By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
(First in a three-part series)
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 towards 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, and 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 WRA camps so he has few memories of camp.
“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 found this pilgrimage to be more memorable. “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,” said Christine. “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 was imprisoned at the Fresno Assembly Center and then at Jerome and Gila River WRA camps. Like Saito, Stanley climbed the guard towers when they became empty. “They relaxed security so there was nobody up in the guard towers,” said Stanley. “I remember watching the trains go by from up there.”
Once Jerome closed, the Umeda family transferred to the Gila River WRA camp, where Stanley recalled the double roof system. “It was so hot there that they had a roof upon a roof,” said Stanley.
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The pilgrimage included a trip to the Springville Museum of Art where works by Chiune 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.”