Hikers rediscover remains of Manzanar man

Recent find sparks interest in unique piece of Southern Sierra history

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Hikers rediscover remains of Manzanar manHuman remains discovered by hikers last October on Mount Williamson — the second tallest mountain in California, after nearby Mount Whitney — brings back to the surface the story of a Japanese American interned at Manzanar during World War II who perished in the nearby wildness.

While the update provides insight into a story that has become a part of Eastern Sierra lore, the development also got national attention when it was publicized by the Los Angeles Times and other national periodicals over the weekend.

Manzanar, now a National Historic Site, was once the location of the forced confinement of more than 11,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent in the 1940s.

Located just a few miles north of Lone Pine on Highway 395, Manzanar was one of 10 internment camps in the U.S. Today, it is maintained by those dedicated to preserving the integrity of the site and its unique place in our history. The site attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year.

In 1942 the Matsumura family of Santa Monica were among the Japanese Americans rounded up and relocated to Manzanar. On July 29, Giichi Matsumura, then 46, joined a group of fishermen on a trip up to the high mountain lakes near Mount Williamson.

According to the historical records preserved at Manzanar, Matsumura had taken up painting as a hobby during his time at the camp. He decided on Aug. 2 to break away from the group to find a spot where he could paint. A sudden storm overtook the area while Matsumura was separated from the group. After the storm subsided, other members of the expedition could find no sign of him. Finally they set back toward the camp in hopes that he had returned on his own.

However, upon their return, they still had no sign of him. Friends and family reportedly obtained permission from the War Relocation Authority to organize search parties for Matsumura, but those were ultimately unsuccessful.

In a 2018 interview, Matsumura’s daughter Kazue, who was 10 years old at the time of her father’s disappearance, told staff of the National Park Service that her mother, Ito, “was really scared… I felt sorry for my mom, you know. She couldn’t eat or anything… And her hair, it turned white when we couldn’t find him. She had black hair and it turned white all of a sudden.”

Historical records and personal recollections indicate that early on, people would occasionally sneak out of the camp to go fishing or pursue other activities. However, by the time Matsumura’s party ventured out, the government’s exclusion orders had been lifted.

The Matsumuras, like many families incarcerated during the war, had no home or business to return to and so they continued living in Manzanar until the government shut the camp down permanently.

On Sept. 3, 1945, Mary and Paul DeDecker from nearby Independence located Matsumura’s body near Sixth Lake in the Williamson Bowl. A few days later Manzanar Project Director Ralph P. Merritt authorized a party of six to hike to the area in order to bury Matsumura. Ito Matsumura sent a sheet with the burial party to cover her husband’s body.

“They had to leave him there,” Kazue said. “But you know, you couldn’t bring him down from there because it’s too high.” After Matsumara was laid to rest in the Williamson Bowl, the Buddhist Church held a funeral for him at Manzanar.

The following month the Matsumura family returned to the home they had left three years earlier. Now a single parent, Ito had to rely on other family members to share their house with her and her four children — Masaru, Tsutomu, Uwao, and Kazue.

Kazue recalled that her mother worked two or three jobs at a time to keep the family going. “She worked really hard. That’s why I took care of my mom until she died… She sacrificed for us, so I sacrificed for her.”

At the request of Ito, the family returned to Manzanar a few times after the war. During these visits, they lamented not being able to visit Giichi’s grave.

“That was very hard,” Kazue remembered, “because it’s so high and we can’t get up there. And to this day, it seems like he’s not passed away. It seems like he’s gone someplace, because I didn’t see his body.”

The story of Matsumura’s disappearance and death have been recounted for decades in the Owens Valley and beyond and are remembered by many in the Indian Wells Valley as well (including by the publisher of this newspaper, a resident of our valley since 1941).

His burial location was even included in the Manzanar section of Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra and in several National Park Service publications and exhibits. “We have always wanted to respect his family’s privacy for the tragedy they endured near the end of their three- year incarceration, being so close to leaving camp,” said Manzanar Superintendent Bernadette Johnson.

The site where Matsumura’s body was discovered was rocky, and so his grave was marked partly by a pile of rocks. Backcountry expects speculate that weather, erosion and other natural influences may have partially uncovered his cairn, leading to the recent discovery.

Several attempts to recover the remains following their recent rediscovery were delayed by extreme weather conditions, noted officials from the ICSO. However, recovery operations were ultimately successful on Oct. 16.

The U.S. Department of Justice administered DNA tests on the remains to confirm Matsumura’s identification.

“After 74 years, we were quite shocked when we heard about a hiker finding his grave a few months ago, and we hope that his family will have some closure and peace now that a positive identification has been made by the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office,” said Johnson.

“At Manzanar National Historic Site, the National Park Service preserves stories of the Japanese American incarceration and cares for related historic and cultural resources,” said a spokesperson. “The public is reminded that these important historic resources are federally protected and should not be disturbed.”

Pictured: Giichi Matsumura

Story First Published: 2020-01-10