WWII Veteran Roy Matsumoto Reveals War Secrets of Honor, Sacrifice

Msgt. Roy H. Matsumoto's (right) story will be told in a documentary film co-produced by his daughter Karen Matsumoto.

From the moment she heard her father first speak about his life, Karen Matsumoto knew that his experiences should be made into a documentary.

By Christine McFadden, Correspondent
May 20, 2011

About 15 years ago, Msgt. Roy H. Matsumoto began sharing details of his life with his family that he had been forced by the government to keep a secret for 50 years. Due to the classified nature of his undercover work as a linguist and intelligence specialist for the Military Intelligence Service during World War II, he was told, "Keep your mouth shut." If he said anything, he could have been put in jail.

When he finally did start talking, his daughter Karen described it as being "like a watershed moment."

"I was really surprised," recalled his other daughter, Fumi. "It was very funny because my mom, I'm sure, is probably still skeptical about it. He's really kind of this mild-mannered guy. Even now, I read about this stuff and I really have a hard time believing it."

From the moment she heard her father first speak about his life, Karen Matsumoto knew that his experiences should be made into a documentary. Matsumoto is credited with saving the lives of over 800 American soldiers in the MIS.

Karen and documentary director Lucy Ostrander of Stourwater Pictures produced "Honor and Sacrifice: Nisei Patriots in the MIS", a 17-minute documentary that they are fundraising to expand. With added time to the documentary, Ostrander says they can "tell Roy's complete story."

Even now, there are still some things about Roy's past that he is not allowed to talk about — they remain restricted, classified information by the government, potentially to be released at a later date. 

"Some of the things I never mentioned," he said.

A 50-year Secret

There are many ironies and close calls in Roy's life that make his story stand out, said Karen.

Born in Los Angeles, Roy returned to Japan where he was raised and educated. When he returned to America, he worked as a delivery boy for a grocery store for Japanese families who spoke different dialects, allowing him to expand his language skills. However, his job and education were cut short after the Pearl Harbor attack when he was sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, in his mid-twenties.   

"We never knew any of this," said Fumi. "[We] knew nothing of the internment camp experience."?He volunteered for service in the U.S. Army from behind barbed wire at Jerome, despite friends and family remaining in the camps and brothers in Japan fighting for the Imperial Japanese Army.

"I wanted to get out any way I could, except escaping," Roy said. "[The] machine gun was sitting toward the inside and if you got too near the fence, you'd be shot."

Roy also wanted a chance to prove his loyalty to America, told by his mother in Japan: "You're an American, and you've got to be loyal." He said that he saw his chance to prove that he and all of the Nisei — including other Kibei — were loyal Americans. "That was my determination."

Roy became a linguist for the Merrill's Marauders, a special operation unit stationed in the Southeast Asian Theater. Karen speculates that her father experienced internal conflict "knowing that he could be fighting his relatives and friends out there."

Roy actually ended up interrogating his cousin and rescuing his brother from a prison in China.

Roy is credited with saving the lives of over 800 American soldiers. He twice saved his own battalion during the U.S. campaign in Burma, India and China.

While in Burma, Roy had to maintain a low profile due to his Japanese ancestry.
"He carried hand grenades because if he were caught, he knew he'd be tortured," said Fumi. Even after the war, his role as a JA in the Southeast Theater remained a secret. "Honor and Sacrifice" is technically not Matsumoto's first movie appearance. A documentary was made post-war with Roy's role in Burma portrayed as a Filipino and played by a Filipino actor.

"We thought: let's set the record straight," said Karen.

After the war, Roy remained in the service, entering China and becoming an intelligence specialist for the Detachment 202 Office of Strategic Services. He was tasked with interrogating Japanese prisoners and escorting war criminals to Sugamo prison in Japan. He retired from the Army in 1963 after 20 years of service.

Roy, himself, is one of the most highly decorated Nisei soldiers, and has the unique distinction of being honored in both the MIS Hall of Fame and the Army Ranger Hall of Fame. He also holds five Bronze Stars, an Honorary Green Beret, a Burmese Medal of Freedom, a Burmese Green Beret, a Combat Infantryman's Badge, and two Distinguished Unit Citation ribbons, among many other awards.

He was most recently honored at the Berkeley City Club, receiving the JACL Legacy Award.

The Mission to Tell the Full Matsumoto Story

Karen Matsumoto and Lucy Ostrander have been working together for the past 7 to 8 years, making films about the JA internment experience. Two years ago, they received the Washington Civil Liberties Education Program Grant fund in the amount of $21,000 to produce a 17-minute documentary on Roy as well as a curriculum guide for middle schools and high schools in Washington.

They're now looking to tell his full story and the stories of his friends in the MIS.

"He's also interested in having other Nisei recognized for the work that they've done," said Karen. She says that not much has been written about the MIS.

"I find Roy's story amazing, heart-wrenching and poignant," said Ostrander.

The filmmakers recently received the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program (CCLPEP) grant for $24,000 and have enlisted the support of numerous other organizations. The National Japanese American Historical Society has pledged to raise $10,000, and the Berkeley JACL as well as Humanities Washington have granted money for the film's elongation. Ostrander says the recent CCLEP grant will help them on the road to completing the film. They hope to complete the film by November of this year in time for the 70th anniversary of the recruitment of JAs into the MIS, to be celebrated at the MIS Historic Learning Center's Building 640 at the Presidio in San Francisco .

"He's been in ill health," Karen said of her father. Roy's current goal is to be present in D.C. later this year for the Congressional Gold Medal presentation to the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the MIS.

Additional funding allows for the film to include interviews from Roy's Merrill's Marauders Platoon leader as well as military historian James McNaughton, author of "Nisei Linguists."

"This documentary film has been a way to really recognize the work that the MIS did," Karen said. "For me, it's just been a real personal journey — something I could do for my father as a legacy to him."

To make a tax-deductible donation for the completion of the PBS version of the film: www.bijac.org. A free copy of the DVD will be sent for any donation of $35 or more. Please specify "MIS Film" on the donation.

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