Richfield sisters share the Topaz experience

Yvonne Thurston Ashworth, left, and her sister, DeAnn Thurston Canady in the home they shared in Ivins, earlier in 2019. The sisters, originally from Richfield, spent a portion of their childhoods at the Topaz Relocation Camp.

Born in Richfield, Yvonne Thurston Ashworth, and her sister, DeAnn Thurston Canady, moved to Salina in 1941, where their father worked as an accountant for Sevier County.

The move came just months before the country was drawn into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. They didn’t know it at the time, but it would mean another move in the near future.

The sisters remembered those historic days over 77 years ago. Not only do they remember those days, but they lived them when they were children ages 12 and 7 living with their parents, Walter and Elda Thurston, as American citizens for 10 months along with the Japanese internees behind the barbed wire fence at the Topaz War Relocation Center near Delta.

“We never told our children because it was just another place to us where we lived,” said DeAnn. “We had lived in other places. It was a job opportunity for Dad. You went where the jobs were. We were used to moving. To us, moving again was no biggy.”

Even though the Thurston’s lived at Topaz Relocation Camp under different circumstances than the Japanese-Americans lived, they realize their experiences were real to them as they saw it and lived it as children. 

“Either our dad applied for the job at the Topaz Relocation Center or he was asked by the government to go there to keep track of the guards’ and Japanese workers’ time for their pay while working at the Topaz Relocation Center,” DeAnn said. “We think dad chose to live in the camp to be closer to work rather than drive the 16 miles from Delta every day. He must have felt it was safe to live there with his family or he wouldn’t have lived there.” 

The Thurston sisters said they felt as if Topaz was a place of protection for the Japanese people. 

“We lived there,” DeAnn said. “We felt it wasn’t a prison for the Japanese like I’ve heard some people say. I felt it was for people who supposedly weren’t dangerous, to protect them. We never had the feeling that the Japanese were dangerous. We never heard anything bad about them while we lived there. It wasn’t a prison camp to me in that way at all. It was a time, part of our growing up and just part of us living there.” 

“We understood from them that they lost everything when the government confiscated all of their belongings, moving them out of their homes, scared and bewildered as to their future,” Yvonne said. “Some came with just the clothes on their backs with their family. We could kind of relate as we moved there leaving our house and friends with our few belongings, but we weren’t forced out like they were.” 

Yvonne described living inside the barbed wire fence in one of the barracks just like the Japanese. 

“We were not separated from the Japanese,” Yvonne said. She was 12 years old at the time. 

“They were our neighbors,” Yvonne said. “The barracks looked like Army barracks made out of wood covered with black paper and that had wooden floors. We were assigned a barracks with two rooms since we had five people in our family. It had one bedroom with two beds. We slept on mattresses laid on Army cots. DeAnn and I were in one bed and our parents and baby sister, Cora Lee, were in the other bed in the same bedroom. The other room was called the common area that had a coal burning stove for heat, a couch, a table and chairs, a hotplate on the counter and a small ice box.” 

They said there were also bathrooms outside of their personal barracks in a separate barracks, one for men and one for women, a laundry facility, a recreation hall and a mess hall where the Thurstons sometimes ate. 

Yvonne said one of her best friends during this time was a Japanese girl. 

“They were just kids that we played with and enjoyed playing with them. We played mostly outside like hopscotch and jumped rope with them,” Yvonne said. “One of my friends was an artist who drew with pencil and crayons. She drew flowers. Her mom taught me how to crochet.”

Those interned at the camp were also very industrious and artistic, according to Yvonne.

“We all collected shells in the lake bed there,” Yvonne said. “Many women planted flowers and vegetables up against the barracks to beautify them. 

“I went to school with the other children lining up every day with them to go into the school. Some of the Japanese people taught painting and other classes,” said Yvonne. “Even though they spoke Japanese, they were just as American as we were. We didn’t look at them as being any different from us.”

DeAnn, who was seven years old at the time said at she was too young to know what was going on in the world. 

 “One of our mom’s best friends was a Japanese woman who lived two blocks away who gardened together,” DeAnn said. “They both loved yard work and liked to compare their growing stuff.” 

Ten months later, in 1943, Japanese residents could leave the Topaz Relocation Center, but it wasn’t until after the war, in 1945, that the Relocation Center closed and people could then return to their houses. 

The Thurston family left Topaz in 1943 in their 1936 Ford four-door sedan with their washer tied to the back bumper. 

“Mom had packed all the dishes and towels and linens in the washer so they wouldn’t break. We left Topaz in 1943, heading toward Santa Monica, California,” Yvonne said. “Those years at Topaz were not hard on us. We lived on the poor side anyway. We learned to live that way. They were happy growing times for me. We were not interested in possessions, just our family.” 

When Yvonne married and moved to Torrance, California, in 1955 to 1990, she lived next door to a Japanese mother and daughter.‘

“They were great neighbors. My neighbor’s mother lived in one of the relocation camps. We talked about it,” Yvonne said. “When I was raising our children, I wanted my children to know that people are good no matter what happens in their lives. My having lived in Topaz and going through that experience, too, helped me be more understanding of them because I had lived through the Relocation Camp also.” 

Yvonne passed away in September 2019, shortly after giving the interview for this story. DeAnn Thurston Canady still lives in Ivins. 

More information is available online at topazmuseum.org. 

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