A determined reporter and a series of scoops lead to the deeply reported story of a World War II internee and a woman’s journey to rebury a grandfather she never knew.
Los Angeles-based reporter Brian Melley, an avid outdoorsman, spotted an item in a Facebook mountaineering forum about a human skeleton unearthed near California’s second-highest peak. The posting led to a series of scoops by Melley that revealed the forgotten history of a victim of one of America’s great injustices.
In the fall of 2019 a hiker on his way to the summit of Mount Williamson spotted what looked like a human skull in the rocks. He and his partner began moving granite blocks and uncovered a full skeleton with a belt around its waist and foot bones in shoes that looked like the type worn by rock climbers. The sheriff’s department was notified and began investigating.
The initial news that the possible remains of a climber had been found had attracted attention throughout California. And Melley’s 2019 exclusive connecting the find to the internment of 110,000 people of Japanese descent became an international story published widely — it was matched by major news outlets. Melley, however, wasn't finished. With help from investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York, he persisted in tracking down family members of Giichi Matsumura, whose body had lain in the mountains for almost 75 years.
After some initial leads fell through, Melley eventually found Lori Matsumura, the granddaughter who provided the DNA that confirmed her grandfather’s identity. Melley was first with that news, which in turn led to a deeply reported narrative about her journey to rebury a man she never knew.
With trust firmly established, Lori offered to let Melley join her and other family members to view the remains at the coroner’s office before she had them cremated. He tagged along with a camera on President’s Day 2020, recording the viewing and the family’s subsequent visit to the former Manzanar internment camp.
The family finally held a small service in late December when Matsumura’s remains were interred in the plot of his wife, who had died in 2005, and daughter, who died in 2018, and near where his parents, siblings and other relatives also lie in Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, California, near where he had lived before being sent to the internment camp. A Buddhist priest told the six family members gathered for the ceremony that he now had found a new home with his loved ones. “He moved from the high Sierra to here. All of you are eyewitnesses,” this priest said. “This is a kind of house-warming party. So, everyone will be here to celebrate his new residence.” Besides relatives, the only others present were Melley and AP photographer Jae Hong.
Melley’s beautifully elegiac exclusive reveals how the family’s life in the U.S. was abruptly upended by the Japanese internment. The tragedy was compounded by the death of Giichi and the inability to give him a proper burial. It was Lori Matsumura who managed to bring him home 75 years later, reuniting three generations in the cemetery.
Photos by both Hong and Melley accompanied the story, with video shot by Melley and produced by Seattle’s Manuel Valdes.
For his determination to follow Giichi Matsumura’s narrative to conclusion, breaking news while telling one family’s poignant story, Melley wins AP’s Best of the States award.