Moab, Utah is the town where I grew up during the Uranium Boom of the 1960s. Just a few miles north and west of the valley, where Moab nestles along the banks of the Colorado River, is Dalton Wells. Dalton Wells is the site of a internment camp which once housed “problem inmates” of Japanese descent. Of all the tales of the long and checkered history of Moab, this is one of the most heartbreaking.
This is the blase’ text of an article printed in the Times Independent, dated June 25, 1942:
“The possibility of establishing a Japanese internment camp for the Arches National Monument utilizing Jap labor for the completion of the highway into the monument was discussed at Monday’s meeting of the Moab Lions club. Dr. J. W. Williams reported that he had made some investigations of the matter and believed it would be possible to obtain a sufficient number of Japanese to carry on the road work recently halted by the abandonment of the Arches CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp. The club, after discussing the matter, voted to investigate the subject further and if it is possible to secure equipment and materials to ask that such a camp be established. The aid of the Associated Civic Clubs of Southern Utah will be solicited.”
The article goes on to describe the minutes of the Lion’s Club meeting as if the topic of a “Jap internment camp” was just another mundane piece of business. The American Japanese that were forcibly interned at the behest of Roosevelt’s administration beginning in 1942, had their liberty simply stolen away. The conversation at the Lion’s Club meeting about whether enough Japanese labor could be rounded up to complete a road is crass and dismissive of the sacred agency of man. But in post-Pearl Harbor America, as the pressure of World War II bore down upon the nation, the liberty and dignity of a minority race were sacrificed upon the altar of fear.
The article continues…
“The Lion’s Club received an invitation to attend the charter night banquet of the new Cortez Lion’s Club and Moab members were urged by the president to attend. The cooperation of the club in furthering the success of the scrap rubber drive and the USO war fund in Grand County was pledged. the president announced that the Lion’s Club had leased the Grand County Balloom and would conduct regular dances to raise funds for the Club’s activities.”
The war was under way and the country was adapting to the privations of the war-time economy. Life was going on and the “Jap Camp” was rarely thought of and little discussed. The camp was actually opened in January of 1943, and closed the following April. Though picturesque, this region of Utah, just outside the boundaries of Arches National Park, is wild and remote. The first men interned at Dalton Wells were 16 Nisei and Kibei men who had been designated “trouble makers” for rioting at the Manzanar detention facility in California. During those months the “Citizen Isolation Center” would house 83 American Japanese men. The Eastern Utah camp was indeed isolated. These men, deemed troubled and Anti-American, would have zero contact with other Japanese, or anyone else for that matter. Escape from Dalton Wells would mean nothing but desert canyons, extreme temperatures, wild animals, and no food or water for tens of miles in any direction.
Another article was printed in the Times Independent, dated January 14, 1943
“The first contingent of Japanese at the Dalton Wells Relocation center, 14 miles west of Moab, Monday from Manzanar, California. The Japanese, 16 in number, were accompanied by 16 soldiers and 2 officers. The Dalton Wells camp, it is understood, will be used for impounding those Japanese who cause friction at the large relocation centers throughout the country, and refuse to observe the rules of community in those centers. It is understood that the first contingent for Dalton Wells contains the ringleader in the recent riot between Japanese groups at the large Manzanara center. The Japanese at Dalton Wells will be kept under a close guard and will not be permitted to leave the camp.”
In February of 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which gave the military power to create “exclusion zones” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” This presidential decree targeted all people of Japanese descent that lived along the Pacific coast, from San Diego to the tip of Washington. Their constitutional rights were almost completely revoked and they were forcibly moved to camps throughout the country. They had to leave property, employment, friends, and family members were often separated.
The article continues…
“The Dalton Wells center will hold additional contingents of Japanese from time to time. The camp may eventually contain 200 or more Japanese and it is possible that their families may be brought in. This will necessitate extensive enlargements of the camp.”
The living conditions were poor at best. Exposure to the elements in the desert itself is punishing, but the men stayed in pared down barracks often without running water, and subject to constant oversight and cruelty from the guards. The Isolation Center at Dalton Wells never had to be enlarged. The men were moved in April 1943 to the Leupp Isolation Center in Arizona where some of them would be reunited with their families. A few of the men, however, remained incarcerated, away from the general population because of their tendencies toward rebellion. In January of 1945 the camps were closed and American Japanese were released with a train ticket to return to their former homes, and $25. Most re assimilated into their old communities, but many, stung and humiliated by injustice and disappointment, migrated back to Japan.
President Harry Truman, in 1948, attempted to make repayment to Japanese Americans by allowing them to seek redress for the actions of the Roosevelt administration. His efforts fell short. After decades of national remorse, on August 10, 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed The Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This heartfelt action by President Reagan only reaffirmed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was not the enactment of law but rather a gesture of apology. The bill was passed with a provision that would extend a payment of $20,000 as a token of conciliation to each American of Japanese descent who had endured the ignominy of the internment camps. It was an expression or regret, shame, and humility, with the acknowledgement that there could never be adequate apology or reparation for the terrible abuses and injustices piled on innocent, and largely patriotic, Americans by the Roosevelt administration during World War II.
Moab is a most unusually beautiful place. Dalton Wells is no exception. The view due east towards Arches National Park, with the LaSal Mountains crowning the expanse of red, pink and gray sandstone is breathtaking. It is a miraculous creation; a sculpture so patiently formed, a canvas so tenderly painted, back lit with the love of God, that one brims with gratitude simply upon viewing it. The miracle of Dalton Wells is not the beauty of its setting. The miracle is in the absence, the almost total lack of hatred within the hearts of those American Japanese whose liberty was ripped away so cavalierly.
When the camps were closed there was no uprising among the freed prisoners, no riots, no castigation, no racial hatred towards the majority whites in the country. The Japanese prisoners may have been justified in retribution. But they resumed their lives peacefully and bore, with honor, the deep wounds of injustice and wrong inflicted upon them by the government. We tend to keep this shameful episode in American history in the back of the proverbial bookstore. We are just as likely, if not more so, to remember the amazing patriotism and zeal of American Japanese who fought during World War II. Many of those American Japanese fought and spilled the blood of their own in the Pacific theater of World War II.
When the Allies won World War II, it was a miraculous thing. When there was peace at home among the citizens of every race and nationality during the post-World War II period, that was a miracle too.
Remember Pearl Harbor…Remember the innocent who paid a terrible price.
By Marjorie Haun 12/7/11