Journey Back to Topaz – Former inmates take pilgrimage to former Central Utah concentration camp


RETURNING TO REMEMBER — Topaz Pilgrimage participants gather for a group picture at the campsite. photos by Martha Nakagawa

The 2010 Topaz/Central Utah Pilgrimage attracted participants as far away as Tom Kurihara from Virginia, to local Utahns, but the majority came from California via Toru Saito’s Topaz Bus.

Former Topaz inmate Saito has been organizing pilgrimage busses for years. “The reason I do this Topaz bus thing,” said Saito, “is because I kind of hope and pray that those who come on the Topaz bus and come back to Topaz will regain the loss that they underwent, the loss of dignity, loss of self-esteem, loss of self, loss of pride, loss of time they spent in this jail without due cause.”

As a child, Saito climbed the Topaz guard towers, which went unmanned toward the end of the war. He even climbed the guard tower from which a sentry shot and killed James Hatsuaki Wakasa on April 11, 1943.

“Inside the guard tower, there was a telephone in the corner,” recalled Saito. “My friend, Art, says, ‘Pick up the telephone and swear at the MPs.’ I didn’t know the ‘F word’ in those days so I said something like, ‘Hey son of a bitch’ and things like that. Then we saw a jeep come roaring down, so we scampered down the ladder and ran like hell. I did that two times that I remember, maybe three. I never got caught. If I got caught, I probably wouldn’t be here because my mother would have killed me.”

Assisting Saito on the pilgrimage were Kazuko Iwahashi, Harry Yonemura, and bus monitors, Stanley and Christine Aso Umeda.

Iwahashi was 12 years old when her family was uprooted from Berkeley, sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center and then to Topaz. Iwahashi focused on the positive, saying she made lasting friendships in camp. When she left Topaz at 15, she never lived with her family again.

“When we came out of camp, our family didn’t have a house,” said Iwahashi. “So I worked as a school girl for room and board. One of the nice things about that situation was that I finally had a room all to myself, my own bedroom and bathroom.”

Yonemura was only three years old when his family was imprisoned at the Fresno Assembly Center and then at the Jerome and Rohwer concentration camps, so he has few memories of his wartime imprisonment.

“One of the things I could recall of camp is my dad hand carved a baseball bat for me,” said Yonemura. “And he’d toss me a ball, and I’d try to whack it.”

Former Topaz inmate Christine Umeda found this pilgrimage to be more memorable than one she previously attended. “Last time, we didn’t go out to Block 39 (where she lived) because it was just way out there and it was so hot,” she said. “But this time, Jane Beckwith took us right out there and walked us through the area. Because it’s so far out there, she was telling us that it isn’t as picked over like some of the other blocks closer to the fence. Apparently it’s a constant concern of theirs of people coming by and taking things.”

Husband Stanley Umeda was imprisoned at the Fresno Assembly Center and then at Jerome and Gila River concentration camps. Like Saito, Stanley climbed the guard towers when they became empty. “They relaxed security so there was nobody up in the guard towers,” he said. “I remember watching the trains go by from up there.”

Once Jerome closed, the Umeda family transferred to the Gila River camp, where Stanley recalled the double roof system. “It was so hot there that they had a roof upon a roof,” said Stanley.

Topaz Museum Planned

The pilgrimage included a trip to the Springville Museum of Art where works by Chiura Obata and Mine Okubo were exhibited; panel discussion at the Delta City Office; visit to the Great Basin Museum; and tour of the former Topaz campsite.

Jane Beckwith, who has been the driving force behind the preservation and educational efforts of Topaz since 1982, said the Topaz Museum Board, Great Basin Museum and the City of Delta recently purchased land for the future site of the Topaz Museum and they are in the next phase of raising money for the building.

“Our greatest need right now is funding,” said Beckwith. “Our goal is to raise $6 million for the museum.”

Delta Mayor Gayle Bunker said he had hoped museum construction could have begun by the 2010 pilgrimage but the down economy has slowed everything. “We’re having a tough time but we’re still working on the museum,” said Bunker.

Beckwith also spearheaded fundraising efforts that allowed the purchase of 626 acres of the former campsite, but she is currently appealing a National Park Service (NPS) grant guideline change.

“The National Park Service originally said the land that we purchased would count as a matching fund but then they changed their minds,” said Beckwith. “Right now, the only way we could use the land as a match is if we buy more land but we already have most of the land bought except for Block 35 and 42. We own the rest of Topaz.”

Former Topaz inmate Fred Hoshiyama, 95, attended the pilgrimage to help in the fundraising effort. During the war, Hoshiyama had been among the first group of Nikkei volunteers to arrive at Topaz. He helped complete the camp hospital and headed the social service programs.

“It just so happens that I enjoy fundraising,” said Hoshiyama. “It does something to the giver, as well as for the cause. And so I said if I can help in anyway, I would love to do it. I’m 95. I don’t know how many years I’ve got so I better do things when I’m still able.”

TOPAZ BABIES — Jane Ouye Yamamoto, Yoshihiro Oka and Kazuko Hishida — who were born in the wartime concentration camp — attended the pilgrimage.

Topaz Babies

The highlight of the pilgrimage was visiting the former campsite. To welcome this year’s attendees, the local Boy Scouts put up signs, indicating various landmarks such as the Buddhist church, hospital, etc.

This year’s pilgrimage included three attendees who had been born at Topaz, two of whom were visiting their birthplace for the first time.

Yoshihiro Oka wished he had returned earlier. “I’m a procrastinator,” said Oka. “In hindsight, I kind of regret not taking advantage of returning here while my parents were alive. There’s so much I want to ask them but it’s all lost.”

Although Jane Ouye Yamamoto was scheduled to retire from her job a week before the pilgrimage, she felt compelled to drop everything and go on this trip.

As a child, Yamamoto found out about her birthplace after a close family friend accused her of being born in prison.

“I was infuriated that my black friend would say something so awful to me,” said Yamamoto. “But when I asked my mom, she just very quietly told me, ‘No, it wasn’t a prison camp but you were born in a camp.’”

Ironically, it is Yamamoto’s sister, Alice Ouye Fukushima, who was born after the war, that has been asking about the camps, writing school papers and presenting class speeches.

“When I got to college, I took a speech class,” said Fukushima. “I did one of my speeches on camp and it was a revelation to a lot of them. And I remember one guy, sitting up front, who said, ‘It couldn’t have been that bad.’ Then everybody says, ‘Yeah, it was.’ So we need to keep this alive and let people know the camps happened.”

Kazuko Hishida visited her birthplace in 2003 with her mother, who passed away in 2008.

“It was something I wanted to do,” said Hishida. “I never told my dad that I appreciated all the sacrifices they made because he died suddenly of a brain tumor, but with my mom, I let her know all the time and we came together to Topaz in 2003.”

RESISTER RETURNS — The Yoshida family, left to right: Paulynn Tom, Ken, Aiko Morimoto and Shigeru. Ken Yoshida and his late brother resisted the military draft from within the barbed wire concentration camp.

Resister Returns

Three of the nine Yoshida family members imprisoned at Topaz attended the pilgrimage.

Ken Yoshida was one of two Yoshida brothers who refused to serve in the U.S. military until the Nikkei community was released from U.S. style concentration camps. For his stand, he and his brother were imprisoned at the Santa Catalina Prison Camp in Tucson, Ariz., which was renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site after its most famous inmate.

“They tried to draft me from a concentration camp,” said Yoshida. “I said, ‘They’ve got to be crazy.’ But the government just sent me from one prison into another.”

Aiko Yoshida Morimoto, Ken’s sister, said she was never ashamed of her brothers’ stand.

“We all faced a lot of ostracism and I got angry at people that couldn’t see their point of view, but I’m proud of what my brothers did,” said Morimoto.

Shigeru Yoshida was about 10 when his brothers got picked up. “It wasn’t talked about in the family,” said Shigeru. “And I think I was just too young to think about it.”

Shigeru’s wife, Paulynn Tom Yoshida, who is Chinese American, said she is impressed by the resiliency of the Nikkei community.

“It really astounds me that this could happen in this country but I’m also astounded that the people survived and did well,” said Paulynn.

Keiko Hirabayashi Quan’s brother, Irving, had also been a Topaz draft resister.

“I thought it was under the influence of my father but when I questioned him about that, he said, ‘Don’t you realize we’re a people without a country? I’m a displaced person,’” recalled Quan. “He was only 18 but he’d made up his mind. He stood for his rights, and he followed it through in prison.”

(Note: This is the first of a two-part series, to be continued next week)

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