Lost to mountain, Japanese internee’s bones return home
SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) — When Giichi Matsumura arrived at his final resting place in late December, the people who knew him best when he disappeared from a Japanese internment camp in 1945 already were there.
His wife, Ito, who had mourned his passing for 60 years before her death in 2005, was buried in the same plot, as was his daughter, Kazue, who died in 2018. His father, Katsuzo, who died in 1963, was nearby. His brother and two of his three sons were a short walk away, all buried in the shady, grassy haven of Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.
They last saw Giichi alive in the waning days of World War II at the Manzanar internment camp, one of 10 where the U.S. government held more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent for more than three years, claiming without evidence they might betray America in the war.
In the summer of 1945, Matsumura hiked from camp into the nearby Sierra Nevada, the rugged spine of California, and never returned. His remains were committed to a lonely mountainside grave left to the elements.
His journey home, 75 years in the making, only happened after a hiker bound for the summit of Mount Williamson, a massive peak overshadowing Manzanar, veered off route near a lake and spotted a skull in the rocks. He and his partner uncovered a full a skeleton under granite blocks.
It was 2019, and the duty to bring him back fell to a granddaughter born decades after he died.
Lori Matsumura never expected to play that role. She knew of her grandfather’s unfortunate death, but it wasn’t something she often thought about.
Then an Inyo County sheriff’s sergeant phoned and asked for a DNA sample to see if the unearthed bones belonged to her grandfather, the only Manzanar prisoner who died in the mountains.
“It was a complete surprise when I received a call from the sheriff,” Lori said. “There were stories my grandmother told me about her husband passing on the mountain. They were stories to me, and it wasn’t reality. But then when the sheriff called it, you know, brought it into reality.”
That conversation set her on the first step of a mission to reunite her ancestors, a journey that awakened her to a history she had largely seen through a child’s eyes, the edges softened by a generation more inclined to look forward than dwell in the past. Stories that once seemed rosy lost their bloom when faced with the harsh landscape where her relatives spent more than three years in captivity.
Until the U.S. entered WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Giichi Matsumura and his family lived what seemed like a quiet life in the leafy oasis of Santa Monica Canyon, a retreat for artists and stars of old Hollywood.
Born in the Fukui prefecture on the coast of the Sea of Japan, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1916, arriving in San Francisco on a steam ship with a single bag. His father already was there and they worked as gardeners and lived on property owned by the Marquez family, Mexican land grant owners of an area that became parts of Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
Giichi’s wife, Ito, arrived from Kyoto in 1924, according to U.S. Census records. The couple had four children born in the U.S.: sons Masaru, Tsutomo and Uwao, and a daughter, Kazue, the youngest. Kazue, Lori’s aunt, recalled a fun childhood in an interview by Rose Masters, a ranger with the Manzanar National Historic Site, a few months before her death in 2018.
Her mother would pull her in a wagon to play at the beach. She remembers seeing the actor Leo Carrillo, later known as sidekick Pancho to TV’s “The Cisco Kid,” doing lasso tricks.
Giichi Matsumura, who signed up for the World War I draft, registered again on Feb. 14, 1942. Five days later, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that would force people of Japanese descent on the West Coast into prison camps in waves.
Under an April 20, 1942 order, the Matsumura family had about a week to leave their life in the canyon behind.
Kazue, who wasn’t even aware there was a war, recalled her experience as a 7-year-old.
Her father had to give away his car and they were only allowed to bring a single suitcase to camp.
She had been excited about taking a bus trip, but the novelty after a long ride from LA through the desert along the dramatic eastern flank of the Sierra quickly faded when they arrived at Manzanar.
“I noticed it was all dirt,” she said. “Nothing there. Like a desert.”
Manzanar, which means apple orchard in Spanish, quickly became home to 10,000 people of Japanese descent — two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens — living in hundreds of cramped, tar-paper covered barracks.
The family would have shared a barrack with four to six other families, each unit separated only by a thin wall that did not extend to the pitched roof. There was little privacy.
The shacks were so poorly built that frequent winds blew sand through the cracks in walls and floors. There was no insulation, making scorching summers intolerable and frigid winters unbearable.
Giichi Matsumura worked as a cook. In his spare time, he painted watercolors, capturing the guard tower, barracks and Mount Williamson, the second-highest peak in California.
His eldest son, Masaru, Lori’s father, had been about to graduate from high school when they were imprisoned. Instead, he had to wait until the next spring when he was in the internment camp’s first graduating class.
Lori remembers her father talking about the camp’s most infamous incident when guards shot into a crowd of people, killing two and injuring nine.
But she doesn’t know much about his time there. He didn’t like to discuss it.
What she knew came mostly from her grandmother and Aunt Kazue, who lived together across the street, stories about squashing scorpions on the way to the bathroom using geta — elevated wooden sandals.
Lori Matsumura always meant to visit Manzanar. But she’s not sure she would have made the more than three-hour drive north from Los Angeles.
Now she had to go.
A few weeks after the sheriff’s call, she and her boyfriend, Thomas Storesund, drove to the station in Lone Pine where she gave an oral swab for DNA. They then drove a few miles north where the National Park Service operates the camp as a sort of living museum.
The sentry house still stands at the entrance. A replica of one of the eight guard towers looms overhead and replica barracks, a latrine and a mess hall recreate what the camp looked like, minus hundreds of other structures crammed into a square mile of high desert surrounded by barbed wire.
The buildings display vestiges of life in camp and some of the many indignities experienced, such as the loyalty questionnaire adults had to complete.
“How could something like this happen in America?” Lori thought.
But she wasn’t struck by the gravity of her family’s loss until she visited where they had lived.
Standing near a sign for Block 18, Matsumura looked out at an inhospitable barren patch of scraggly rabbitbrush, fiddleneck weed and a row of barren locust trees. She was filled with sorrow.
“I was blown away by how desolate the place was,” she said. “Seeing it in person made it so sad for me. I don’t think I could have survived that.”
For the first time, Matsumura felt a connection to the place her family lived. She was walking in their footsteps. It was now real.
While the buildings were gone, one reminder stood out: Mount Williamson standing at 14,374 feet (4,381 meters) to the west. It was the site of her grandfather’s first grave.
Giichi Matsumura left camp July 29, 1945 heading toward that peak with a group of trout fishermen for a several-day outing. He planned to sketch and paint.
Prisoners had been free to leave camp six months earlier, but about 4,000 internees remained. Many, like the Matsumuras, had nowhere to go or feared racist reprisals in places they once called home.
Ito Matsumura didn’t want her husband to go on the trip. She forbade him from taking his art supplies because she feared he would stop to paint and get lost, Lori’s Aunt Kazue recalled.
It takes at least a full day to ascend about 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) to reach the chain of lakes where they were destined. The trail eventually ends and hikers must navigate a forbidding jumble of granite in the thin air at the high altitude.
On Aug. 2, Matsumura stopped to paint as others fished.
When a storm blew in, the fishermen, who had been there before, knew where to shelter in a cave, said Don Hosokawa, whose father, Frank, was on the trip. The men couldn’t find Giichi after the storm and returned to camp, hoping he headed there.
Exactly what happened to Giichi Matsumura remains unknown. Aunt Kazue said she heard her father slipped on wet rocks and hit his head. Don Hosokawa said the body was later found next to a bloody rock.
His disappearance came four days before the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that would hasten the Japanese surrender.
Three search parties looked for him in the following weeks. They found only his sweater.
About a month after he was lost, a hiker from nearby Independence was trying to summit Mount Williamson with her husband and a friend, but rain ruined their plans. They stopped for lunch, and Mary DeDecker, a botanist, noticed a branch in the rocks below, which struck her as unusual because trees don’t grow at that altitude.
A closer look revealed a body.
A small burial party from camp made a last trip into the mountains, carrying a sheet from Ito Matsumura to wrap her husband in. They buried him under granite and affixed a simple piece of paper to a block to mark the grave. In Japanese characters, it gave his name, age and said, “Rest in Peace.”
The group returned with locks of his hair and nail clippings, a Buddhist tradition for a body that couldn’t be returned.
About 150 people attended a funeral ceremony back at the camp. A photo by Toyo Miyatake, famous for documenting Manzanar life, shows mourners in dark suits and dresses behind a wall of crepe paper flowers.
Aunt Kazue lamented that it was difficult never having seen her father’s corpse or his gravesite.
“To this day it seems like he’s not passed away,” she said. “It seems like he’s gone some place because I don’t see his body.”
At the Manzanar cemetery, where a tall white obelisk is often decorated with chains of origami cranes left by visitors, a sign says 150 people died at camp. Most were cremated and their ashes buried after their families left camp. One man, Giichi Matsumura, the sign says, died exploring the Sierra and “is buried high in the mountains above you.”
That sign will have to be changed.
The gravesite was not widely known so it initially appeared to be a mystery when hikers unearthed it Oct. 7, 2019. Officers from Inyo County Sheriff’s Office flew by helicopter to retrieve the remains.
When word reached rangers and historians at Manzanar, they had a hunch who it was.
“It wasn’t a huge mystery,” Ranger Patricia Biggs told Lori Matsumura in February last year. “We would have been amazed if it wasn’t your grandfather.”
Sgt. Nate Derr had called Matsumura for a DNA sample because she was listed at the historic site as a contact person for her aunt. It took about three months for the Department of Justice to match her DNA with a tooth from the remains to positively identify her grandfather.
Derr notified her in January last year. Then she had to decide what to do with the bones.
Manzanar wouldn’t allow her grandfather to be buried in the small cemetery where only six bodies, interred when the camp was operating, remain. His bones also couldn’t be returned to the mountain.
The thought of scattering his ashes at one of those places held some appeal. Although it’s illegal to scatter ashes on public lands, Lori said she was told by one official that no one would stop her.
But it was unlikely her family would trek up the mountain for a burial service and returning him to a place he’d been captive seemed in poor taste.
After consulting her siblings and cousins, they decided he should be cremated and laid to rest with his wife. His name was already on the grave marker, his toenail clippings and hair buried with her.
Lori had to sign paperwork amending the death certificate from a burial to a cremation. And she wanted to view the remains.
On Presidents Day last year, she and other family members went to the small city of Bishop, about 45 minutes north of Manzanar, to Brune Mortuary, which is also the county coroner’s office.
Coroner Jason Molinar began to lead Lori and her niece, Lilah, from his office to a private viewing room when Lori halted in the doorway to reassure the 11-year-old, who was scared.
“They’re just his bones. That’s all it is,” Lori told the girl.
Laid on a sheet-covered gurney were the remains of the grandfather she’d never met.
The skeleton was roughly arranged in order. The skull was bleached white, most likely from sun exposure. The ribs, spine and joints were stained a shade of brown.
Molinar pointed to a coil of fishing line, the remains of a rusty pocket knife and two buttons found with the bones. A pair of shoes and belt he had worn were next to his lower leg bones.
It was remarkable to find the body 99% intact, Molinar said, a testament to a good burial in a climate where the remains were probably encased in snow and ice much of the year and undisturbed by people or critters.
“The crazy part is the fact that it’s this well-preserved,” he said. “Usually after this many years, you just find fragments.”
Lori made a video call to her sister, Lisa Reilly, who lives in San Francisco and couldn’t make the trip.
“Do you want to see Grandpa’s bones?” she asked.
She then turned the camera to the skeleton and artifacts. She paused at the skull and pointed out the sutures, the fine cracks where the bones of the skull are joined that had begun to separate from exposure. The cracks had led the hikers to speculate on social media about foul play.
Lori and her niece stood with their hands clasped in prayer and heads bowed. They prayed he would rest in peace and be reunited with his family.
After the viewing, they went to Manzanar to donate the shoes, belt, fishing line and knife, to be put on display.
As Biggs looked at the weather-beaten shoes and withered belt, she was almost overcome with emotion.
“I just want to have a moment,” the ranger said. “Out of respect. Wow. It’s amazing to me the things that last forever and the things that don’t.”
In a guest book, Lori’s nephew, Lukas, 9, wrote: “We are bringing you home Great Grampa Giichi Matsumura. We love you.”
Two weeks later, Lori retrieved the ashes.
Lost once and found twice, it was now time to properly bury Giichi Matsumura.
On Dec. 21, Lori, her brothers, Wayne and Clyde, along with Clyde’s wife, Narumol, and two children brought his ashes to a burial service at Woodlawn, which is a block from where they grew up.
The Rev. Shumyo Kojima, a Buddhist priest, assembled a small altar with a framed photo of Giichi Matsumura in front of the box containing his remains.
“He moved from the high Sierra to here. All of you are eyewitnesses,” Kojima said. “This is a kind of house-warming party. So, everyone will be here to celebrate his new residence.”
Kojima lit incense and picked up a bell that he rang at different intervals as he chanted ancient sutras, bowing repeatedly.
Each family member stepped forward to sprinkle incense in a burner while Kojima chanted.
Kojima showed a document from the Zenshuji Buddhist Temple that recorded memorial services Ito held for her husband on important milestone anniversaries over the years. It showed how she kept thinking about him, the priest said.
Three cemetery workers then moved the altar to reveal a hole in the ground. One of them placed the box of ashes in the shallow grave.
As the interwoven threads of incense smoke drifted northeast — the direction of Manzanar — the family members each took a turn dropping a shovel full of dirt on the box.
The grave-diggers finished the job and placed a bouquet of white flowers on the grass. Kojima sprinkled water over the grave for purification.
Lori Matsumura wished the hikers hadn’t disturbed the grave. She imagined it was a beautiful setting in mountains her grandfather admired.
Yet she was satisfied he was back with those who loved him.
“His body is laid to rest with everyone, so it’s kind of just closed the chapter on my dad and his siblings and parents,” she said.
She only regretted they weren’t alive to see it.