Roy Matsumoto was a man with a secret. And it wasn’t until his daughter Karen was given a book in graduate school about the US Army unit called Merrill’s Marauders did the war story come out. She narrates the documentary about his life called Honor and Sacrifice.
Matsumoto was born in the Los Angeles area of California in 1913. He spent part of his childhood there and in Hiroshima where his family came from, sending him to their ancestral homeland to receive a Japanese education. Matsumoto returned to the United States where he graduated from high school.
In the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he was one of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent forced to live in relocation camps by an executive order issued by President Franklin Roosevelt. Matsumoto was sent to one in Arkansas but volunteered to get out and recruited for military intelligence service because of his Japanese language skills.
Matsumoto was one of 14 Nisei to join a 2,700 man guerilla unit known as Merrill’s Marauders to reopen the Burma Road, a supply route for China, then an ally of the United States. Fighting rough terrain and disease in the Burmese jungle, the men’s survival depended on the Nisei’s language skills.
Matsumoto climbed a tree where he tapped into telephone lines to intercept Japanese communications which enabled the Americans to destroy a large ammunition dump. He later crept into “No Man’s Land” and overheard enemy plans for attack in a dialect he had learned as a grocery delivery boy back home in Los Angeles. The information allowed the Americans to move to higher ground and annihilate the enemy when Matsumoto yelled for the Japanese to charge.
After six months, only 200 of Merrill’s Marauders survived. Matsumoto earned a bronze star and Legion of Merit. He later was sent to China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war and became a master sergeant during the allied occupation of Japan.
There are also a series of coincidences: survival of three brothers who fought for Japan, family who just missed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and all reuniting there after the war.
Don Sellers co-directed and wrote Honor and Sacrifice. VOA’s Ray Kouguell asked Sellers, who is based in Bainbridge Island, Washington, about how Matsumoto managed to carry his experiences around in silence and why his story is not better known.
SELLERS: The only reason that I could figure that it’s not better known is because he was told in military intelligence that he was supposed to keep his work a secret for fifty years. And like many people of that generation he didn’t talk about what he did. But a lot of people in World War II and people who experienced that didn’t talk about what happened then. A lot of Japanese Americans didn’t talk about what happened, who experienced the different things that went on during that period of time.
KOUGUELL: Did Matsumoto, an American citizen, ever feel a dual loyalty since he spent much of his adolescence in Japan?
SELLERS: From what we understand and this was something that he did not talk about, he decided to be loyal to the United States. He cast his lot with the Americans, with the country of his birth. And a lot of the Nisei interpreters said the same thing, that they just never questioned it. They were with the Americans, they were with the country of their birth and that’s who they fought for.
KOUGUELL: Did he suffer any discrimination during his American military training or in Merrill’s Marauders?
SELLERS: There was discrimination that went on and it was - just for lack of a better term - it was natural. It was what happened in society at that time and so he was called derogatory things. He was even mentioned that way when the people who were calling him derogatory terms realized that he was saving their lives. He was instrumental to what they were doing.
KOUGUELL: Were there any family strains years later or reconciliation between family members after fighting on opposite sides?
SELLERS: Karen, Roy’s daughter, talks about the fact that there [were] some real strains within the family, as one might expect with brothers fighting on both sides of the conflict. And after the war those strains continued to a certain extent and it took years for them to resolve themselves. And indeed, I don’t believe that they ever fully resolved themselves among Roy’s generation.
KOUGUELL: Did Matsumoto ever share with you, how difficult it was not to talk about his war experience with his family?
SELLERS: No, he never did and we tried very hard to get him to talk about a lot of different things. This is a film that talks about a story where people were very conflicted. He was fighting for his life with Americans who had locked him up and locked up other Japanese Americans in concentration camps. He was fighting with them in the middle of Burma against the Japanese, against his ancestral people and they were fighting for their lives. At the same time his family [was] living in their ancestral home of Hiroshima.
KOUGUELL: What kind of reaction is his story getting from World War II veterans groups and Japanese American groups?
SELLERS: For Japanese American groups it’s just another chapter in the story of the Japanese American experience during WWII. There’s a lot of different chapters to that story. There are those who were in the concentration camps. There were those who volunteered to serve in the US military, many of them fought very bravely in Europe. And there were others who decided that what was happening was unconstitutional. For World War II veterans I think that they see it as just another indication of the service and the bravery that went on during WWII for the Americans. For those who served with Merrill’s Marauders, many of them have said that they owed their lives to the Nisei interpreters who were with them in the jungles of Burma.
KOUGUELL: Sellers’ documentary uses archival film and family photos, along with interviews including Matsumoto himself to make this a compelling piece of history. It is an account of pluck, luck, grit and boldness of a man who survived horrors that are often the price of patriotism. Honor and Sacrifice is the winner of several prestigious history and historical documentary awards. They are richly deserved.