Group works to honor WWII Topaz internment camp inmate after monument removed
Dec 10, 2021, 2:06 PM | Updated: 2:45 pm
DELTA, Utah — The attack on Pearl Harbor forever changed the lives of Japanese Americans living along the West Coast. Thousands were forced into internment camps, like Utah’s Topaz War Relocation Center, where a 63-year-old man was shot and killed by a guard.
The shooting sent fear throughout the camp, but in defiance, inmates erected a monument in his honor that was subsequently ordered to be destroyed.
Long thought to have been lost forever, the monument was only recently discovered. However, it is now at the center of a new controversy.
In the remote West Desert, a small group is stepping back in time. They planned to uncover a painful past.
“It’s sobering to be here and it’s important land,” Nancy Ukai said. “This is another part of history that is not told to us.”
“I look around and people really suffered here,” Kioshi Ina said.
I’m grateful to my parents for having shielded me from this,” Masako Takahashi said.
Kioshi Ina and Masako Takahashi were born during World War II.
Their mothers gave birth in the dry and rigid valley, behind guard towers and barbed wire fences, in one of the largest internment camps on American soil.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and over fears of more attacks by the Japanese, the American government ordered all Japanese Americans living along the West Coast — in California, Oregon and Washington — to “move inland,” forcing many into internment camps.
In total, 11,212 people were processed into the Topaz camp in Delta.
The camp operated for three years — from Sept. 11, 1942 to Oct. 31, 1945, according to the Topaz Museum Board.
“My mom and dad, they never talked about it, even their friends. They never talked about it because they were ashamed,” Ina said.
“I realize now that they didn’t tell us because they didn’t want us to walk around fearful at every turn,” Takahashi said.
But now, the whole story is beginning to surface.
“We are walking from the direction of where Wakasa lived, towards the spot where he was killed,” Ukai said.
On Dec. 1, they gathered to honor a man whose story was buried, until only recently.
“It was the most important story at Topaz,” Ukai said.
The story is that of 63-year-old James Hatsuaki Wakasa. He was walking his dog when he was shot dead by a guard, who claimed Wakasa was trying to escape.
“The newspaper headlines were ‘Jap Killed Trying to Escape.’ He wasn’t! He was parallel to the fence; the bullet went through his heart and pierced his spine. He died on his back. He was walking his dog,” Ukai said.
As a sign of solidarity, more than 2,000 people went to the funeral.
Days later, inmates erected a monument in Wakasa’s honor. It was made of rocks and a stolen sack of cement.
“They wanted people to remember for generations,” Takahashi said.
Soon after, the monument was ordered to be destroyed.
“First of all, he was murdered for no reason and then memorialized by his friends and then obliterated his memory and what happened to him by the government, talk about whitewashed,” Takahashi said.
For decades, Japanese Americans thought the monument was destroyed, until Ukai discovered a map of the exact spot where Wakasa was shot.
“It was just a miracle because, up until then, we never knew where Mr. Wakasa died,” Ukai said.
Ukai included a picture of the map in an article on her blog last year.
Soon after, Ukai said the monument was discovered by two archaeologists who had read the article.
“They found it and sent me an email and I didn’t believe it. I didn’t know what that meant because I thought it was demolished,” Ukai said.
“We thought it was ordered destroyed and it was. But the builders didn’t destroy it, they buried it and they left a little bit showing for future generations to discover, just a little bit was left showing,” Ukai said.
“It was, ‘Oh my god! How fantastic! It’s found’ — we have proof that it happened. It’s not hearsay. We were delighted at the idea that it could be excavated,” Takahashi said.
However, last week’s memorial service was held without the monument.
“On July 27th, the Topaz Museum Board excavated it using a forklift operator and Japanese Americans weren’t told until after it occurred and there were no archaeologists,” Ukai said. “We had been robbed of an opportunity to witness our own history to remember Mr. Wakasa’s spirit, hold a ceremony, basically do what we tried to do today. The land had been desecrated.”
Ukai and Takahashi are part of the Wakasa Memorial Committee. The committee was created following the monument’s discovery to advocate for its handling and preservation.
According to Takahashi, the Topaz Museum Board, which owns all but one of the camp’s 640 acres, removed the monument without informing the memorial committee or getting input from Japanese Americans.
“You know, my culture is don’t make a fuss! The nail that stands up gets hammered down, don’t make such a problem for everyone. But I am here standing up and speaking because it was wrong,” Takahashi said.
“His memory deserves better than that. I think today, with the ceremony, we are really pleased that the National Park Service is here to assess the condition of the land,” Ukai said.
According to Ukai, the Topaz Museum Board has since agreed to bring in the National Park Service.
“This was very emotional, to see basically what I view as a protective, professional recognition of the site,” Ukai said.
As for the monument, it is being stored at the Topaz Museum in Delta. The museum is also owned by the Topaz Museum Board.
“We know the kind of things that go on out at the site,” said Jane Beckwith, the museum board’s president. “We were really afraid that it would be vandalized and we did not want that to happen. And so now we are dedicated to protecting the monument and going forward making sure that it’s safe and that it’s telling us a bigger story.”
Beckwith declined to answer specific questions about the perceived mishandling of Wakasa’s memorial explaining that she doesn’t want to dwell on the past and is focused on moving forward towards a reconciliation with the memorial committee.
“That was then and now we need to go forward, we need to make sure that we are concentrating on what we can do to use the stone as a memorial for Mr. Wakasa and that is really our goal,” Beckwith said,” Now that (the National Park Service) and NHL people are here, they are going to do an assessment of the stone and see its condition, and then they will give recommendations for how to preserve it and how to interpret it.”
“It’s something we haven’t been able to really fully acknowledge with our community because of the way it was excavated was so painful,” said Takahashi.
Ukai and Takahashi are advocating on behalf of the memorial committee. They want to establish a formal agreement with the museum board on handling the monument and future discoveries to rightfully preserve the land and its stories.
“It’s a good start and I told somebody it’s also the beginning of a consecration process because the land was desecrated and now, we’re trying to make it sacred again,” Ukai said.