LOS ANGELES (AP) — A skeleton found by hikers this fall near California’s second-highest peak was identified Friday as a Japanese American artist who had left the Manzanar internment camp to paint in the mountains in the waning days of World War II.
The Inyo County sheriff used DNA to identify the remains of Giichi Matsumura, who succumbed to the elements during a freak summer snow storm during a hiking trip with other members of the camp. Matsumura had apparently stopped to paint a watercolor while the other men, a group of anglers, continued toward a lake to fish.
His body wasn’t found for another month and the tragedy was overshadowed in the immediate days after his Aug. 2, 1945 disappearance when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb, hastening Japan’s surrender in the war. Matsumura was one of more than 1,800 detainees who died in the 10 prison camps in the West, though it’s one of the more unusual deaths.
While his burial in the mountains was well known among members of the camp and his family, the story faded over time and the location of the gravesite in a remote boulder-strewn area 12,000 feet above sea level was lost to time.
Lori Matsumura, the granddaughter who provided the DNA sample, was surprised when Sgt. Nate Derr of the Inyo County sheriff’s office contacted her to say they believed her grandfather’s remains had been discovered. After all, he had been found nearly 75 years ago and buried.
“It was a bit of a rediscovery,” she told The Associated Press. “We knew where he was approximately because we knew the story of what happened. So we knew he was there.”
As a girl, she was haunted by a photo her grandmother showed her of the pile of stones where her grandfather was buried beneath a small marker in the remote mountains.
“Once in a great while, she would bring it out and say, ’Oh, this is all they could bring of your grandfather.’ And my aunt would be, ‘No, don’t show her that picture,’” Matsumura said. “It did scare me. I’m like, ’Oh, my God, that’s my grandfather under there.’”
She grew up being told her grandfather was known as “the ghost of Manzanar.”
It was by accident on Oct. 7 that Tyler Hofer and a friend stumbled upon the remains on their way to the top of Mount Williamson. The two were slightly off course on a crude route through the rocks in a basin of lakes when Hofer looked down and saw what looked like a bone.
Earlier in the day, the men had discovered a pile of bones beneath Shepherd Pass, where a herd of migrating deer had plummeted to their death two years earlier on a steep, icy slope. At first, Hofer thought the bone was more animal remains, but upon closer inspection he realized it was a human skull.
Hofer and Brandon Follin moved the rocks and found an intact skeleton with a belt around its waist and leather shoes on the feet. The arms appeared to be crossed over the chest.
Hofer posted about his finding on a Facebook forum, describing inaccurately that the skull appeared to be fractured and the shoes were the type worn by rock climbers. He suggested it was a case of foul play.
When contacted by the AP, the sheriff’s office said there were no signs of a crime. They said it was a mystery, though, because they had searched records of missing reports going back decades and said no one was known to be lost in the area that would fit that description.
What officials didn’t say, though, was that by the time they had retrieved the bones by helicopter, they already had a hunch it might be Matsumura.
While his story was little known, it got renewed attention when “The Manzanar Fishing Club” documentary film came out in 2012. Director Cory Shiozaki told the story about intrepid prisoners who would escape from the camp at night and slip into the mountains to fish for trout — sometimes for weeks at a time.
A segment of the film on Matsumura’s death didn’t make the final cut. Still, Shiozaki often addressed the tragedy at the many screenings where he spoke, so the story became more broadly known.
In the final year of the war, the guard towers were no longer manned with armed soldiers and the men were able to leave the camp freely. A group of fishermen planned to hike to the chain of lakes in Williamson Bowl and Matsumura asked to tag along.
The trip leader didn’t want Matsumura, 46, to join them because he was older and not in great physical shape, Shiozaki said. When Matsumura insisted, the leader relented and the group of six to 10 men headed off July 29, 1945.
At some point in the long trek, Matsumura stopped to paint a water color and said he would catch up later with the others. A freak snowstorm blew in and the men retreated to a cave.
When the weather cleared, they fruitlessly searched for Matsumura. Three later search parties from the camp also failed to find him.
His decomposing remains were found a month after he was lost by hikers from the nearby town of Independence. Members from the camp then hiked back up to bury him in a mountainside grave. They brought back clippings of his hair and fingernails, a Buddhist tradition when a body can’t be returned, for a ceremony at the camp.
Rather than reopen an old wound in her family’s past, the finding has awakened interest in learning more about their story and time in the camp and sharing it with nephews and nieces, Lori Matsumura said.
Until she recently saw a photo of the search party, Lori Matsumura never knew her father, Masaru, had played a role in looking for his father.
Her father never talked about the experience and she now regrets not pressing him for more information. Like many who endured the hardship and humiliation of the one of the darkest chapters of U.S. history when more than 110,000 Japanese were herded into camps, Masaru Matsumura seemed bitter and rarely spoke of camp, Lori Matsumura said.
He had been close to graduating from high school when his family was sent to Manzanar and after his father’s death Masaru Matsumura had to be the primary breadwinner when they returned to Santa Monica. He had to take a job as gardener as his father had done.
His mother, widowed at 43, had to get a job cleaning houses for the wealthy in Beverly Hills. Giichi Matsumura’s wife Ito was 102 when she died in 2005. She was buried with a lock of her husband’s hair and his name on her gravestone.
Most of what Lori Matsumura knows of the camp came from her grandmother and an aunt who lived across the street from the little home where she grew up in Santa Monica.
Now that her curiosity has been sparked, Lori Matsumura has no one to ask about their experiences in camp or the impact of her grandfather’s death on the family. Her aunt died two years ago and her father died last summer at age 94, the last of his generation.
“It’s bittersweet because I wished I would have dug a little deeper and found out more stories from my dad,” she said. “He didn’t talk about it much. I wished I would have asked more questions.”