It’s a missing person story, ghost tale and tragedy of World War II all rolled into one. On August 2, 1945, during the waning days of the war, a Japanese painter, held in the Manzanar internment camp at the foot of the Sierra mountains in California, was allowed to join a fishing group heading up the mountain. While working separately from the fishermen, the painter was caught in a freak summer snowstorm and died. His remains were found a month later and buried on the spot … a spot that was then lost to his relatives and searchers. Ironically, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan while he was missing and he would have been freed. Instead, the ghost of Manzanar haunted the Sierra Mountains … until now.
“It was a bit of a rediscovery. We knew where he was approximately because we knew the story of what happened. So we knew he was there.”
In the fall of 2019, Lori Matsumura was contacted by Sgt. Nate Derr of the Inyo County sheriff’s office (Inyo County is in east central California between the Sierras and Nevada) and asked for a DNA sample. Why? According to the Associated Press, on October 7, 2019, Tyler Hofer and a friend found human remains beneath Shepherd Pass while hiking to the top of Mount Williamson. The remains included a skull and an intact skeleton wearing a belt and leather shoes with its arms folded. He posted the find on Facebook and the sheriff’s office retrieved the remains. The officers had a hunch that they might be the bones of Giichi Matsumura, the famous (in that area, at least) Ghost of Manzanar, so they contacted Lori, his granddaughter, for a DNA sample. (Photos of the site, Giichi Matsumura and Manzanar can be seen here.)
“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.’”
Lori Matsumura spent time with her grandmother, Ito Matsumura, before she died at the age of 102 in 2005. She was buried with a lock of her husband’s hair, which had been brought to her per Buddhist custom in 1945 by the men who found and buried her husband’s body because they could not bring it back. Her aunt and Ito’s daughter, Kazue, told her many stories of the “Ghost of Manzanar” to go with the photograph. She also told her tales of the American tragedy that was the Manzanar internment camp.
Shortly after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the construction of “relocation centers” or concentration or internment camps. Over 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were native-born American citizens, were eventually held prisoner in ten concentration camps located far inland and away from the coast. Manzanar was the first one opened and held 10,046 adults and children at its peak, including Giichi and Ito Matsumura and their son, Masaru, who was Lori’s father.
As the war neared its end, security became lax at the camps and prisoners often left for days at a time to fish. Eventually, there were no guard towers and they were free to leave the camp. With no place to go, the Matsumura stayed there. Kazue told Lori her grandfather was 46 at the time and not in great shape to hike the nearby lakes in Williamson Bowl, but a fishing group eventually allowed him to join … a decision that proved to be fatal for Matsumura. She later learned that her father, Masaru, was a member of the search parties that brought back clippings of his father’s hair and fingernails.
“I wished I would have dug a little deeper and found out more stories from my dad. He didn’t talk about it much. I wished I would have asked more questions.”
Lori says Masaru, who died last summer at the age of 94, never talked about the camp. She learned about it and her grandfather from her aunt, who is also deceased. The tragedy of the camps has only slowly become known to Americans. Weather conditions were harsh and living conditions were primitive – 146 Japanese Americans died at Manzanar. Giichi Matsumura died on the mountain because the U.S. took away his home. Lori Matsumura plans to publicize the discovery of his remains and his story, as well as that of the Manzanar internment camp so that her nieces and nephews and all Americans will know about it.
Perhaps now the Ghost of Manzanar will be able to rest in peace.