Willie Ito seems dazed as he walks through the ruins of the Topaz internment camp in the near 100-degree heat. The desert around him is flat and virtually treeless, the sky a faded blue, broken only by steel-gray mountains shimmering a dozen miles away to the north. The only sign of life in that direction is a raven in flight. All that remains of the World War II concentration camp are concrete foundations and, incredibly, rock gardens the prisoners carefully constructed 70 years ago from stones flecked with topaz, red beryl, amethyst, garnet and opal gathered from the canyon washes miles away.
“This environment is bringing back all the memories. A smell. The taste of dust—I remember the desert thirst,” says Ito, 78, as he stands on the gravel that marks a barrack’s entrance. “Block 31-12-C. This was my home for three friggin’ years.”
Internees, here laying utility pipes at Topaz, were put to work to finish the camp themselves. Photo courtesy of Topaz Museum.
Ito was eight in 1942 when his family was relocated from San Francisco’s Japantown to the Topaz internment camp in Utah’s west desert 150 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. This is Ito’s first trip back in seven decades. The buildings and even the utility poles were long ago sold off by the government, leaving only some gravel paths, a baseball field backstop and rusted barbed wire to mark the prison camp where his family lived in a 20-foot-by-20-foot room.
Ito slowly turns, gazing out across the sage-covered desert toward distant Topaz Mountain, the camp’s misleading namesake. Topaz was no desert gem. “That’s the view I had from my window in the barracks,” he says to no one in particular.
Not far away is Toru Saito. He was interned at Topaz with his mother shortly before his fifth birthday. He has returned to the ruins often, sometimes helping other former internees find the foundations of their barracks. On Saito’s first return to Topaz in 1989, he found the brick stoop that marked his barrack’s door in Block Four. In 1945, when the detainees were released, the military gave them each $25 and a train ticket. Saito, fearing his toys would be confiscated, buried a precious bag of marbles outside his barrack, hoping to someday return for them.
“I looked down, and something told me to dig,” says Saito, 75, recalling his excavation 13 year ago. “I found them—all 26 marbles.”