Yukio Shimomura: Topaz Internment Camp

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This order authorized the forced evacuation of all Japanese descendents into internment camps. Families were forced to leave everything behind to go to an unfamiliar location for an unknown length of time. Yukio Shimomura was a young boy who was sent to Topaz and in 2023 still remembers his experiences. 

On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor bringing the United States into the Second World War. On February 19th, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast to relocate to internment camps. They took only what they could carry and left their homes in May 1942, having no idea where they were going or whether they would ever return. Yukio Shimomura was one of the victims of this order.

Prior to arriving in Topaz, Utah, many of the Japanese Americans were held in the Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno, California, where they lived in washed-out horse stables lined with linoleum. Yukio Shimomura explained the experience: “All you had was one lightbulb…. Using scrap wood, many made nightstands and other shelves to hold their stuff. Beds were bags filled with hay, and if you couldn’t sleep on that, you slept on the floor… Lots of lines. Lines, lines, lines for everything. We were only there a short time, but it was traumatic… For those living in the horse stalls, they had it bad; they stunk when they came out… you could separate them from those living in the barracks [by their smell]… we were lucky.” Shimomura and his family stayed at Tanforan for a short time before being relocated to the Topaz Internment Camp near Delta, Utah. They remained there for three years behind barbed wire and armed guards. 

In Topaz, the Japanese “internees” were separated into blocks and barracks. Each block had twelve barracks, a recreation hall, latrines for men and for women, and a mess hall. The barracks were sectioned into six apartments of different sizes to accommodate families of two, four, or more people. Larger families were given two or more rooms. The six rooms came in three sizes, 20’ by 14’, 20’, or 26’. Shimomura later explained that the walls separating the rooms did not reach the ceiling so that you could hear everything from everyone all the time. He remembered, “there were 300 children born in the camp, so you figure couples realized they had to do what they needed to do.” Privacy was absent in the camp, as there were no doors or stalls in any of the bathrooms or showers. 

At the camp, many tried to make life as normal as possible. This included working at different jobs around the camp for roughly $14 to $19 a month, depending on the job. Children went to school, played around the camp, and all lent a helping hand in whatever needed to be done. No matter how hard they tried to make life as normal as possible, the internees understood they were not free. “Topaz was chaotic,” Shimomura summarized as he explained the death of an elderly man who did not understand the order given to turn around when approaching the barbed wire fence. After a third confusing warning, he was shot and killed. While this was the only shooting to occur at Topaz, it scarred all who were there. 

In January 1943, President Roosevelt asked for volunteers at Topaz to serve in the United States Army. Shimomura remembers that all who were at the camp were given a questionnaire to determine their loyalty to the United States, with question 28 asking, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor or any other foreign government, power or organization?” If the answer was yes, internees could leave the camp for military service. One hundred and five young men, including some young fathers, signed up to fight and were allowed to leave the camp for the first time. The loyalty of Japanese American soldiers who served in the war raised questions about the purposes of the internment camps. In 1943, many others gained sponsors and were allowed to leave the camp to attend universities or enter employment.

The Topaz Internment camp closed its doors in October 1945, and the barracks were moved by the end of 1947. The Japanese American Citizen League erected a monument in 1976 to commemorate those who had stayed there. In August of 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act that was later enforced by President George H.W. Bush. It issued a formal apology and gave $20,000 to all those who were still alive, like Shimomura, a small compensation for all they had lost and suffered as a result of internment.

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Metadata

Abby Tribe, Brigham Young University
, “Yukio Shimomura: Topaz Internment Camp,” Intermountain Histories, accessed June 13, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/793.