Skeletal remains discovered by hikers near Mount Williamson on Oct. 7 could be that of a Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp prisoner who disappeared July 29, 1945, while hiking in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Associated Press reported.
In the closing days of World War II, a man from Manzanar had joined other Japanese American inmates on a fishing trip to Mount Williamson, where the group encountered a freak summer snowstorm and that person went missing, said Cory Shiozaki, director of the documentary, “The Manzanar Fishing Club.”
The fishing trips began during the first two years of the war when some of the Nikkei prisoners at Manzanar began sneaking out at night, evading the spotlight from a guard tower manned by soldiers with machine guns, said Shiozaki. The fishermen would return to camp with big trout caught in the streams and lakes around California’s second-highest peak (elevation 14,374 feet).
Unlike the early years of the war, security at Manzanar was lax in late 1945, following the United States Supreme Court ruling on Dec. 18, 1944, in favor of Mitsuye Endo, who had challenged the government’s relocation orders, according to Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project. The court declared that the War Relocation Authority had no right to detain citizens who were deemed to be loyal. Therefore, “loyal” Japanese Americans were allowed to return to the West Coast from Jan. 2, 1945.
Shiozaki, a Gardena, Calif. resident, told Nichi Bei Weekly over the telephone that while conducting research for the film, he found that on Aug. 2, 1945, Amos Hashimoto, a fisherman from Terminal Island, was set to take the fishing enthusiasts on an excursion to the other side of Mount Williamson.
“One person who wanted to join the party was Giichi Matsumura, an Issei fisherman and an artist,” Shiozaki said. “Amos discouraged him because Giichi wasn’t in such good shape. It’s a very difficult hike to get up there. But Giichi was very persistent, so Amos let him come along.”
Upon arrival at their targeted area, Matsumura chose to do some painting while the others went fishing, Shiozaki related. The anglers were to meet after fishing to return to Manzanar. “During that time, a sudden snowstorm broke out … a complete whiteout. The main group that followed Amos took refuge in a cave.”
After the snowstorm, when Matsumura hadn’t returned, the group searched the immediate snow-covered area but couldn’t locate him, Shiozaki said. “They assumed that he must have gone back to camp. When the fishing group got back to Manzanar, they learned Giichi hadn’t returned yet. Days later, two search parties made up of fishermen and others went back up the mountain and found a sweater. They brought it back to Manzanar, where his wife identified the sweater as being Giichi’s.”
One month after Matsumura’s disappearance, two hikers from nearby Independence discovered his remains and contacted authorities. The Manzanar search party members went back up as a burial party. Because the body was in such a disintegrated and decayed condition that they couldn’t carry it back down, they buried Matsumura in the mountains, Shiozaki continued. “They covered him up with rocks and created a card with a prayer pasted on to the grave site in typical Japanese fashion, and they got his fingernail and hair clippings and brought those back for his wife. They had a funeral service at camp for Giichi.”
The camp’s newspaper, The Manzanar Free Press, reported in a front page story on Sept. 8, 1945, that Matsumura, a 46-year-old gardener from Santa Monica, left behind a wife, a daughter, three sons, a brother and his father, all living at the Manzanar camp, about 225 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Matsumura’s wife, Ito, was 102 when she died in 2005, the Associated Press reported. The last of their children, Masaru, died over the summer at 94, according to his son, Wayne Matsumura.
If the bones turn out to be those of his grandfather, Wayne said, there is already a place for them: In a corner of Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, where his grandmother is buried, a black granite headstone bears her name and that of her long-lost husband.
Over the past decades, this slice of Nikkei history and the location of Matsumura’s burial had been long forgotten. Now, 74 years later, his remains may have finally been rediscovered. On Oct 7, a hiker from Escondido, San Diego County, found a skeleton near a lake.
The Inyo County Sheriff’s Office stated in a news release that due to the remote location, difficult terrain and high winds, aerial support was required in order to transport a Sheriff’s Office Investigator. After several attempts, on Oct. 16 with help from the California Highway Patrol, the remains were successfully transported to the Lone Pine Airport where custody was transferred to the Inyo County Coroner.
The Inyo County Sheriff’s Office does not have any missing persons reports connected to this location, and based on the condition of the remains, it is believed that the body may have been in this area for quite some time — perhaps decades. No foul play is suspected. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carma Roper said investigators will conduct DNA tests on the bones, a process that could take 60 to 120 days.
Anyone with information connected to a missing individual in the Mount Williamson area is encouraged to call the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office at (760) 878-0383; option 4.
Shiozaki, who has researched facts regarding the discovery of the bones found on Mount Williamson, stated, “In my opinion, based upon the location of the remains, it’s very strongly pointing to the possibility that the remains were of the lost fisherman.”
Act of Resistance
Bruce Embrey, son of Manzanar Committee co-founder Sue Kunitomi Embrey, said in a phone interview, “As soon as we heard the story, we assumed that Giichi Matsumura’s body had been discovered again. I think there’s a good chance to say that’s who it is.”
“Clearly from our perspective, it was an act of resistance,” Embrey said of the people who sneaked out of Manzanar to go fishing. “They were pretty brave individuals to sneak out under the barbed wire. There were guard towers and machine guns and there were armed guards, and there were people who got shot.”
When Matsumura disappeared in July 1945, the tension at Manzanar was much less because the war was winding down, the community activist noted. “But in 1942-43, it was very tense, and there were general strikes, resistance at Manzanar, Tule Lake and different camps … and at Heart Mountain you had draft resisters.”
Violence against the incarcerees was “not uncommon at Manzanar, especially following the rebellion of Dec. 6, 1942, when Harry Ueno led protests to get justice … and to stop the theft of their food rations,” Embrey said. “Two men were shot and killed, and following that rebellion it was quite brave of them to actually try to assert that they were human beings entitled to some basic rights like freedom of movement, freedom to go fishing when they wanted to go fishing.”
Manzanar had a resistance culture, Embrey added. “I think that contributed to these guys going fishing. They were willing to resist and say, ‘Hell with your barbed wire! We’re gonna do what we believe we should be entitled to do.’”