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Freedom Springs From the Mountains of Utah: An Environmental History of Camp Antelope Springs and the Agency of Japanese American Incarcerees

Remnants of one of the CCC buildings used by the Japanese Americans at Camp Antelope Springs. (Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society)

A troop of Boy Scouts spills out of a packed truck, glad that the long ride through miles of dusty desert is over.1 It was Boy Scout week2 at Camp Antelope Springs, and enrollment in the troop had skyrocketed in the months leading up to the camp.3 The scouts busily set up their tents, then raced to the swimming pool. After dinner, the younger scouts went trilobite hunting while the older scouts continued to help set up camp, and the day ended with singing around a campfire.4 They looked forward to traditional camp activities like hikes across the whole mountainside, fun nature classes, and crafts.5 Boy Scouts throughout the United States had similar experiences, piling onto buses and setting up for summer camp. However, the Scouts at Camp Antelope Springs rode to their summer camp in government trucks, and came from the concentration camp of Topaz.

Camp Antelope Springs was a converted Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp6 39 miles to the west of Topaz, which was itself 20 miles from the town of Delta, Utah. The US government incarcerated 8,000 Japanese Americans at Topaz,7 most of whom came from the San Francisco Bay area.8 In the Summers of 1943 and 1944, the incarcerees organized “vacationing” visits to the campsite for youth groups.9 This paper aims to expose primary sources and untold stories of the summer camp through the lens of environmental history.

Google maps showing the location of Antelope Springs in comparison to Topaz. (Click to enlarge)

Camp Antelope Springs had an explicitly environmental mission: provide kids an opportunity to live “with nature in the great out-doors.”10 To accomplish this mission, the incarcerees of Topaz seized upon two circumstances unique to the setting of Topaz: the tone set by Project Director, Charles Ernst, who encouraged self-governance among the incarcerees, and the former-CCC campsite nearby Topaz.11 By capitalizing on these opportunities, Japanese Americans harnessed the environment of Antelope Springs to make a pocket of freedom within an unfree place. By using the natural landscape for recreation, education, and temporary escape from the Topaz concentration camp, incarcerated community organizers demonstrated agency and redefined the power dynamics at Topaz, showcasing a remarkable ability to make the best out of deeply unjust circumstances.

The first major freedom of the summer of 1943 was the incarcerees’ near-complete independence from the WRA in terms of planning, finance, and personnel afforded by the self-governing philosophy of Director Ernst.12 Though Ernst permitted this sort of independence, it was up to the incarcerees to plan and conduct the project.”13 The incarcerees capitalized on their circumstances and created a space where they could exercise agency, beginning with the budget.

The WRA financial involvement for Camp Antelope Springs was minimal. Camp Director and incarceree—Keigo Inouye’s report details how they brought the food they would have eaten anyways in Topaz, borrowed the tents, and required no new facilities costs to use the old CCC camp. The WRA did not even keep records of additional costs,14 which shows how little they were financially involved. The camp was not free to attend; each child paid “a small fee of 10¢.”15 However, the incarcerees oversaw this transaction themselves. The Japanese Americans thus themselves financially independent from the hostile government, which gave them greater agency.

The WRA’s lack of involvement is further evident in the absence of WRA personnel assigned to Camp Antelope Springs. As community leader Haru Inouye reported,

“Approximately 200 persons are going out every Sunday in 6 trucks. At first, it was required that one caucasian accompany each truck load, but many inconveniences caused that plan to fall through.”16

Kinge Okauchi, one of the sources for the article and staff member at Camp Antelope Springs. Okauchi, Kinge, interview by Richard Potashin, July 16, 2008 (denshovh-okinge-01-0019-21), Densho Digital Archive, Densho.

Not only was there little WRA presence in transportation, camp-staff-member-and-incarceree Kinge Okauchi recounts that WRA officials rarely visited Antelope Springs because it was evidently a“self-contained operation.”17 Like with the camp’s finances, the incarcerees’ willingness and ability to be “self-contained” generated room for their independence from the WRA. All of these self-made freedoms came from the environment: the goal to get their children out of Topaz and into nature.

Not only did the mountains of Utah provide an escape from the WRA’s constant presence, they provided natural freedoms, including a respite from the desert climate of Topaz. The incarcerees selected the site because it was nestled high up in a breezy “pinyon and juniper forest,” which gave the children a much-needed reprieve from the desert’s blistering summer heat.18 Antelope Spring’s diverse flora and fauna contrasted with the barrenness of Topaz.19

This beauty was compounded by the camp’s setting. Antelope Springs was a massive “19,000 acre facility,” to which the incarcerees had complete access for hikes and overnight campouts.20 Since it was up in the mountains, Kinge Okauchi remembers that it had “a very good view.” He emphasizes, “for city kids, which was most of these kids there, all this open space was something remarkable for them… they enjoyed that.”21 Thus, the incarcerees turned the landscape of Utah from one of incarceration into one of natural freedom and escape.

The Japanese Americans also used the environment as a centerpiece for education and traditional American summer camp programs. Antelope Springs hosted many nature programs volunteer-led by incarcerated high school teachers and naturalists.22 The Camp Staff ran many activites, including a special Girl Scout Brownie Day.23 The incarcerees’ ability to deliver this classic American summer camp experience demonstrates both their use of the environment to gain independence and their Americanness.24

It is clear from the children’s reaction that the Japanese Americans of Topaz created a fun escape for their kids. The aforementioned sharp increase of Boy Scout enrollment was “principally due to the attraction of the summer camp.”25 The kids’ excitement seems to have been well founded, as the camp diary is filled with fun stories.

On an overnight hike, Koji Kawaguchi writes, “They are flashing light signals saying ‘We’re having lots of fun.’”26 Director Inouye writes that “the Brownies were happy to be in the open country,”27 and concludes his account of a Cub Scout egg-hunt by exclaiming: “Oh boy, how they did enjoy it!”28 It seems that the children had a wonderful time and that the staff were excited by the events’ success. These anecdotes prove that the Japanese Americans found a way to delight their children through the environment.

The incarcerees accomplished more than just a self-organized, fun American summer camp. They used Antelope Springs to redefine the power dynamics of Topaz. As this paper has demonstrated, they planned, financed, and organized the camp essentially independently, and, in so doing established space to exercise agency. This reorientation of the power dynamic is clear from the incarcerees’ own words. Okauchi recounts:“You could feel it. It was different, it wasn't the same old thing.”29 His description of Camp Antelope Springs is compelling because it uses a purely environmental frame:

“June on the lake bed out there at Topaz must have been well over a hundred degrees. So [the summer camp] was a great sort of respite from the hot summer.”30

Russell Bankson’s Closing Report includes this telling quote from a Scout at a campfire:

“Sure we dreamed about having a camp. We talked about camps our boy scout troops used to have back home. We kidded ourselves along and got a kick out of just talking about it. We didn’t think that our dream would really come true. But look at us tonight. It just shows that if you make up your mind you want something bad enough you will get it, even out in the middle of the desert.”31

For both this anonymous scout and Okauchi, Camp Antelope Springs meant something more than an entertaining summer camp. They were able to fulfill a “dream,” a “respite” that seemed impossible behind the barbed wire and military guard of Topaz. It is striking that they frame camp as a contrast to the “middle of the desert” and the “hot summer,” both of which are natural forces. They do not mention incarceration or the WRA; none of the Japanese Americans’ accounts of the summer camp experience do. By framing this as a victory in environmental terms, not against the WRA but against the desert heat, the incarcerees redefined the power dynamic by excluding the WRA from the equation. This redefinition is the culmination of the incarcee’s ability to run the camp with almost no WRA involvement. For the summer of 1943, it could be just the children and staff of Camp Antelope Springs and the mountains of Utah.

But this freedom was incomplete. The summer camp was tethered to Topaz by the supply line, which relied upon WRA food supplies. Even though there was no oversight for the transportation of campers and supplies, there was no real opportunity to escape incarceration, and there were no escape attempts. Where would they go? There was also WRA involvement in the appointment of community leaders whom they thought would be compliant. A further limitation came the following year, when summer camp plans for 1944 “were cancelled due to the shortage of gas and transportation.”32 The WRA cut off the only aspect of the summer camp on which they spent any additional money, substituting it with “a number of week-end overnight camps.”33 Despite their independence in almost all aspects of Camp Antelope Springs, the Japanese Americans were ultimately under the WRA’s control and gas-use policies.

However, the incarcerees still found room to negotiate. The first allotted Antelope Springs date for the Boy Scout camping groups did not give them enough time to prepare. In response, the scouts successfully appealed for a delay, and they negotiated for a different, lake outing to take place on the original date. The WRA Topaz closing report describes this as a “peace offering,” to make up for the delay.34 This exchange demonstrates that the Japanese Americans had carved out bargaining agency for themselves; they still got their day of respite from the summer heat. Even in this moment of ostensible subjugation, the incarcerees created a moment of agency.

Camp Antelope Springs is a remarkable demonstration of the Japanese Americans’ effort to exercise agency from within incarceration. It is true that Antelope Springs was ultimately tethered to the incarceration facility. A reminder of this is the last page of a third-grade classroom’s diary, which reported how fun Antelope Springs was–this was their last entry because the government took their teacher away to Tule Lake.35 However, through the summer camp, the Japanese Americans were able to escape the desert. The primary sources reveal that Camp Antelope Springs was a success, and that it meant a lot to its attendees and organizers. They redefined the power dynamics by using their environment and created space for negotiation and agency. And so, during the Summers of 1943 and 1944, the Utah mountains were home to a few hundred American children having fun at nature summer camp.


Notas:

1. “YMCA, Protestant Church to Sponsor Summer Camp.” Topaz Times. June 24, 1943, Vol. III, No. 38. p. 2 ; Okauchi, Kinge, interview by Richard Potashin, July 16, 2008 (denshovh-okinge-01-0020), Densho Digital Archive, Densho.

2. Inouye, Keigo, and Koji Wakaguchi, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, 1943, p. 22. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

3. War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project. Community Management Division, “September - 1945 Closing Report.” Topaz, Utah, September, 1945. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

4. Inouye, Keigo, and Koji Wakaguchi, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, 1943, p. 22. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

5. Bankson, Russell A. “1943 Summer Camp of Topaz.” War Relocation Authority, Project Reports Division, Historical Section, 1943, 2. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

6. “Antelope Springs (detention facility),” Densho Encyclopedia.

7. “Topaz,” Densho Encyclopedia.

8. “Topaz,” Civil Liberties Archives and Study Center. Japanese American National Museum, n.d.

9. Like the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Buddhist Organizations, and Church groups. See: “YMCA, Protestant Church to Sponsor Summer Camp.” Topaz Times. June 24, 1943, Vol. III, No. 38. p. 2; “Scout Campers Entertain Visitors at Antelope.” Topaz Times. July 17, 1943, Vol. IV, No. 7. p. 3; Inouye, Keigo, and Koji Wakaguchi, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” List of Campers, 1943. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley, p. 12-13.

10. Bankson, Russell A. “1943 Summer Camp of Topaz.” War Relocation Authority, Project Reports Division, Historical Section, 1943, 2. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

11. Cherstin Lyon. "Charles Ernst," Densho Encyclopedia.

12. One should not give Ernst too much credit: he appointed community leaders he knew would be compliant.

13. Inouye, Keigo, “Summer Camping Report.” Community Education Section, October 15th, 1943, 4. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley; Inouye, Haru. “Community Services Divisional Staff Conference: Minutes.” June 30th, 1943, 3. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

14. Inouye, Keigo, “Summer Camping Report.” Community Education Section, October 15th, 1943, 4. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

15. This fee covered craft materials and postcards to send back to Topaz via a bi-weekly mail service. See: Inouye, Keigo, “Summer Camping Report.” Community Education Section, October 15th, 1943, 2. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

16. Readers familiar with Toyo Miyatake will find parallel in this caucasian accompaniment policy. For the quote, see: Inouye, Haru. “Community Services Divisional Staff Conference: Minutes.” June 30th, 1943, 3. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

17. Okauchi, Kinge, interview by Richard Potashin, July 16, 2008 (denshovh-okinge-01-0021), Densho Digital Archive, Densho.

18. National Park Service, “Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites.” National Park Service History. National Park Service, February 20, 2004; Inouye, Keigo, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, Friday July 28th, 1943, 40. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

19. As Director Inouye’s camp diary notes, the children “were rather surprised to see so many different kinds of birds, trees, and flowers.” See Inouye, Keigo, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, Friday July 28th, 1943, 40. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

20. "Antelope Springs (detention facility)," Densho Encyclopedia; War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project. Community Management Division, “September - 1945 Closing Report.” Topaz, Utah, September, 1945. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

21. Okauchi, Kinge, interview by Richard Potashin, July 16, 2008 (denshovh-okinge-01-0021), Densho Digital Archive, Densho.

22 These included snake hunting, astronomy, insect collecting, and capitalizing on Antelope Spring’s fossil deposits: trilobite hunting. Camp-wide interest in these fossils led to the article "Trilobite Fossils of Antelope Springs" by amatuer Historical Geologist Frank Beckwith, published in Trek, the Topaz literary magazine. For more, see: Okauchi, Kinge, interview by Richard Potashin, July 16, 2008 (denshovh-okinge-01-0020), Densho Digital Archive, Densho; Inouye, Keigo, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, Friday August 11th, 1943, 48. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley; Inouye, Keigo, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, Friday July 19th, 1943, 33. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley; Frank Beckwith, “Trilobite Fossils of Antelope Springs.” Trek, June 1943. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

23. Examples of activities include “egg hunt[s],” “swimming,” “roaring campfire[s]” and “singing and games. See: Bankson, Russell A. “1943 Summer Camp of Topaz.” War Relocation Authority, Project Reports Division, Historical Section, 1943, 2. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley ; War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project. Community Management Division, “September - 1945 Closing Report.” Topaz, Utah, September, 1945. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

24. It is hard to get more American than “Brownie Day” and nature summer camp.

25. War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project. Community Management Division, “September - 1945 Closing Report.” Topaz, Utah, September, 1945. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

26. Wakaguchi, Koji, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, Friday July 7th, 1943, 26. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

27. Inouye, Keigo, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, Friday August 11th, 1943, 48. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

28. Inouye, Keigo, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” Program and Diary, Friday July 16th, 1943, 31. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

29. Okauchi, Kinge, interview by Richard Potashin, July 16, 2008 (denshovh-okinge-01-0019), Densho Digital Archive, Densho.

30. Okauchi, Kinge, interview by Richard Potashin, July 16, 2008 (denshovh-okinge-01-0019), Densho Digital Archive, Densho.

31. Bankson, Russell A. “1943 Summer Camp of Topaz.” War Relocation Authority, Project Reports Division, Historical Section, 1943, 2-3. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

32. War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project. Community Management Division, “September - 1945 Closing Report.” Topaz, Utah, September, 1945. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

33. This shows that, byy this point, the incarcerees had established the summer camp as a tradition, hence why the WRA felt compelled to substitute Camp Antelope Springs with another trip. See: War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project. Community Management Division, “September - 1945 Closing Report.” Topaz, Utah, September, 1945. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

34. War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project. Community Management Division, “September - 1945 Closing Report.” Topaz, Utah, September, 1945. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

35. Tunnell, Michael O. The Children of Topaz: the Story of a Japanese-American Internment Camp: Based on a Classroom Diary. New York: Holiday House, 1996.


Bibliography

"Antelope Springs (detention facility)," Densho Encyclopedia.

Bankson, Russell A. “1943 Summer Camp of Topaz.” War Relocation Authority, Project Reports

Division, Historical Section, 1943, 2. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

Cherstin Lyon. "Charles Ernst," Densho Encyclopedia.

Chiang, Connie Y. "Imprisoned Nature: Toward an Environmental History of the World War II Japanese American Incarceration." Environmental History 15, no. 2 (2010): 236-67.

Frank Beckwith, “Trilobite Fossils of Antelope Springs.” Trek, June 1943. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

Inouye, Haru. “Community Services Divisional Staff Conference: Minutes.” June 30th, 1943. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

Inouye, Keigo, and Koji Wakaguchi, “Antelope Springs’ Summer Camp: July-August 1943.” List of Campers, Program and Diary, 1943. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

Inouye, Keigo, “Summer Camping Report.” Community Education Section, October 15th, 1943. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

National Park Service, “Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites.” National Park Service History. National Park Service, February 20, 2004.

Okauchi, Kinge, interview by Richard Potashin, July 16, 2008 (denshovh-okinge-01-0019-21), Densho Digital Archive, Densho.

“Scout Campers Entertain Visitors at Antelope.” Topaz Times. July 17, 1943, Vol. IV, No. 7.

"Topaz," Densho Encyclopedia.

Topaz.” Civil Liberties Archives and Study Center. Japanese American National Museum, n.d.

Tunnell, Michael O. The Children of Topaz: the Story of a Japanese-American Internment Camp: Based on a Classroom Diary. New York: Holiday House, 1996.

War Relocation Authority, Central Utah Project. Community Management Division, “September- 1945 Closing Report.” Topaz, Utah, September, 1945. Accessed via the Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library of UC Berkley.

“YMCA, Protestant Church to Sponsor Summer Camp.” Topaz Times. June 24, 1943, Vol. III, No. 38.

 

© 2020 Sean Silvia

boy scouts Camp Antelope Springs camps Civilian Conservation Corps camp incarceration kids Topaz WWII