In October 2019, two hikers were making their way to the top of a soaring peak in the Sierra Nevada when they stumbled upon a well-preserved skeleton still wearing its belt and boots.
After several failed attempts to retrieve the remains from the remote heights of Mount Williamson, authorities recovered the skeleton and transported it to the coroner of Inyo County, California. Now, officials have revealed that with the help of DNA analysis, they were able to identify the remains as those of Giichi Matsumura, one of 11,000 Japanese-Americans interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Center during World War II.
According to Brian Melley of the Associated Press, investigators were not entirely surprised by the discovery, as they were already familiar with the story of Matsumura’s untimely death in the mountains. In July 1945, the 46-year-old set out for the lakes of the Sierra Nevada with a group of fishermen, report the Inyo County Sheriff and the Manzanar Historic Site, which is managed by the National Park Service, in a joint statement. Matsumura wanted to paint and sketch the scenic landscape—a hobby he had picked up during his time at the internment camp—and broke away from the rest of the group. This was the last time he was seen alive.
With little warning, a violent summer storm swept through the mountains. Matsumura’s companions were unable to find him after it had subsided. They returned to Manzanar, hoping the missing man had made his way back there, but he was nowhere to be found.
Matsumura, his wife Ito and their four children were among the approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent imprisoned in isolated camps during one of the more shameful chapters of American history. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order commanding the relocation of Japanese-Americans based in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona.
The order’s stated goal was preventing espionage on the West Coast, but as T.A. Frail points out for Smithsonian magazine, a naval intelligence officer reporting from Los Angeles in January 1942 found that fewer than three percent of Japanese-Americans were actually inclined toward spying. The group was perceived as a threat, he said, almost entirely “because of the physical characteristics of the people.”
The internment program proceeded in spite of this warning. Japanese-Americans forced to leave their houses, livelihoods and belongings were shipped to “relocation centers” in remote regions of the West and Arkansas. Here, families were packed into barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.
“The regime was penal: armed guards, barbed wire, roll call,” writes Frail. “Years later, internees would recollect the cold, the heat, the wind, the dust—and the isolation.”
By the time Matsumura went missing in the summer of 1945, restrictions at the Manzanar Relocation Center had lifted. Armed soldiers no longer manned the camp, according to Melley, and people were free to leave. But like many families who had been incarcerated during the war, the Matsumuras had no home or business to which they could return. They decided to stay at Manzanar.
Search parties organized to look for Matsumura failed to find him. His daughter Kazue, who was just 10 years old when her father disappeared, recalled the toll that this traumatic event took on her family, particularly her mother, in a 2018 oral history interview with the National Park Service.
“She couldn’t eat or anything,” said Kazue. “And her hair, it turned white when we couldn’t find him.”
Matsumura’s body was discovered near a lake on Mount Williamson in September 1945. Recovering the body was impossible—“[I]t’s too high,” Kazue said of the location—so a group of six people hiked up to the area to bury him. They placed stones over the body, topped with a granite column and a note detailing, in Japanese characters, Matsumura’s name and age.
Ito and her children soon returned to Santa Monica, where they had lived before the war. Now a single parent, Ito worked multiple jobs to support her family. She died in 2005, at the age of 102. According to Melley, she was buried with a lock of her husband’s hair.
For some 75 years, Matsumura’s remains stayed atop the mountain, too far for his family to reach. The recent unearthing of his skeleton marks “a bit of a rediscovery,” says Lori Matsumura, the granddaughter whose DNA was used to identify the remains, to Melley. “We knew where he was approximately because we knew the story of what happened. So we knew he was there.”
Bonnie Matsumura, another of Matsumura’s granddaughters, tells Maria Cramer of the New York Times that the family has not yet settled on burial arrangements for her grandfather.
But, she notes, “There is a place for him where my grandmother was buried.”