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Marauders' memories

Japanese-American World War II vets come to Juneau to fish and recollect

Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Roy Matsumoto and Grant Hirobayashi came to Juneau to fish with Matsumoto's daughter Fumi and her family.

But the old friends, both World War II veterans of the 5307th Composite Unit, known as Merrill's Marauders, can't help but let the conversation stray from fishing when they get together.

"It was a considerable hardship, and I know what he went through and he knows what I went through," said Hirobayashi of the men's U.S. Army experience in India and Burma in 1943 and 1944.

The 5307th Composite Unit, also known by the group's code name, Galahad, was created by President Franklin Roosevelt in August 1943. Allied forces needed a military unit to attack Japanese forces from behind enemy lines in Burma.

Approximately 2,900 American soldiers, including 14 Japanese-Americans, volunteered to join the unit, led by Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill.

Their main task was to distract Japanese troops while other Allied forces attempted to open the Burma Road, an essential communication and supply route for the Allies.

Matsumoto, 90, and Hirobayashi, 84, were interned at the so-called relocation camps in the United States when World War II broke out. Matsumoto in Arkansas and Grant in California decided to enlist in the war rather than stay in the camps.

"I knew I had a big challenge ahead of me," said Hirobayashi, who volunteered for the Army Air Corps.

Matsumoto, a third-generation American who grew up in southern California, was classified as an enemy alien when war broke out.

He called the internment camp to which he and his family were sent a "concentration camp" and wanted to get out at any price.

He enlisted with the U.S. Army in 1942 and finished his training as a soldier and language specialist in 1943.

When President Roosevelt asked for volunteers for the 5307th Composite Unit, Hirobayashi and Matsumoto volunteered. They were placed in the first and second battalion units, respectively.

The men got on the boat in San Francisco in 1943 to start a 45-day journey to Bombay.

Hirobayashi recalls one of the soldiers, who likely never had seen a person of Japanese descent, asking what things were like in Hirobayashi's country.

"I just looked out over the Golden Gate Bridge and said, 'Well, it looks good from here,' " he said.

For the next few years, the language skills of the two soldiers and their loyalty to the allied cause proved extremely valuable to U.S. troops.

"Tell them about Nhpum Ga," Fumi Matsumoto asked her father Tuesday.

Her father launched into a tale that could be a movie script: Japanese soldiers had surrounded about 800 U.S. soldiers on a hill in Burma called Nhpum Ga.

Ten days into the siege, with rations running low, Matsumoto crawled down to a position several feet away from Japanese troops.

"After darkness I took off my pistol belt, my jacket, my helmet," Matsumoto said. "The only thing I carried was a bayonet and two rounds of hand grenades."

He heard the soldiers discuss an attack they had planned for the next morning and reported the information to his captain.

The following morning, the U.S. troops were fully prepared for the Japanese attack. No American soldiers died in the battle that followed, and the Japanese troops were forced to retreat.

During the retreat, Matsumoto stood up and yelled, in Japanese, "attack."

The Japanese troops, thinking Matsumoto was on their side, began advancing again, only to receive another onslaught from the American soldiers.

This story and many others often are repeated when Matsumoto and Hirobayashi get together.

Because they live on opposite coasts - Matsumoto at Friday Harbor, Wash., and Hirobayashi in Silver Spring, Md. - they don't have a chance to meet often. But when they do, their memories give them a great sense of pride, they said.

"I really enjoy people treating me nice," said Matsumoto.

Every time he goes to a reunion of the Merrill's Marauders, which take place every year, a different soldier thanks Matsumoto for saving the soldier's life. But Matsumoto thinks his role was relatively small.

"We survived due to teamwork," he said. "I'm just a cog in the wheel. I did my part."

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.



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