As Fumi Matsumoto describes her late father, Roy Matsumoto, he wasn’t one to boast about the fish he caught in Southeast Alaska waters or his accolades during military service in World War II. Today, however, is the day to remember and honor Merrill’s Marauders and their bravery.
On Aug. 7, Gov. Sean Parnell proclaimed Aug. 10 to be WWII Merrill’s Marauders Day.
“Now, therefore, I... encourage Alaskans to honor and thank the approximately 50 living members of Merrill’s Marauders for their successes 70 years ago in the jungles of Burma, and to remember the many men who fought honorably and courageously and made the ultimate sacrifice for the highest cause – freedom,” reads the proclamation.
Roy Matsumoto was a Japanese-American born in Los Angeles in 1913. For many years, he would visit Juneau at Christmas and during the summers to fish into his 90s, Fumi said. She has lived in Alaska since 1979 and calls Juneau home. Her father died two weeks before his 101st birthday just after Easter Sunday this year. He lived just long enough to celebrate the achievements of Merrill’s Marauders one last time.
Fumi said she was 14 the first time she learned that her father was a war hero.
“Someone said, ‘Your father’s famous, there’s a picture and an article in the paper.’ They brought me the paper and there was a picture of dad, what he’d done as one of Merrill’s Marauders. He was a hero,” she said. “I had no idea.”
He enlisted in the U.S. Military in 1942 while held at an Internment Camp in Arkansas.
“Dad said he didn’t like being in camp. By joining the military, he could leave camp. He also wanted to prove he was a loyal American,” Fumi said. “He was a citizen, born in Los Angeles and always felt his loyalties were to America.”
He volunteered for a “hazardous mission” and joined Merrill’s Marauders, a group of about 3,000 American soldiers who operated deep behind Japanese lines in Burma.
Though he was born in Los Angeles, Roy returned to Japan for his education from 8 years old until high school. He learned Japanese and participated in the Japanese Reserve Officer Training Corps. He returned to the U.S. for high school and graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic School. He was proficient in both English and Japanese, and learned various Japanese dialects.
This training in his youth proved invaluable during his military service.
“The exact dialect he learned ... was used by the 18th Japanese Infantry at the time,” Fumi said. “It allowed him to be able to know what the Japanese soldiers were talking about.”
Her father’s contributions in military intelligence turned out to be life saving.
He was able to tap phone lines and learned valuable information about the Japanese military’s plans. On one occasion, he learned that they planned to attack in the morning, so the Americans were able to vacate their foxholes and move uphill. When the Japanese attacked, there was nobody in the foxholes, Fumi said.
Then, despite being outnumbered, the American soldiers were able to “annihilate the Japanese” because her father gave military commands in Japanese, confusing the enemy who mistook him for a Japanese officer.
“Everyone credits my father for saving his battalion — 800 men,” Fumi said.
That wasn’t the first time her father’s actions were recognized. He was awarded the Legion of Merit by Gen. Frank Merrill for his actions gathering intel in Walawbum, Burma.
Fumi Matsumoto speculates that her father didn’t talk much about his experiences during WWII for a few reasons. Some of the information was classified for 50 years, some likely 75 years, which meant he couldn’t share much of it until recently, and other information likely went with him to the grave.
She also felt that talking about internment and war might be difficult.
“It was a painful thing for Nisei (first-generation Japanese-Americans) to talk about,” Fumi said. “They were ashamed of having been put in prison — not that they did anything wrong, they just happened to be Japanese. They didn’t want their children to suffer the pain and indignity of the experience, so they didn’t tell the children who hadn’t been interned or who were really young.”
Mostly, though, she said he was a “very modest and quiet man.”
“I’m not a hero,” Fumi recalled her father would say. “Just a member of the winning team.”
His stories have been preserved through articles and a recent film: “Honor and Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story,” for which his daughter, Fumi’s sister, Karen Matsumoto, was an associate producer. The film was produced by Don Sellers and Lucy Ostrander of Stourwater Productions. He was able to attend the premiere in San Francisco before his death.
Remembering the stories of Roy and other Nisei who were part of Merrill’s Marauders isn’t simply about reverence for the past — from these stories valuable lessons can be learned.
“(We can learn about) loyalty and, I think, that the true spirit of a human being shouldn’t be judged on their race,” Fumi said. “If the Japanese-Americans hadn’t looked like the enemy, they probably wouldn’t have been incarcerated.”
A memorial at Bainbridge Island, the first place evacuated, she said, requests that incarceration of American citizens based on race never happen again.
“Anyone should be cautious about passing judgment on someone just because of their religious beliefs or physical appearance, nationality or background,” Fumi said.
She pointed out that not one Japanese-American citizen who was incarcerated during WWII was charged with treason.
“We’re supposed to have due process — that’s what’s great about America. The Japanese-Americans believed our country was the best place to live ... and they were citizens just like anyone else,” she said. “They were loyal and that’s probably why they did go to camp without as much protest as you would have expected. They did it to support our country.”
Fumi’s emotional connection to this piece of history has inspired her art, which she said is her way “of trying to honor the spirit of the elders who are passing now, like my dad.” She has art on display at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum as part of “The Empty Chair - The Forced Removal and Resettlement of Juneau’s Japanese Community, 1941-1951,” which runs through Oct. 26.
She said her father considered himself to be “lucky and blessed” for all he lived through.
“Tragically, only approximately 300 soldiers of the nearly 3,000-man unit made it back home, devastated predominantly by severe jungle diseases such as typhus, dysentery and malaria,” reads the governor’s proclamation.
Seventy years after the unit was disbanded, the proclamation continues, “the Marauders’ legacy continues to live on today, as members of the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment wear the Marauder patch as their crest. We honor them and their families for their noble efforts, and appreciate the work of the Marauders’ family members, descendants and friends to ensure they are not forgotten.”
Editor's note:Corrected to show Roy Matsumoto was interned in Arkansas and was awarde the Legion of Merit for his actions in Walawbum, Burma.