Unearthing a monumental controversy: Removal of memorial to Topaz shooting victim enrages community

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??REMOVED —  This summer, the Topaz Museum Board unearthed and relocated a monument to James H. Wakasa, who was killed at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp during World War II. photo courtesy of Utah Division of State History

REMOVED —  This summer, the Topaz Museum Board unearthed and relocated a monument to James H. Wakasa, who was killed at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp during World War II.
photo courtesy of Utah Division of State History

Japanese American community members — including wartime incarceration survivors, their descendants, and allies — are outraged that a monument memorializing an Issei prisoner shot and killed in the wartime Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp by a United States Army sentry was unearthed this summer from the site of his death near the camp’s security fence and taken by the Topaz Museum to an undisclosed location.

James Hatsuaki Wakasa was killed by a soldier as he walked his dog inside the fence of the camp on April 11, 1943. The guard, 19-year-old Private First Class Gerald B. Philpott, was found not guilty in a court-martial trial. Topaz inmates, enraged by the random killing of an innocent prisoner, erected a stone monument to memorialize Wakasa. However, it was ordered removed by the camp administrators and the military.

Nancy Ukai, director of the “50 Objects/Stories: The American Japanese Incarceration” project, who found information in the National Archives — including a map related to Wakasa’s murder — stated in an e-mail that Wakasa’s murder, as well as the removal of a memorial monument built in his honor by Issei prisoners of the Topaz camp, “has hit me hard. I find myself thinking a lot about the suffering of the Issei. We know so little about their stories because of the language barrier and their tendency to not complain.

Wakasa was a 63-year-old Issei, a little older than my grandfather, who also was a prisoner at Topaz. The man who made the map that led the archaeologists to rediscover the monument was an Issei. The landscapers who erected the monument were Issei.”

“So, to know that the museum desecrated this sacred ground with their construction machines and without telling us about the excavation is very painful,” she added. “The Issei story was pushed aside once again. The museum knew for a year about the monument.

There was no reason to not collaborate more closely with community.”

Through her research, Ukai discovered that Wakasa was an Ishikawa Prefecture-born chef who previously attended Keio University in Japan and immigrated to the U.S. in 1903, and had lived in the U.S. for two-thirds of his life. When the U.S. entered World War II, Wakasa was living in San Francisco and was rounded up in the government’s ethnic cleansing campaign to expel all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. He was first sent to Tanforan Assembly Center, a converted race track in San Bruno, Calif., in

April, 1942, and five months later, to Topaz. “One detail that stays in my mind is that Mr. Wakasa kept a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in his barrack,” noted Ukai, a Berkeley-born Nikkei who said that more than 12 of her relatives were incarcerated at Topaz.
Ukai found new background information about Wakasa when she visited the Merry Omori archives at the Japanese American Service Committee in Chicago. Merry Omori, a Nisei, and Tom Okawara, a Sansei, had researched the homicides in the camps for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings. She related, “One of the aspects of Wakasa’s story found in their research was that he often walked his dog in the area where he was murdered. This activity was not included in the military account of the incident, which claimed he was trying to escape through the barbed wire fence.”

Future interpretation and treatment of the monument and the memorial landscape should be discussed by Topaz survivors and descendants, Ukai said. “Japanese Americans must lead this discussion, especially after the memorial landscape has been destroyed by construction machines. Professionals should be consulted … The Wakasa Memorial Committee is attempting to bring archaeological and historical competence to the issue, as well as informing and engaging with survivors about its significance.”
(Ukai is a Nichi Bei Foundation board member. )

Map Shows Monument Site
The Wakasa Monument’s exact location had remained a mystery for nearly 80 years until 2020, when Ukai discovered in the National Archives a 1943 map, drawn by George Shimamoto, pinpointing the exact location of Wakasa’s death. She shared that map with archaeologists Jeff Burton, cultural resource program Manager at Manzanar National Historic Site, and Mary M. Farrell, who is currently the director of Trans-Sierran Archaeological Research in Lone Pine, Calif. The archaeologist couple then traveled 500 miles from their home in Lone Pine, near Manzanar, in the fall of 2020 to Topaz, where they found remnants of the monument that had been ordered destroyed and removed.

Burton and Farrell wrote an article that appeared on the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei Website on July 4, 2021, detailing the specific location of the half-buried monument at Topaz, charting its precise location by reporting the number of feet from various reference points and including photos of the stone, wrote Topaz Museum President Jane Beckwith in an e-mail to Nichi Bei Weekly. “In essence, this information detailed how to find the monument.”

Fifteen days later, the Topaz Museum Board became very concerned that the location of the stone monument had been disclosed to the public, Beckwith explained. “This was alarming due to signs put up earlier by the museum had been blown apart by bullets and blasted with shotgun shells, their markers spray-painted by political messaging, campers wandering onto the site, and the recent bullet-pocked destruction of another Japanese American monument with ‘KKK’ spray painted on it.”

The monument was unearthed after the specific location of the memorial was made public, Beckwith reported. “Because of previous incidents of vandalism, we were terrified that since the monument’s location was now known … its protection was of paramount importance. So, the Topaz Museum Board worked quickly to remove it to a secure location within the confines of the Topaz Museum.”

Soon after the monument was removed, Beckwith pointed out, “we expressed a public apology for not notifying the community and other stakeholders ahead of time. It was a mistake and we feel terrible about it. At the time, our biggest priority was to protect the monument and move it to a secure location. We want to do better. We welcome input from the entire community to plan next steps going forward.

“Unfortunately, we cannot change anything that’s happened in the past,” she added. “We’d like to focus on the future and welcome the community and Topaz stakeholders to help in deciding how best to honor the monument and to educate everyone on the senseless killing of James Wakasa.”

Shock and Sadness
Archaeologist Farrell described via e-mail the emotions she and her husband Burton experienced when they finally found the Wakasa Monument: “It was at once exciting and somber. We had hoped to find some small remnants of concrete or cobbles remaining from the monument. To see such a large stone at the location was very moving — it seemed that the friends of Mr. Wakasa had taken care to make sure the monument would be found again, in spite of the Military Police and WRA demands that it be destroyed. We were grateful to the Issei who didn’t want this human tragedy, nor this travesty of human rights, to be forgotten.”

The couple’s reaction to the manner in which the Topaz Museum Board unearthed the Wakasa Monument was “shock and sadness,” Farrell said. “We were astonished that the Topaz Museum Board thought our article in Discover Nikkei would lead to vandalism.

We were chagrined to learn that they blamed our article for their action. Mostly, we were sad — removing the stone without ceremony, without remembrances, and without the Japanese American community present seems like far worse vandalism than any member of the public could have done.”

Noting possible damage to the monument since it was removed without any archaeologists present, Farrell stated, “Archaeological excavation of the stone might have been able to determine if there were any mementos or offerings placed with the stone, and slow, careful removal might have preserved any inscriptions or marks on the stone. But the loss of information seems less devastating than the loss of an opportunity to honor Mr. Wakasa and all the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at Topaz. The greater damage was to the descendant community.”

Momentous Discovery
Most Japanese Americans living in and around the Bay Area were sent to Topaz, wrote Nichi Bei Weekly columnist Chizu Omori, adding that the archaeologists’ finding of the Wakasa monument “was a momentous discovery, an artifact of our history, a precious symbol of our community’s attempt to remember the shooting of an innocent man. It symbolized the peoples’ … bitter realization that we were prisoners who could be randomly killed.”

Omori called the Topaz Museum Board’s actions in excavating the Wakasa Monument “a desecration of sacred ground … This is part of our story, our tribulations and our ordeal as prisoners of a racist government.”

Kimiko Marr of the Wakasa Memorial Committee, whose mother and her family were sent to Topaz, stated via e-mail, “My mother and I were on the first phone calls regarding the discovery of the memorial a year ago. I think the discovery of the memorial is very important not only to keep the story of James Wakasa alive, but to also show a different form of resistance by the incarcerees.”

Marr said she is “very disappointed” with how the memorial has been handled by the Topaz Museum Board. “There has been no transparency with the board and now, over two months later, we have … not been told where the memorial is or what condition it is in.”

The first public photographs of the Wakasa Monument excavation at the site of the Topaz concentration camp were recently released by the Utah Division of State History to the Wakasa Memorial Committee. The photos, taken by a Utah state official on July 27, 2021, show that a forklift and chain were used to drag the WWII-era monument from where it had laid buried for 78 years. No archaeologists were present. Topaz survivors and descendants were not told about the excavation until after it had occurred. The Topaz Museum owns the land on which the monument was buried, having purchased that part of the Topaz site in 1998.

Vandalism Claim Not Credible
John Ota, a descendant of so-called “voluntary evacuees,” questioned Topaz Museum President Beckwith’s assertion that the museum decided to excavate the Wakasa Monument because of fear of vandals attacking the monument after its location was published.

Beckwith’s claim of vandalism threats based on several photos of bullet-pocked signs at Topaz “simply makes no sense,” Ota argued in a statement, noting that the Wakasa Monument, “unlike the signs that have been vandalized … was almost totally buried, except for a flat segment which rose only a few inches above ground … making the chances of detection very low.”

The idea that vandals might have found the map cannot be taken seriously, given that the map was published in Discover Nikkei, “a community Website about Nikkei identity, culture, and history,” added Ota, a Wakasa Memorial Committee member.

The Wakasa Monument is “perhaps the most significant archeological find ever made regarding the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans,” Ota stated. “It is a singular, precious and irreplaceable symbol of Japanese American resistance to the unjust violence and repression that was part and parcel of the wartime mass incarceration. As such, what happened to the monument in 1943 and 2021, as well as what will happen to it in the future, matters.”

The Wakasa Memorial Committee, comprised of Topaz survivors, descendants, Japanese American community members and allies, states its mission is to protect the Topaz memorial sites, the Wakasa Monument and the National Historic Landmark.

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