James Wakasa’s funeral at Topaz. A composite of two images from the National Archives.

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA

During World War II, the Issei at the Topaz (Central Utah) War Relocation Authority left a monumental memento for future generations to find.

It took 78 years until the clues were followed and the treasure discovered.

Thank you Nancy Ukai, Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell for bringing this to light.

What I’m talking about is the discovery of a stone monument created by the Issei in memory of Mr. James Hatsuaki Wakasa, an elderly bachelor who had been shot dead by a sentry on April 11, 1943 for getting too close to the barbed-wire fencing.

The 19-year-old sentry, Private First Class Gerald Philpott, was found not guilty in Mr. Wakasa’s murder.

The Topaz camp inmates were outraged at this ruling and created a memorial to mark the site where Mr. Wakasa had been killed. The War Relocation Authority administrators were not pleased. They feared the monument, in memory of an innocent murdered man, would become a symbol of resistance and ordered it to be demolished. The Issei, however, buried it.

This was not the first time the Topaz Issei rebelled. They had a reputation for questioning WRA policies. In fact, the WRA, at one point, considered transforming Topaz into the segregation camp, rather than Tule Lake.

It was the Topaz Issei who protested the early version of the loyalty questionnaire in which they were asked to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States (although, by law, they were not allowed to become U.S. citizens) and to forswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor.

The male Issei were also asked whether they would be willing to volunteer for the Army Nurse Corps or the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).

The Wakasa memorial tree in 2004. (Courtesy of Jeff Burton)

The Topaz Issei collectively organized, sent letters and teletypes to Washington, D.C. and met with the camp director to successfully change the wording of the questionnaire so they would not be forced to abandon their Japanese citizenship and become stateless.

The Issei in other camps have the Topaz Issei to thank if they received the version with Question 28 that simply read: “Will you swear to abide by the laws of the United States and take no action which would in any way interfere with the war effort of the United States?”

But back to Mr. Wakasa’s monument.

Nancy Ukai, head of the “50 Objects/Stories of American Japanese Incarceration,” found a hand-drawn map at the National Archives indicating the location of Mr. Wakasa death. This was the first clue.

Ukai did further research and posted an article titled “The Demolished Monument” on the “50 Objects” website, assuming the monument had been destroyed.

Enter the dynamic duo of Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell, both archaeologists.

Burton and Farrell are co-authors of “Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites,” which was originally published by the Western Archeological and Conservation Center of the National Park Service. Not too many government publications go out of stock but there was such a demand for “Confinement” that it was reissued by the University of Washington Press.

It was also Burton and Farrell who located the former prison site where the Topaz, Amache (Granada), and Poston (Colorado River) draft resisters and Gordon Hirabayashi had been incarcerated for refusing to serve in the military until their civil rights had been restored. They successfully spearheaded a campaign to have the former prison site renamed the Gordon Hirabayashi Campground, in commemoration of its most famous inmate.

New Wakasa memorial sign. (Courtesy of Jeff Burton)

After learning about the Wakasa monument, Burton and Farrell, on their own dime, made the 500-mile trek out to Topaz and discovered what looked like the top of a monument.

An amateur would have simply viewed it as a rock and walked by, but Burton and Farrell knew what to look for.

They shared their discovery with Ukai, and I imagine the trio must’ve felt like Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga when she discovered the 10th missing copy of Gen. DeWitt’s original Final Report, which proved that there had been no military necessity to forcibly remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

What a cause for celebration!

From there, an Ad Hoc Committee, which included three members from the Topaz Museum Board, started meeting in October 2020 to discuss how to handle the monument.

Burton and Farrell also wrote an article about this finding, which included recommendations on how to stabilize and remove the artifact. They noted that the stone should be gently lifted so as prevent any cracks from spreading and to preserve any traces of writing or markings. They also wrote that the surrounding area should be excavated to see if there were any mementos placed with the monument.

Burton and Farrell sent the draft article to be reviewed by members of the Topaz Museum Board more than once.

During the review process, the Topaz Museum Board members made constructive suggestions but NEVER expressed concern about it being published. Therefore, the article was published on the Discover Nikkei website.

Then in late July, the Topaz Museum unilaterally made the decision to dig up the Wakasa monument without notifying anyone on the Ad Hoc Committee (except for the Topaz Museum Board).

The Topaz Museum is claiming that Burton’s and Farrell’s article disclosed the location of the monument and that this opened the monument to being vandalized, so they felt time was of the essence to remove it.

The Wakasa monument was dug up, using an excavator, a piece of heavy construction equipment, by someone who is contracted to remove “debris” from the Topaz camp site. No archaeologist was present.

A portion of the monument did break off, and if there was any writing or marking on the monument, that is gone. Any words would have been rubbed off when it was pulled out of the hard dirt and dragged across the ground. (There is a reason why archaeologists methodically use brushes and take their time before removing artifacts from the ground.)

This has upset Ad Hoc Committee members, former Topaz prisoners and their descendants, and others in the Japanese American community.

The Topaz Museum is now on a campaign to divert blame from themselves to blaming Burton and Farrell for publishing the article in the first place and are depicting those who are angry over this action as a small group of disaffected people bent on destroying the Topaz Museum.

But the Topaz Museum has a track record of being insensitive. Before the Topaz Museum was even open, sectors of the Nikkei community became outraged over the text that was to be included in the museum exhibit. The museum relied heavily on the government perspective and used WRA photos, which are essentially propaganda photos, to depict a happy camp, populated by model minorities. The individual voices of the camp inmates were lost. The National Park Service finally stepped in since it had given the museum a Japanese American Confinement Sites grant.

Given this, can the general Nikkei community trust the Topaz Museum to do the right thing with the unearthed Wakasa monument? Maybe it’s time to bring in a new board and staff and come up with new policies since the current one isn’t working and we’re losing parts of our history in the process.

Martha Nakagawa is a Topaz inmate descendant and a frequent contributor to The Rafu Shimpo and other publications.

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