Japanese-American soldier kept quiet about World War II heroics
By Jack Broom | The Seattle Times | Published: May 23, 2014
Fifty years is a long time to keep a secret. But that’s what Roy Matsumoto was instructed to do, so that’s what he did.
For decades, he seldom said anything about World War II at all, said his daughter, Karen Matsumoto, of Bainbridge Island.
He didn’t talk about his time in “Merrill’s Marauders,” a U.S. Army unit that worked behind enemy lines in Burma in a high-risk campaign that suffered heavy casualties.
He didn’t talk about how he was credited with saving hundreds of his fellow American soldiers with actions as bold and resourceful as barking out orders in Japanese to mislead Japanese soldiers.
Nor did he talk about the hand grenade he had carried, which he intended to use on himself if captured, to make sure enemy forces couldn’t torture him into giving out information that could jeopardize not just his American comrades but his relatives still living in Japan.
And he certainly didn’t talk about the information he was instructed to keep secret, his work with the U.S. Military Intelligence Service, which included assisting with the interrogation of Japanese prisoners after the war.
“Sometimes, I would think, ‘Could I really be his daughter?’ I can’t keep a secret for more than a couple of days,” said Karen Matsumoto, 60, who teaches at a Suquamish tribal school.
On April 21, less than two weeks shy of his 101st birthday, Roy Matsumoto, a much-decorated master sergeant and linguistic specialist, died in his sleep at his San Juan Island home.
Although his voice has been stilled, it also has been preserved, thanks to a collaboration between Karen Matsumoto and Bainbridge Island documentary producers Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers.
Their 28-minute video, “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story,” airs at 7 p.m. Sunday on KCTS Channel 9, an expanded version of a 17-minute video first released several years ago.
“Roy’s story was too fantastic to believe,” Sellers said. “You couldn’t make it up ... and yet it was all true.”
He and Ostrander have worked with Karen Matsumoto to record a number of oral histories from Bainbridge Island’s Japanese-American residents.
Roy Matsumoto’s story is unique, but it sheds light on the difficulties faced by 120,000 American residents of Japanese descent who were forced out of their West Coast homes and held in relocation camps during World War II under an order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At the start of the war, Matsumoto was living in Southern California, delivering groceries, and many of his customers were Japanese immigrant families. After Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Matsumoto was among some 16,000 men, women and children taken to a camp in Jerome, Ark.
Some in the camps were told they could get out if they went into the U.S. military, and many fought valiantly to protect the country that had imprisoned them.
Matsumoto’s personal history made him a significant asset to the U.S. Army. He was born in the U.S. but lived part of his youth in Japan, and attended schools in both countries.
He was among a dozen men of Japanese background to join a 3,000-man volunteer unit under Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill to work behind enemy lines to disrupt Japanese supply and communication lines. The unit would be cut off from other Allied forces and a high casualty rate was expected.
In the video, Matsumoto tells of finding a wire strung in a tree. “We just got there so it couldn’t be ours,” he said. He climbed the tree and used a telephone handset to tap into the line, discovering it was used by Japanese combat units. From the conversation, he was able to learn the location of a Japanese ammunition dump that his battalion then found and destroyed.
In the jungle and rugged terrain, with dwindling supplies, Matsumoto and his fellow soldiers were exhausted, hungry, weak.
“Eventually, we were going to be wiped out. That’s what we thought,” he said.
One night, after creeping close to a Japanese camp, he overheard soldiers discussing a plan to attack his battalion at dawn. He alerted his superiors, who had the unit move to a higher, more defensible position from which they turned back the Japanese assault.
Karen Matsumoto said the dialect in which Japanese soldiers had been discussing their plans was one that her father had heard years earlier while delivering groceries to Japanese immigrants in Los Angeles.
After the war, Roy Matsumoto remained in the Army until 1963, and later worked for the U.S. Postal Service, and as a handyman. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Kimiko, another daughter, Fumi Matsumoto of Juneau, Alaska, and three grandchildren.
Karen Matsumoto, who narrates the video, said she knew little of her father’s war service until she was 30 and in graduate school. That’s when someone told her about a fictionalized account of Merrill’s Marauders that included a character called Matsumoto.
Following up, she found a number of references to her father in historic accounts of his Merrill’s Marauders.
She learned that of the original 3,000 members of the marauders, only about 200 survived the five-month mission.
Getting her father to talk about it was a gradual process, and he continued to keep his silence about his military-intelligence work.
Among the many honors and commendations bestowed on her father are the Legion of Merit, the Congressional Gold Medal and inductions into both the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame and the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.
A memorial potluck in his honor is set for noon Monday at the Brickworks in Friday Harbor.
Friday Harbor also is hosting its annual Memorial Day Parade on Spring Street at 10 a.m., one of many Memorial Day events around Western Washington.
Karen Matsumoto admires her father’s military service and his devotion to the U.S., even though, over the years, their politics didn’t mesh — he was conservative and she, a liberal.
“We were like this sometimes,” she said, knocking her fists together.
Among those who have confirmed her father’s accomplishments is Robert Passanisi, a historian for the Merrill’s Marauders Association.
“Roy Matsumoto’s service with Merrill’s Marauders was the one thing that spelled the difference between success and failure,” he said in an obituary on Matsumoto published in Military Times. “Every marauder knows that if it wasn’t for Ranger Roy Matsumoto, fewer, if any, marauders would have returned from North Burma.”