Hikers find skeleton of Japanese American who left internment camp

Remains found in October identified as Giichi Matsumura, who died in a freak snowstorm after he apparently stopped to paint

A 1945 photo provided by the Matsumura family via the National Park Service shows a memorial service for Giichi Matsumura. Photograph: AP

A skeleton found by hikers near California’s second-highest peak was identified on Friday as a Japanese American artist who left an internment camp to paint in the mountains in the last days of the second world war.

The Inyo county sheriff used DNA to identify the remains of Giichi Matsumura, who died in a freak summer snowstorm. Matsumura apparently stopped to paint a watercolor while other men from the camp continued toward a lake to fish.

Matsumura, who was interned at the Manzanar camp, was one of more than 1,800 detainees who died in 10 prison camps in the US west. His body was not found for a month. When it was found, it was buried, but over time, knowledge of his grave site in a remote and boulder-strewn area 12,000ft above sea level was lost.

Lori Matsumura, a granddaughter who provided a 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.

Giichi Matsumura during his incarceration at an internment camp in Manzanar, California, in an undated photo. Photograph: AP

“It was a bit of a rediscovery,” she said. “We knew where he was approximately because we knew the story of what happened. So we knew he was there.”

As a girl, she said, she was haunted by a photo her grandmother showed her of the pile of stones where her grandfather was buried beneath a small marker.

“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.’ It did scare me. I’m like: ‘Oh, my God, that’s my grandfather under there.”

Her aunt, Kazue, said her grandfather was known as “the ghost of Manzanar”.

“To this day, it seems like he’s not passed away,” Kazue, who died in 2017 at 83, told the Manzanar national historic site. “It seems like he’s gone someplace, because I didn’t see his body.”

On 7 October last year, two hikers stumbled upon the remains. Tyler Hofer and Brandon Follin were off course while on their way to the top of Mount Williamson when Hofer looked down and saw what looked like a bone.

Earlier, the men had discovered a pile of bones beneath Shepherd Pass, where a herd of deer fell to their deaths two years earlier. At first, Hofer thought the bone was from an animal. He then realized it was a human skull.

Hofer and Follin moved rocks and found an intact skeleton with a belt around its waist and leather shoes on its feet. Its arms appeared to be crossed over its chest.

Hofer posted his finding on a Facebook forum, writing 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.

The sheriff’s office said there were no signs of a crime and said it had searched missing reports going back decades and no one was known to be lost in the area that would fit the description.

This 1945 photo provided by the Matsumura family via the National Park Service shows the gravesite of Giichi Matsumura following his burial after he died on Mount Williamson. Photograph: AP

What officials did not say was that they had retrieved the bones by helicopter and already had a hunch they might belong to Matsumura.

While his story was little known, it got renewed attention when a documentary, The Manzanar Fishing Club, came out in 2012.

Director Cory Shiozaki told the story of prisoners who would escape from the camp at night and slip into the mountains to fish. A segment on Matsumura’s death did not make the final cut but Shiozaki often addressed the tragedy at screenings.

Lori Matsumura said the finding had awakened her interest in learning and sharing more about her family’s time in the camp.

Her father never talked about the experience, she said. Like many who endured the hardship and humiliation of one of the darkest chapters of US history, Masaru Matsumura seemed bitter.

Lori Matsumura’s grandmother, Ito Matsumura, was widowed at 43 and died at 102 in 2005. She was buried with a lock of her husband’s hair and his name on her gravestone.

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