Roy Matsumoto, of Merrill’s Marauders fame, dies at 100

A HERO’S WELCOME — Roy Matsumoto, 100, receives a standing ovation after the screening of “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story.” Carole Hayashino (R) discusses “The Untold Story.” photo by William Lee

A HERO’S WELCOME — Roy Matsumoto, 100, receives a standing ovation after the screening of “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story.” Carole Hayashino (R) discusses “The Untold Story.” photo by William Lee

“Ranger” Roy Matsumoto, a Nisei recognized for his military heroics with Merrill’s Marauders, passed away peacefully in his sleep at his San Juan Island, Wash. home on the morning of April 21, 2014, surrounded by his loving family. His passing came less than two weeks short of his 101st birthday.

“We are all very sad, and somewhat in shock … even though he was in hospice since early April,” daughter Karen Matsumoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We fully expected him to make it to his 101st birthday.”

Roy Hiroshi Matsumoto was born on a small farm in Los Angeles on May 1, 1913. As the eldest son, he went to Japan at age 8 to be raised by his grandparents and learn the Japanese language and customs. He returned to the U.S. at age 17 and graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1933.

He worked for a Japanese grocery company and supported his family in Japan during the depression. It was during this time that he learned many Japanese dialects as he delivered groceries to Japanese immigrant families from across Japan.

The U.S. government began the forced removal and incarceration of 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry — most of whom were American citizens — in the spring of 1942. A Sansei living in the Los Angeles area, Matsumoto was incarcerated first at the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, Calif., and later sent on to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army in the fall of 1942 from the barbed wire camp, and trained at Camp Shelby, Miss. and at the Military Intelligence Language School in Savage, Minn. He volunteered for a “hazardous mission” and joined the famed Merrill’s Marauders, fighting in the jungles of Burma as a Japanese linguist.

Matsumoto was responsible for obtaining valuable intelligence information from wire tapping the Japanese communication lines for the Marauders, and received a Legion of Merit for his actions in Walawbum. He also contributed to the survival of the Marauders 2nd Battalion when surrounded by the Japanese troops on Nhpum Ga, or “Maggot” Hill, for 10 days. Sgt. Matsumoto stood up and exposed himself to enemy fire, while shouting “Charge!” in Japanese as if he were a Japanese officer. Marauders opened fire, and the battalion was saved from certain annihilation with no casualties.

In 1993, he was inducted into the U.S. Army “Ranger Hall of Fame” for combat heroism as a Merrill’s Marauder. In 1994, by order of the Secretary of the Army, Matsumoto was designated to be a Distinguished Member of the Seventy-Fifth Ranger Regiment, and in 1997, inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

According to his daughter Karen, Matsumoto had a love for life-long learning, and was an avid reader and collector of all kinds of books on science, history and his favorite hobby, woodworking. He was a life member of the Nisei Veterans Committee in Seattle, American Legion Post 163, and an active member of the San Juan Island Lion’s Club, and collected 10,000 pairs of glasses for the Lions.

Matsumoto was a familiar face in Friday Harbor, and had many friends from all walks of life. One side of Matsumoto seldom seen by others was his devotion to his family, and his love of nature.

Karen Matsumoto only found about her father’s heroism later in life. “I really didn’t know about it, because he never really talked about it,” said daughter Karen. “Someone in my class (at Utah State University) showed me a magazine article with a photo of my dad.” At about the same time, in the early 1980s, her professor gave her the book “Burma Rifles: A Story of Merrill’s Marauders,” a fictionalized account by Frank Bonham of a Nisei translator in Burma, which identified Matsumoto by name.

Ensuring that his legacy is not lost upon succeeding generations, Matsumoto’s story was shared in a 2013 documentary entitled “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story.”

“Until we started working on our film … we didn’t realize to what extent World War II had divided some Japanese immigrant families,” said Lucy Ostrander of Stourwater Pictures. “Roy’s extraordinary story presents the extremes of that division: brothers fighting on both sides of the conflict … and Roy becoming a hero, saving his starving battalion using Japanese language skills he acquired in the immigrant community in the U.S., and military training acquired at school in Japan. We were privileged to have been entrusted by the Matsumoto family to tell his story.”

Matsumoto is survived by his wife, Kimiko, daughters Fumi and Karen, sons-in-law Richard and John, and three grandchildren — Annie and Nik Matsumoto and Bryan Cormack.

A memorial service will be held Mon., May 26, noon to 3 p.m., at The Brickworks, 150 Nichols St. in Friday Harbor, Wash. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Nisei Veterans Committee, 1212 South King St., Seattle, WA 98144; or the National Japanese American Historical Society, 1684 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94115.

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