A Town, a Teacher and a Wartime Tragedy

On the arid flatlands near the small town of Delta, Utah, 140 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the scorching summer winds whip dust through the dry brush, and winter cold freezes the ground under a blanket of snow. In this forbidding landscape lie remnants of an American tragedy -- an internment camp that housed over 8,000 Japanese Americans behind barbed wire and armed guards during World War II. Named for a barren nearby mountain, the camp became known as Topaz.

Like the other nine wartime "relocation centers," as they were called, scattered from northeastern California to Arkansas, Topaz came to life amidst post-Pearl Harbor fears of invasion as Japanese soldiers overran the Asian Pacific in early 1942. Suspecting that ethnic Japanese on the West Coast might aid the enemy, officials rounded up leaders of Japanese organizations immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack and began searching the homes of possible subversives. When Attorney General Francis Biddle banned these searches for violating 4th Amendment rights, worried patriots urged as a remedy simply evacuating all residents of Japanese origin from the vulnerable West Coast.

"All Persons of Japanese Ancestry"
On February 19, 1942 -- four days before an audacious Japanese submarine shelling of an oil refinery in southern California would enflame invasion fears -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order #9066 authorizing "military areas" from which "any or all persons may be excluded." The crusty general in charge of West Coast defenses, John L. DeWitt, then ordered all ethnic Japanese to vacate the coastal region and settle elsewhere on their own. When few of them left "voluntarily," having no place to resettle in a country hostile to them, forced evacuation began.

Notices went out along the West Coast informing "all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien" (chilly terms for first-generation immigrants -- who had been denied citizenship since a law of 1924 -- and their American-born children) that they would "be evacuated" from designated areas by specified dates. The evacuees were bluntly told to "report to the Civil Patrol Station" in their area before the deadlines for "further instructions." Within about three months, the coast was cleared of more than 110,000 people -- 72,000 of them American-born citizens.

The Topaz "relocation center" (welcomed to Utah by local businessmen who foresaw financial gains in it for landowners and merchants) received its first residents in early September 1942. Gathered mainly from San Francisco and its environs, they had resided since the spring in a temporary "Assembly Center" at a California racetrack while the Topaz camp materialized. Now they arrived as autumn's chill bit the desert air; snow fell the next month.

One of those who reached the camp soon after it opened, Miné Okubo, wrote in an affecting memoir, Citizen 13660 (1946), that "it was a desolate scene" where "hundreds of low black barracks ... stretched out before us in a cloud of dust." She later added in an interview with a documentary filmmaker that "a big sign said, 'Welcome to Topaz. This is your new home.' We could hear Japanese members of the Berkeley Boy Scout Band playing 'Hail, California.' We were in the middle of a desert, a band was playing, and the whole thing was bizarre."

A grid divided the one-square-mile camp into forty-two blocks. Each block would house 200-250 people in twelve barracks and provide a common eating hall, a recreation center, a laundry, showers and a latrine. Families were assigned to bare single rooms equipped with cots for sleeping, heated by coal-burning stoves, insulated with wallboard and tarpaper, and lacking running water. For three years, this was their home.

But the Topaz internees tried to make the best of it despite the prison-camp conditions -- punctuated by the fatal fence-line shooting in 1943 of one internee by a guard. They planted gardens, organized schools, fielded athletic teams that played in public school leagues, published a newspaper, and built a community. Some eventually worked outside the camp, a few left for new lives in the east, and over a hundred volunteered in 1943 for American military service, including enlistees in the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became one of the most decorated forces in the war. But none was sorry to leave the camp when the war ended. Most returned to the San Francisco area where, although many had lost their property and previous means of livelihood, they could at least pick up pieces of their broken lives.

On October 31, 1945, the Topaz camp closed its gates for good. The barracks were disassembled -- or carted off for other uses in and around Delta -- and the site was reduced to rubble to be scattered by desert winds and ignored by a triumphant post-war America.

In time, historians would start writing critically about the "relocation" episode, and Japanese Americans would press for restitution. In 1976 the Utah Japanese American Citizens League commemorated the American Bicentennial by erecting markers at Topaz and in Delta reminding visitors of the anti-Japanese hysteria that had given this country its own war-time "concentration camps." In 1987, a Utah public television station produced a documentary on Topaz by Ken Verdoia featuring evocative interviews with former internees. And in 1988, President Ronald Reagan finally granted reparations to all surviving internees of the camps, intending to close this unfortunate chapter in American history at last.

Versions of the wartime internment now appear in school textbooks. But the Topaz camp itself might have remained only a subject for historians and a painful memory for Japanese Americans, while likely vanishing from its forlorn desert site beside a lonely historic marker, had it not been for a high school teacher in Delta named Jane Beckwith. She took up the Topaz story to engage her students' hearts and minds and to keep alive this troubled local and national memory.

The Topaz Project
The daughter of Delta's former newspaper publisher -- a rare liberal in this conservative rural Mormon town now numbering about 3,500 people -- Jane Beckwith grew up with a social conscience, an independent bent and a strong desire to teach. In 1978, she joined the faculty of Delta High School, where today she is one of six English teachers.

A tall and lean woman with a no-nonsense manner and a mischievous twinkle in her eye, Jane Beckwith earned a reputation in the school as intellectually demanding, pedagogically unconventional, free-thinking and a little off-beat.

"I am not very organized," she confesses. But "everyone knows that in my classes you read a lot, you write a lot, and you discuss a lot." She also expects her students to apply their studies outside the classroom, and to question the world around them.

While teaching George Orwell's 1984, for instance, she has had students turn the entire school into an Orwellian world, adorning the halls with Big Brother posters and staging totalitarian practices. When one school principal reprimanded her and abruptly terminated the exercise, she used his actions to dramatize Orwell's ideas of arbitrary authority and abject conformity. The students loved it, and got lessons in political power far beyond the book and the classroom.

She has put this same buoyant spirit to lively use in her journalism classes. Risking controversy, she continually presses students to find provocative subjects for the school newspaper beyond "next week's dance or last week's football game." Topaz would become one of those subjects.

Nothing reveals Jane Beckwith's intrepid character and eye-opening influence more than her Topaz project.

Always seeking new topics to captivate her students, she first assigned a journalism class in 1982 to research and write about the Topaz camp. At that time, Topaz was known in Delta mainly from the historical markers and in the memories of old-timers, and it was known elsewhere primarily to historians and Japanese Americans. The assignment lit a fire.

"Students literally ran to class," she recalls, bringing artifacts from the camp, along with reminiscences from townspeople and others. Then they eagerly wrote up the story for the school newspaper. And that was just the beginning.

"I learned about Topaz and the other camps along with my students," Ms. Beckwith says. "We studied together, sought artifacts, wrote articles and told people what we had learned."

To deepen her own understanding of the inhabitants of Topaz, she even went to teach school in Hiroshima for a year, absorbing Japanese culture and probing the Japanese perspective on World War II at first hand. Some students report that their work on Topaz has permanently affected their perceptions of America and of other cultures. And classes still volunteer to help bring more of the Topaz story to light.

By 1989, Jane Beckwith and her students had accumulated enough artifacts that she officially established a Topaz Museum to exhibit them and to expand research on the camp. Today the exhibition contains artifacts from many sources and occupies part of the Great Basin Museum in Delta.

Here are household implements, clothing, artworks, photographs, toys, tools, schoolbooks, newspapers, and so on. Here also is a chilling poster dated May 3, 1942, summoning "all persons of Japanese ancestry" in portions of Alameda County across the lower bay from San Francisco to report for relocation within a week to their "Civil Control Station," bringing with them only what "can be carried by the individual or family group." And here, on the grounds outside the museum, stands an actual barrack from Topaz showing the humble space that housed a family, complete with narrow metal beds, a pot-bellied stove and other haunting vestiges of camp life that can bring tears to your eyes.

But Jane Beckwith is not finished.

She has arranged, through an American Civil Liberties Union grant, to reprint and distribute to every school library in Utah and in the San Francisco area an early book on Topaz, The Price of Prejudice (1962), by the late Utah historian Leonard Arrington (whom she had previously recruited to join the Topaz Museum board).

She has produced a sophisticated Web site for the museum packed with historical facts and offering this same book and other materials on Topaz. And she and her fellow museum trustees are raising funds to build a separate Topaz Museum and to purchase the campsite to protect it from an uncertain future; they have already acquired about half of it.

Further widening her campaign, Ms. Beckwith obtained a grant for the Topaz museum last year from "Save America's Treasures" of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And at the request of the White House, she supplied information and advice supporting President Clinton's proposal in November 2000 to preserve all of the relocation camps.

She also appeared with some of her students before the Utah state legislature in early 2001, appealing for finances to expand the Topaz Museum and to save the camp site. Having the students testify was her idea, she admits, "because they are the best proof of how Topaz can awaken people to what the camps were about, and to a time and a culture unlike their own."

The Utah legislature has yet to grant Topaz the funds it needs. But Jane Beckwith knows that education takes time. She will carry on as always, with empathy and persistence, and sometimes by going against the grain.

"I may have to do it one person at a time," she says as she leads a visitor around the Topaz site, "but it's worth it." With an archeologist's sharp eye she picks out melancholy vestiges lying in the sand -- traces of the grid, foundations of a school and hospital, fragments of toys and cosmetic containers, and the poignant remains of a Japanese garden complete with a pool meticulously laid out in stones. "People should know about this," she sighs. "Topaz still has much to teach us. But it must be protected or it will disappear."

Jane Beckwith's Topaz project began in the classroom. But just as she has prodded her students to see the world from disparate points of view, she has used the war-time memory of Topaz to open minds both inside the classroom and outside. She might seem "out of place in Delta," as some former students suggest, but teachers like her should never be out of place anywhere.

James Sloan Allen is a historian and writer based in New York City.

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