Japanese Americans pay homage to those once imprisoned during WWII

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DELTA, Utah -- The town of Delta, Utah came together to remember a dark time in U.S. history Monday night, with an event to pay homage to the Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II.

One of those camps, Topaz, sat just outside of Delta.

It opened after the signing of Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to relocate to the internment camps.

Dozens of Japanese Americans made the journey from California to Topaz this week. Some had actually lived in it 75 years ago, while others shared a personal connection through family.

The trip included a tour of Topaz and an event in Delta with speakers and the unveiling of a "mystery box" that was nailed shut in Topaz, and hasn't been opened since.

After several minutes of anticipation, a mattress was pulled out from the box. Someone made the comment that mattresses would have been a luxury item in the camp, and worthy of saving.

While the event had a lighter feel and featured a traditional Japanese Taiko drumming performance, for the people watching, it served as a reminder of a painful past.

Terri Terumi Endo was born in Topaz and lived there for the first few months of her life. She's never returned until now.

She said the experience was, "emotional, especially when I went to the block where my parents were."

In a video she recorded, Endo walks up the exact lot where her parent's barrack used to stand. She gets choked up as she says, "This is it... where they stayed. Where my brother was born, and myself."

Endo's parents barely talked of their three years living in Topaz, she said.

For her, this pilgrimage back allowed her to see and learn what her parents' lives were like.

One of the things that really stuck with her: "What they had to go through every day, especially when the elements were severe," she said.

As part of the trip, the group also toured the new Topaz Museum in Delta.

The museum is just finishing the final touches on its permanent exhibit.

In one of the displays, visitors can see a number of animals and flowers, all made delicately out of painted shells.

Topaz Museum Board Secretary Scott Bassett said Topaz sits in the bed of the ancient Lake Bonneville, and mounds of shells sit piled up near the site of the internment camp.

"The internees would go out with buckets, gather up the shells," he said. Many of the residents in Delta would travel out to the camp to buy the intricate works of art, he explained.

"Amazing what they did, found these and then made those beautiful items," Endo said. "Just amazing."

She found a few shells of her own while out at Topaz.

"This one was kind of buried," Endo explained, showing off a tiny conch shell.

The small finds were just part of her journey to reconnect with her history.

A story that keeps unfolding, more than 70 years after Topaz closed its gates.

The Topaz Museum will host a public grand opening on July 7 and 8. It'll feature tours of the museum and the former camp, and special displays and performances.