Sgt Roy Matsumoto: Merrill’s Marauders Eyes and Ears

Sgt Roy Matsumoto was once tagged as an “Enemy Alien” by the US Government, and imprisoned at Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans. But his journey from imprisonment to war hero, though fraught with discrimination and hate, revealed a courageous spirit.

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After an Army recruiter went to the relocation camp, Roy jumped at the chance to leave. Because he spoke fluent Japanese, the government took several of his compatriots to serve in the Asian theater.

Merrill’s Marauders on a break

After Military Intelligence Service training, Roy Matsumoto volunteered for Merrill’s Marauders, the forerunner of the Army Rangers. His knowledge of Japanese language became an invaluable asset to the unit. He was not phased by the expected death toll of the men that would have no air or ground cover. They had to trek through 1,000 miles of jungle with only mules and what they carried in packs to face a superior Japanese force in Burma. Roy Matsumoto’s habit of sneaking out behind enemy lines every night to listen to the Japanese soldiers proved to be a lifesaver. He would hand his carbine to Lt Col Edward McLogan, stuff two hand grenades in his pockets and crawled out to listen.

One of their main practices was searching for live wires they could tap into using a clip. While on patrol, Matsumoto spotted a line, climbed a tree while exposed to sniper elements, and sat on the branch. Using a telephone, he heard two Japanese soldiers talking back and forth. The information he collected led to actionable intelligence his rifle platoons could take advantage of. 

Matsumoto hurried back to relay the unsettling intelligence he gathered to Lieutenant Edward McLogan. “You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell ya,” Matsumoto said. “They’re going to concentrate and attack this portion of the hill.” At sunrise on the morning of April 5, 1944, Easter Sunday, the Japanese would launch a surprise raid with a force estimated at 2,500 infantryman [sic].  

In the meantime, their unit moved back from their abandoned foxholes, laid booby traps inside them, took the high ground, and waited with their carbines, Thompson submachine guns, and BARs aimed downward. Japanese raiders broke over the hill, charging with their bayonets. “Banzai!” they yelled. Once they hit the booby traps, an officer carrying a sword pointed to advance farther up the hill. Fifteen yards away, the first Japanese soldier was torn apart as more than 50 Americans fired their weapons. The first wave was dispatched with extraordinary accuracy. 

Matsumoto moved from cover and exposed himself to the assault. Instead of firing immediately, he faced the enemy, many of whom had taken cover against the rocky dirt. Matsumoto called out in native Japanese, “Totsugeki-Ni!” or “Charge! Charge!” while motioning for them to race to their feet and attack his own position. Confused, the second wave of Japanese fighters ran up the hill to follow the man they thought was one of their officers, only to see him firing his carbine and dropping several of them. All their attention was focused on Matsumoto, which allowed his teammates to open fire with the same ferocity that the first wave received. 

Matt Fratus at coffeeordie

Sgt Roy Matsumoto received the Legion of Merit for his actions in Burma (at least one commander thought he should have received the Medal of Honor). Merrill’s Marauders was disbanded in 1944, but Matsumoto went on to serve a total of 20 years, some of that in the OSS. He escorted prisoners, interrogated prisoners, and was said to glean more information out of them than several other interrogators. He retired in 1963.

In 1993, Sgt Roy Matsumoto was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame and was granted honorary membership in the Army Special Forces. In 1997, he was included in the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. In 2011, the surviving Merrill’s Marauders were given the Congressional Gold Medal. Roy Matsumoto passed away one week before his 101st birthday in 2014.


Featured photo: Brig Gen Franklin Merrill awards Sgt Roy Matsumoto the Legion of Merit (USASOC History Office)

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