The Interior Department announced Wednesday that the Topaz Camp, near Delta about 140 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, will be recognized as a National Historic Landmark, a designation granted to fewer than 2,500 U.S. locations.
The camp, now mainly a windswept field, was used during the war to jail Japanese-Americans and recent immigrants as racial fears increased; nine other camps also held those of Japanese descent during the war and five of those have earned a similar historic designation.
To Grace Oshita, who was dragged from her San Francisco home at 17 and spent three years at the rural Utah camp, the recognition as a national landmark is an important distinction she hopes will help future generations recall the infamous policy.
"A mistake like that if you know about it, it might not happen again," says Oshita, now 82 and living in Salt Lake City. "But so many don't know what we went through."
There are only 12 other National Historic Landmarks in Utah, including Fort Douglas, the old Salt Lake City Hall and the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine.
Topaz residents, mostly legal citizens at the time, spent three or so years living in 20-foot by 20-foot barracks with thin walls; they slept on Army cots.
Residents of nearby Delta have campaigned for some 15 years to raise funds to preserve and partially restore the site, buying up some 624 acres. The Topaz Museum Board currently is attempting to buy the last 16 acres that are privately owned.
Jane Beckwith, a Delta High School journalism teacher and president of the museum board, says her group hopes the designation gives more protection to the site and draws attention from people who may not know about that part of American history.
"I'm so excited," she said of the designation. "We think that this history is quite significant and [the landmark announcement is] another thermometer that this is really important."
The Topaz Camp was designated along with 11 other sites across America on Wednesday. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the landmarks reflect some of the "most important historical and cultural developments in American history."
"Each of them tells a story about us as a nation and a people," he said. "Together they exemplify our history, heritage, literature, and architecture. They are designated as National Historic Landmarks so that we may all enjoy and learn from them."
The National Historic Landmark is the highest such recognition for historic properties.