Former inmates break ground for museum to remember Topaz camp


DELTA, Utah — On Sept. 11, 1942, in an arid desert area 16 miles northwest of Delta, the Topaz concentration camp opened in the wake of World War II.

The Japanese American concentration camp would process 11,000 inmates and hold about 8,300 before closing three years later on Oct. 31, 1945.

On Aug. 4, the Topaz Museum Board, a nonprofit volunteer organization, held a groundbreaking ceremony kicking off the construction of the Topaz Museum and Education Center in Delta.

“We think it was an important part of American history that is little known,” said board president Jane Beckwith. “So we look at ourselves as educators who are trying to remember the story so that it doesn’t happen again.”

The museum and education center is being built to remember the inmates and to preserve the surrounding area. The museum will be located on Main Street.

Its 8,254 square-foot facility will feature exhibit space, a library, an art gallery featuring paintings created at Topaz, offices and curatorial facilities, according to the Topaz Museum Website,

Willie Ito, a former inmate, was among the honored guests at the festivities on Aug. 4. He taught himself how to draw cartoons while he was in Topaz and later worked for Disney, Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbera Studios. When he was 5 years old, he saw “Snow White” and knew from the moment the seven dwarfs started singing “Hi ho, Hi ho” that he wanted to do animation.

Returning after 70 years, Ito spoke about his time at Topaz as an 8-year-old boy.

“Because I always wanted to be a cartoon animator, I practiced (in the camp) a lot with the discarded Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs,” Ito recalled. “I would animate on the margins of the catalogs and then you would flip it and see it animate. You might say (Topaz) was a learning place for my craft.”

Ito recalled his time with his family at Tanforan, a temporary detention center in San Francisco. They were later transported to Topaz in August 1942.

“We were ordered to evacuate Tanforan and we were loaded onto trains with the blinds closed so that we didn’t know our destination,” he said.

“Most of my friends at my age sort of looked at it as a three-year summer camp,” he recalled. “But the hardships we did realize, especially when you come from the Bay area with its mild climate and then suddenly here you are in the middle of the Utah desert with the very hot, fortunately very dry summers, and then the very cold winters where the ponds will freeze up.

“We had icicles hanging from our barracks and we never had seen that before.”

Ito and his family were released and allowed to return to San Francisco in June of 1945.

Ito worked in the cartoon industry beginning in 1954 when he was 19 and was hired by Disney Studio for the famous spaghetti kiss scene of “Lady and the Tramp.”

In 1993 the Topaz Museum Board began purchasing the area to preserve the site. The board now owns 626 acres. In 2007, the National Park Service  named the site a national historic landmark.

A $714,000 grant was awarded to the Topaz Museum Board through the National Park Service Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program to build the museum and center. The board has received other contributions since totaling $1.6 million with the budget of $2.3 million needed.

The U.S. government, citing “military necessity,” locked up over 110,000 Japanese American men, women and children in 10 remote camps and four male-only camps during the war.

These Americans were never charged with any crimes, yet were incarcerated in prison camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

Japanese American inmates farmed at the 19,800 acres and lived in isolation from the rest of the country during the war. Topaz eventually became the fifth-largest city in Utah, the Topaz Museum Website states.

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