Daryl A. Black said...

What a good history lesson, Steve. Thank you for researching these to commemorate Labor Day.

George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu in the first Star Trek television series, was interned. First at an internet camp "hastily established" at Santa Anita Race Track in the Los Angeles area, at age five, and then his family was moved to a camp in Arkansas.

There were camps in New Mexico as well. One in Lordsburg and one in Santa Fe, near the present day Casa Solana neighborhood. Some of the fruit trees planted by the "enemy aliens" still exist.

Your photographs say a huge amount, recording what is left of yet another example of mean and stupid human group behavior. Can it happen again? Unfortunately, it is in many parts of the world, and here in the United States via misguided immigration policies and profiling.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks Daryl. It's a history worth remembering isn't it? Pat Morita of Karate Kid fame was interned in two camps including the largest one at Tule Lake in California near the Oregon border. That's where the uncompliant ones were sent and may have been the only one with a jail. Don't know if Morita was at Tule by chance or because he didn't play ball.

One defender of the camps says that racial profiling with camps as the best solution for likely enemies is precisely the right course of action.

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