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Topaz survivors, descendants honor man killed at camp after discovery of old monument

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A small group gathered in the desert outside of Delta on Dec. 1 to honor a man who died after a guard at the Topaz Japanese internment camp shot him.

A small group gathered in the desert outside of Delta on Dec. 1 to honor a man who died after a guard at the Topaz Japanese internment camp shot him.

Aubrey Shafer, Deseret News

Japanese Americans gathered last week to remember a man who was killed at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during World War II, and celebrate the discovery of a monument dedicated to him long believed to be destroyed.

James Hatsuaki Wakasa was out walking his dog on April 11, 1943, in the internment camp after dinner, when a guard shot and killed him. The guard claimed Wakasa was trying to escape.

About 2,000 inmates attended Wakasa’s funeral and erected a monument in the place he was killed. The monument, made of cement and rocks, was believed to be destroyed by Topaz officials.

However, Nancy Ukai — whose family members were incarcerated at Topaz — recently found a map showing where Wakasa was killed. Ukai published the map and other research on Wakasa’s death in an article for “50 Objects,” a project that documents objects from Topaz and other internment camps.

Two archaeologists were able to find the monument in September 2020 based on the research.

“They found it and sent me an email and I didn’t believe it,” Ukai told KSL-TV. “I didn’t know what that meant because I thought it was demolished. The builders didn’t destroy it, they buried it and they left a little bit showing for future generations to discover.”

Masako Takahashi, an artist born at Topaz, said she was “delighted at the idea that it could be excavated.”

A small group gathered in the desert outside of Delta on Dec. 1 to honor a man who died after a guard at the Topaz Japanese internment camp shot him.

A small group gathered in the desert outside of Delta on Dec. 1 to honor a man who died after a guard at the Topaz Japanese internment camp shot him.

Aubrey Shafer, Deseret News

Shortly after the monument’s discovery, the Wakasa Memorial Committee, a group that works to preserve the history of the Topaz camp, was established. But the committee was surprised to learn that the Topaz Museum Board had removed the monument on July 27.

“We had been robbed of an opportunity to witness our own history, to remember Mr. Wakasa’s spirit, hold a ceremony,” Ukai said. “The land had been desecrated.”

According to Jane Beckwith, the museum’s board president, representatives from the museum acted to remove the monument because they “were really afraid that it would be vandalized and we did not want that to happen.”

Beckwith also apologized to the committee for the monument’s removal in a Facebook post on Oct. 13. “When its location was revealed publicly, I overreacted, worried that it was at risk for vandalism or worse,” the post read.

After the monument’s removal, the museum, the committee and the National Park Service agreed to meet at the monument’s site on Dec. 1 to assess the site and monument and begin planning for future memorials.

“It’s a good start,” Ukai said. “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.”

Contributing: Garna Mejia and Aubrey Shafer