Provo and Orem WWII Labor Camps: Japanese-American Internees

Due to war-time labor shortages, prisoners from the Topaz Internment Camp helped Orem and Provo farmers harvest fruit, amid discrimination.

After the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, some Americans feared that US citizens of Japanese descent might engage in espionage for Japan. This racially charged wartime hysteria led President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066, which forced those of Japanese descent into prison camps across the country. One such camp was in Delta, Utah. It was known as the Topaz Relocation Center.

World War II labor shortages increased as more Utah men joined military efforts, and state officials and Utah farmers sought workers to fill their places in designated labor camps to harvest various crops. Seeking work opportunities outside of the prison camp, many of Topaz’s internees volunteered to work at these labor camps in the surrounding town of Delta and in the northern Utah towns of Provo and Orem. The Provo camp, located at Ninth South and Fourth East, housed 400 persons and consisted of a temporary tent city where local farmers hired Japanese workers to work on beet farms. The Orem labor camp, located at 950 North and 800 East, was a more permanent site with large barracks and cabins, administrative offices, a kitchen and mess hall, and outhouses. The internees worked in orchards of various kinds. In May of 1943, the first seventeen young men arrived in Utah County to work as farmhands. The Utah Farm Association eventually relocated these hired Japanese American workers to the permanent Orem site shortly after.

Though farmers hired Japanese workers willingly, anti-Japanese sentiments continued among many Utah residents. In 1943, these sentiments culminated in a violent incident involving Japanese-American workers and some white Provo residents. On October 3rd, five white youth, with shotguns and .30 caliber rifles, gathered and opened fire on the Provo labor camp and on local Japanese homes. Three people were struck by pellets, but no one was seriously injured. The attack had been the third of the week, with two previous reports of white youth throwing stones at Japanese workers and quickly escaping in cars. The War Relocation board threatened to remove the workers, and thereby their desperately needed labor, if Provo residents could not tolerate and protect Japanese workers. The residents chose to protect the workers and keep their labor. The five youth were later arrested for their attack.

In the fall of 1944, German and Italian prisoners of war replaced Japanese American and immigrant workers at the Orem labor camp, ending the Topaz prisoners’ connections at the Orem labor camp. But today the Topaz prisoners’ important role in Utah farm labor is memorialized at the Orem Heritage Museum. Though a school now stands on the actual Orem camp site, a sign commemorates Japanese workers and the labor contributions they made to WWII-era agricultural efforts. Residents can visit these sites and see Topaz’s influence far beyond the internment camp in central Utah.

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