Last updated: July 17, 2019
The Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz) Site, also referred to as the Topaz Relocation Center or Topaz, was located in west central Utah just north of the town of Delta and 140 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Topaz was one of 10 relocation centers constructed in the United States during World War II for the purpose of detaining Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent. More than 11,000 people passed through the center and, at its peak, it housed over 8,000 internees. Today, the Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz) Site consists of two monuments, building foundations, roads, gravel walkways, agricultural buildings, portions of the perimeter fence, and landscaping.
Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, led to the United States' entry into World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The Order authorized the establishment of military areas encompassing most of the West Coast of the United States, "from which any or all persons may be excluded." This allowed for the removal from these areas of Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry, out of fear that these individuals might support Japan in the war. In March 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, which established the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the federal agency responsible for the evacuation, relocation, and internment of Japanese Americans and the construction and administration of relocation centers throughout the United States. The U.S. military supported Executive Order 9066 by assembling and transporting the evacuees. Through Executive Order 9066 came Proclamation No.1, initially a policy of voluntary participation to relocate that soon became mandatory forcing some 120,000 Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry to move to 10 inland relocation centers across the nation.
Construction of the 19,800-acre Central Utah Relocation Center began in July of 1942, continuing through January of 1943. The center was built in the Sevier Desert in central Utah, a dry, windy environment with harsh winters that was entirely new to the internees, most of whom were from the San Francisco, California area. The relocation center was initially named the Central Utah Relocation Center and then the Abraham Relocation Center before finally becoming the Topaz War Relocation Center, named after nearby Topaz Mountain.
The Central Utah Relocation Center officially opened on September 11, 1942. The camp had a one square mile central area consisting of 42 blocks with 12 barracks in each, housing 250 to 300 internees. Each block also had a recreation room, combination washroom-toilet-laundry building, a central dining hall, and an office for the block manager. The barracks were constructed of pine planks covered with tarpaper with sheetrock on the inside walls for insulation. Each barrack unit was simply furnished with pot-bellied stoves, army cots, blankets, and mattress covers. The barracks were barely ready when the evacuees moved into the center and many of them helped to finish the construction and built their own furniture. Thousands of trees and shrubs were planted throughout the developed area of the camp and internees engaged in extensive landscaping of the barracks areas. The relocation center eventually consisted of 623 buildings including two elementary schools, one junior/senior high school, a hospital, a church, seven watch towers, a perimeter fence, and a sentry post.
Of the 10 relocation centers, Topaz was considered a "quieter" center. The greatest unrest, including organized protests, happened in April 1943 as a result of the shooting death of 63-year-old internee James Hatsuki Wakasa by a military guard. Wakasa was walking near the perimeter fence and was either distracted or unable to hear or understand the guard's warnings. After this and another incident a month later, when a guard fired at a couple strolling too close to the fence, security regulations at Topaz were reevaluated. The center administration restricted the military's use of weapons and access to Topaz and security was relaxed. Internees were able to get permission to leave the camp for recreational activities and jobs in the nearby town of Delta.
Two internees held at Topaz, Fred C. Korematsu and Mitsuye Endo, were involved in landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases during the war. The cases challenged the constitutionality of the exclusion, relocation, and incarceration of Japanese Americans. At the beginning of the war Fred Korematsu, a native-born U.S. citizen of Japanese descent, refused to follow Executive Order 9066 and continued to live and work in California, which was within a military exclusion zone. Korematsu was arrested, tried, and convicted for violating Public Law No. 503, which criminalized violations of military orders issued under Executive Order 9066. Fred Korematsu appealed the conviction stating that the Executive Order was unconstitutional and a violation of the Fifth Amendment. In Korematsu v. United States (1944), the Supreme Court ruled against Korematsu finding that, while the constitutionality of compulsory exclusion as stated in the Executive Order was suspect, the government's need to protect against espionage during time of war outweighed Korematsu's individual rights, and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent.
Unlike Korematsu's case, Mitsuye Endo's dealt only with the incarceration of Japanese Americans. In 1943, Mitsuye Endo, a native-born U.S. citizen of Japanese descent, was contacted by civil liberties lawyer James Purcell about serving as a test case to challenge incarceration in relocation centers. Endo, who had worked for the State of California, had been dismissed from her job and sent to Tule Lake Relocation Center and then to Topaz. She agreed to serve as a test case and Purcell filed a writ of habeas corpus on her behalf stating that "she is a loyal and law-abiding citizen of the United States, that no charge has been made against her, that she is being unlawfully detained, and that she is confined in the Relocation Center under armed guard and held there against her will." Purcell asked that Endo be either charged with a crime or released from incarceration. The U.S. Government agreed that Endo was loyal and law-abiding and also that she was not being detained on any charge or suspected of disloyalty. Because they were concerned that the courts would find the detention of Japanese Americans unconstitutional and also to keep the case from proceeding any further, the government offered to release Mitsuye Endo as long as she agreed not to return to the West Coast. Endo refused and her case proceeded to the Supreme Court. In Ex Parte Mitsuye Endo (1944), the Supreme Court held that "admittedly loyal" citizens could not be deprived of their liberty and held in relocation centers. The decision effectively ended the incarceration of Japanese Americans.
After the Ex Parte Mitsuye Endo decision, many internees were eligible to leave Topaz freely and when the war ended in August 1945, internees began returning to their homes in California. The Central Utah Relocation Center was closed on October 31, 1945. Following the closing of the camp, many of the structures were sold or taken away to nearby educational facilities and most of what remained was torn down. In 1976, the Japanese-American Citizens League erected a stone monument near the camp site. In 1991, the Topaz Museum Board was formed and began to work to preserve the relocation center site. The preservation process included purchasing part of the site and maintaining the existing guard towers, utility poles, water towers, and agricultural buildings. Today, there are two monuments located at the site. One of the monuments was dedicated in August 2002, replacing the stone monument that was installed in 1976. The other monument was installed in 2005, in memory of the Japanese Americans incarcerated at Topaz who served in World War II.
The Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz) Site, a National Historic Landmark,
is located on West 4500 North, 15 miles northwest of Delta, UT. The Central Utah Relocation Center (Topaz) Site is open year round for self-guided tours. In addition, a self-guided tour is available of camp buildings that were moved to the town of Delta, UT after World War II. Guided tours of the Relocation Center site are offered by appointment only through the Topaz Museum. Visitors may contact the museum directly to schedule a tour. For more information, visit the Topaz Museum website.
The Central Utah Relocation Center/Topaz Relocation Center is featured in the National Historic Landmark Theme Study Japanese Americans in World War II (2012).