Hank Umemoto, a docent at the Manzanar Visitors Center and author of “Manzanar to Whitney: The Life and Times of a Lost Hiker,” passed away on Dec. 22. He was 91 years old.
Umemoto was a vivid chronicler of his teenage years spent in the wartime concentration camp. In his later life, he devoted considerable time and energy to preserving Manzanar and its stories.
He first recalled seeing Mt. Whitney as a teenager confined in Manzanar. The 14,505-foot mountain peak cast a shadow on his youth and symbolized freedom, beauty, and resilience. In his seventies, he would hike to the top of Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, more than 10 times.
“Manzanar to Whitney,” published in 2013, was widely praised for Umemoto’s engaging and often humorous prose.
Maggie Wittenburg, executive director of the Manzanar History Association, said, “With both grace and humor, Hank Umemoto tells stories of resilience, adventure, and courage.”
Speaking at the 2013 Manzanar Pilgrimage, Umemoto said, “Freedom is not something you should take for granted, it is something to work and fight for in our Nisei way.”
Umemoto was born in 1928 to immigrant grape farmers in Florin, a rural community near Sacramento. After his release from camp, he moved to Los Angeles, where he spent the first three and a half years living on Skid Row. After finishing high school, he worked to support himself and his mother while attending Los Angeles City College.
During the Korean War, he served overseas in the Army with the 38th Military Intelligence Service. After his discharge, he attended Cal State Los Angeles using funds from the GI Bill, then married, raised a family, and worked in a variety of trades and businesses.
His jobs included gardener, owner of a jewelry store, owner of a mail-order business, and insurance agent with Cal Western Life. He eventually started Presto Prints and remained in the printing business for 32 years, until his retirement in his mid-70s.
He is survived by his second wife, Chiyoko, and his children Karen Umemoto (Brian Niiya), of Los Angeles; Bruce Umemoto (Rahmah Mahmood) of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Jasmine Grace of Eugene, Oregon; and Skye Michelle Nakamura of Gardena; along with five grandchildren.
A Celebration of Life will be held on Saturday, Jan. 18, at 11:30 a.m. at Green Hills Memorial Park, 27501 S. Western Ave. in Rancho Palos Verdes.