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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — A new bill, which Gov. Spencer Cox signed on Thursday, designates Feb. 19 as an annual day of remembrance in Utah for the hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.
The Utah Legislature has previously recognized the day, but SB58 ensures that it is now on the state's official calendar for commemorative periods. It will be recognized Saturday, which marks the 80 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order that initiated the arrests and relocation of over 100,000 Japanese Americans that lasted from 1942 through 1946.
It was an act that U.S. leaders would later apologize for as a "grave injustice" and paid restitution to affected families through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
"Day of Remembrance allows us to vow to remember and recommit to safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans. What happened to Japanese Americans is relevant today — especially today — and must never, ever, be forgotten," Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said in a statement Friday. She was the bill sponsor.
Executive Order 9066 and Utah
Local newspapers captured the sentiment of Japanese-Americans in Utah in the days after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. For Instance, a group of about 30 Japanese-Americans living in Davis County — many having lived in the U.S. for decades at the time — pledged support for the U.S. as "our country" after the attack, according to a Dec. 12, 1941, edition of the Davis County Clipper.
The U.S. was a little more than two months into its involvement in World War II when Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. An Associated Press article printed in the Feb. 21, 1942, edition of the Salt Lake Telegram noted that the order centered on people of Japanese, German or Italian descent living on the West Coast. The report noted there were over 185,000 people who would possibly be affected, with 105,000 either born in Japan or of Japanese descent.
The ensuing Executive Order 9102, signed in the following month, created the War Relocation Authority that handled the removal, relocation and internment of the people subjected in Executive Order 9066.
There were close to 15,000 people of German or Italian descent who ended up being relocated during the war, according to Densho, a nonprofit organization dedicated to remembering the stories of Japanese-Americans during the war. However, that number paled in comparison to the number of Japanese-Americans who were taken from their homes — and the experiences were also different.
As noted by the National Archives, over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry were moved from their homes to assembly centers and internment camps within six months of the order being issued. About two-thirds of the people incarcerated, Iwamoto pointed out, were American citizens.
"These innocent people were displaced and incarcerated, forced to leave their property behind, causing turmoil and grief simply because of the color of their skin," she said, during a legislative committee meeting about the bill last month.
The Topaz War Relocation Center near Delta, in central Utah, which opened on Sept. 11, 1942, was one of 10 camps across the U.S. where Japanese-Americans were sent to live as the war continued. More than 11,000 people — most taken from their homes in the San Francisco Bay area — were sent to the facility and it housed 8,000 people at one time at its peak before it closed on Oct. 31, 1945, according to the Utah Division of State History.
Remembering what happened
Although the last relocation center closed in 1946, Executive Order 9066 wasn't halted until 1976. A decade later, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that formally apologized for what happened to Japanese Americans during the war.
"I think that's the first and so far the only time the government has apologized for something that they did, a mistake they had made," said Floyd Mori, a native Utahn who went on to serve in the California State Assembly and also president of the Japanese American Citizens League.
There's a reason why a day of remembrance is important. The story of what happened 80 years ago is slowly fading away.
Mori told a legislative committee last month that he had recently taken a few dozen people on a tour of Topaz and told the committee that many on the tour had "no idea" what had happened in the 1940s. That's a concern Iwamoto also has.
"I think it's important to make it an official day. I hope — after I'm not here, too — that it's in our books and it's honored every Feb. 19," she said. "It's important not to forget it."
Topaz officially became a National Historic Landmark in 2007, and there's a museum in its location today.
Some of the facility's history is also currently on display in the hallways of at the state Capitol, as a part of the "Topaz Stories" exhibit, created by Friends of the Topaz Museum. The exhibit features photographs either from family collections or other sources, along with artifacts from the Topaz Museum in Delta.
More stories and artifacts from the camp can also be found online here.