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Excavation of Utah internment camp monument upsets descendants trying to heal

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Last year, a researcher found a map in the National Archives that pointed to a unique monument, one for a Japanese American man killed by guards in a Utah internment camp during World War II. A survivor of the camp was ready to pay for its archaeological excavation but wasn't given the chance. Now Japanese Americans with ties to the camp are trying to find healing. Sonja Hutson with member station KUER reports.

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: The former Topaz Internment Camp sits in the remote Utah desert more than 100 miles south of Salt Lake City. About 11,000 Japanese Americans were held here from 1942 to '45. Now, on a recent December morning, researcher and writer Nancy Ukai walked among the greasewood shrubs on the cracked earth here, where a dozen of her relatives were imprisoned, along with 63-year-old James Wakasa.

NANCY UKAI: We're retracing the route that James Wakasa took after dinner on Sunday night, April 11, 1943, and he was walking his dog.

HUTSON: It was nearing sunset when a guard shot Wakasa in the chest just a few feet from the fence. The soldier was later acquitted in military court. The government's first explanation was that he was crawling through the fence. Then they acknowledged he was several feet away from it, facing the guard. Stories flew around the camp that he was deaf and maybe couldn't hear the guard's warnings, but some accounts suggest he wasn't.

UKAI: The image of him as this old deaf man who was a bachelor and a chef, but he had a full life. He traveled a lot in his barrack. They found Mexican pesos. He lived in New York. I think a lot of that humanity was lost in the retelling of the story.

HUTSON: Camp officials let the prisoners hold a funeral, but it wasn't at the site where where Wakasa was shot, like they wanted. So a group of them then built a monument there made of a large stone, which camp officials ordered them to destroy. But in an act of defiance, they buried it instead. Last year, Ukai found a map that showed where Wakasa was shot and therefore where the monument was. Shortly after she published an article about it, a pair of archaeologists went to the site and found the top of it sticking up out of the ground.

UKAI: It was like, oh, my gosh. This message from the past, which represents civil rights defiance, resistance - felt incredible.

HUTSON: Masako Takahashi was born at the concentration camp and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She wrote to the woman who runs the camp's museum, saying she'd be happy to fund a ceremony and archeological excavation.

MASAKO TAKAHASHI: One or two business days later, she wrote me back, saying, oh, we had it dug up this morning. It was a slap in the face. It felt like a combination of grief and rage.

HUTSON: Museum Board President Jane Beckwith says she thought they were doing the right thing because the monument's location had been made public by the archaeologists.

JANE BECKWITH: When it was revealed, it made us really panic. Vandalism out here is pretty common, and we felt like if that happened, that would be, really, a tragedy.

HUTSON: But Takahashi says the hasty excavation could have damaged the monument.

TAKAHASHI: It could have writing or carving on the front of it, and there could have been gifts or tokens left at the burial site - flowers, incense. We don't know because - and we will never know, maybe.

HUTSON: Beckwith now acknowledges the way they removed the monument wasn't right.

BECKWITH: We've apologized that we moved it too swiftly. If people wanted to see it removed, we should have given that opportunity.

HUTSON: Earlier this month, Takahashi and a group of seven other former prisoners and descendants from the Bay Area visited the camp. The group stood in a semicircle next to the original barbed wire fence, wrapped tightly in coats to stay warm in the crisp desert air.

JERRY HIRANO: Good morning, everyone.

HUTSON: Reverend Jerry Hirano is with the Buddhist Church of Salt Lake City.

HIRANO: We'll begin with sutra chanting. And then for those who would like, please come around to the site for oshoko, or incense burning.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

HIRANO: (Singing in non-English language).

HUTSON: During Wakasa’s 1943 funeral, prisoners didn't have fresh flowers, so they used paper ones. The group at this ceremony walked up to a white cross on the fence one at a time and placed fresh flowers and paper flowers next to it. Kyoshi Ina, who was born in the camp, read a letter from the group.

KYOSHI INA: (Reading) Dear Mr. Wakasa, these flowers are for you. We thank you for a life well lived. We grieve your death.

HUTSON: Now descendants, survivors and the museum are trying to heal and move forward. Part of that is an evaluation of the stone and its original location by National Park Service archaeologists. It now sits on a wooden pallet in the corner of the museum's courtyard.

After the ceremony, the team started assessing the site. Eventually, they'll compile a report to help the two groups decide what to do with the monument. Nancy Ukai, who first found the map that led to the monument's discovery, says there's still a lot of healing to be done. But this day brings them one step closer.

UKAI: Healing means learning the truth about the land here, the artifact, the archaeology. And meeting people and working together to learn that is a form of healing.

HUTSON: Ukai says this was the first step in consecrating a sacred place, and that, too, is a way to heal. For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.