By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Shojiro Yamashita was born in the Heart Mountain World War II Japanese American Confinement Center at Powell, Park County, Wyoming.
Yamashita’s family went back to Japan after the war, but Shojiro returned to America for college. A year later, he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Cambodia.
Six months later, the tank he was driving was blown up. Shojiro’s body was never found, just his dog tags and some bone fragments.
Shojiro’s is one of more than 1,670 names on Wyoming’s newest statewide memorial, the Fallen Veterans Memorial, which is being unveiled at 2 p.m. Saturday in Casper.
The newly placed wall has the name of every Wyoming resident who has died in combat dating back to the Spanish-American war.
Eventually, organizers hope to add QR codes that will allow people to look up each name, to see a bit of history on the person’s military service.
Shojiro’s was just one of hundreds of names that stuck out to Ray Wulf, who spent hours researching and verifying each name on the wall to ensure that every Wyoming resident who has died in combat is represented.
His painstaking search resulted in finding 55 overlooked names from the U.S. Navy, who had been listed as missing at sea rather than killed in action.
“A lot of the Navy losses hadn’t been counted, because they weren’t ‘killed in action,’” Dean Welch told Cowboy State Daily.
Welch, a veteran and former post commander of the American Legion in Casper, spearheaded efforts to raise the new wall.
“It seems like they didn’t come back, so I think they were pretty much killed in action,” he said.
Welch said the idea for the new wall came about when he was asked a puzzling question. Why was Casper’s memorial wall so hard to find, and could it be moved?
“It wasn’t mine to move,” Welch said.
‘A Man Dies Twice’
But he did check into the history of the wall. Ultimately, he learned that the city of Casper owned it. But even some at the city were largely unaware of the wall’s location.
A committee was formed to look at moving the wall to a more visible location. Ultimately, they settled on designing a new wall with a more visible location.
Welch put in for grant funding and received a $30,000 award from AARP.
“It’s the largest grant AARP has ever given to Wyoming,” Welch said, adding that building the new wall in Casper has deep, personal meaning.
“The old saying is that a man dies twice,” Welch said. “He dies once when he stopped breathing, and a second time when people stop saying his name.”
Welch knows some of the people whose names are on the wall and hopes their names will always be remembered and spoken.
“They gave all they had,” he said. “They left and hoped to come back to their families, and that didn’t happen. We need to make sure that their names are always remembered.”
Aftermath Of 9/11
Among the names of people on the wall who Welch knew personally is Robert Lucero.
“Robert was actually the first Wyoming Army National Guard person killed in Iraq when the Iraq War started,” Welch said. “That was back in 2003. He and I served together.”
Right after 9/11, the National Guard was called up to help secure all the airports in the nation. Lucero and Welch were in charge of the security detail at Casper International Airport.
“He was the officer in charge, and I was a senior enlisted in charge,” Welch recalled. “So, we worked together for about a year and a half.”
Not long after that, Lucero was called up with the Fort Infantry Division of the Wyoming Army National Guard to deploy to Iraq in 2003.
“We went out and watched them ship off, and got on the bus to say goodbye to them,” Welch said.
Unfortunately, Lucero, while on patrol searching some buildings, happened across a box. It was a plain box that seemed innocuous. Without thinking, he opened it. An IED exploded, killing him instantly and wounding his partner, who lived.
“I remember getting the phone call at 3 a.m. in the morning from the state sergeant major telling me that Robert had been killed,” Welch said. “We were good friends, and he knew that, so he called to let me know.”
Lucero was just 37. He was married, but didn’t have any children.
Say The Names
“Every time I read the name off this banner, or I go out to the Veterans Cemetery in Evansville, I stop by and talk to him,” Welch said. “You don’t want to ever top saying their name. That way they’re not forgotten.”
Welch remembers Lucero as dedicated and very patriotic.
“He volunteered to go over as soon as they were asking for volunteers for deployment,” Welch said.
He was also an avid hunter and loved to spend time outdoors in Wyoming.
“He was a great guy,” Welch said. “Even after we weren’t doing airport security, we still hung out, even though there was quite the age difference.”