Receiving the country’s highest honor generated many memories for Roy Matsumoto — like long nights of total darkness spent in a foxhole and days without food or water.
He recalls another soldier asking him once, “Why did you do that, you could have gotten killed?”, when Matsumoto sneaked behind enemy lines to gather intelligence.
“If I don’t go everyone might get killed, if I found out their plan then everyone might survive,” Matsumoto replied.
But he also recalls his days in an interment camp and being called a “dirty Jap” or an “enemy alien” — names he won’t be called again.
“It’s like being in a dream,” Matsumoto said. “I am greatly honored.”
Matsumoto, 98, a San Juan Island resident and highly decorated war hero, became the recipient of the nation’s highest civilian award — the Congressional Gold Medal, on Nov. 2, in Washington D.C.
“I was surprised, I thought I wouldn’t make it to D.C.,” said Matsumoto, who had health troubles, including anemia, shortly before the trip. “I was very happy to receive the award an I’m feeling better every day.”
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., joined in honoring Matsumoto and 32 other World War II Japanese American veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Services — all from Washington state.
“In the face of grave injustice during WWII, the Nisei veterans fought to preserve America’s free democracy,” said Cantwell. “In fact, they went on to become one of the most highly decorated group of veterans in United States military history. These soldiers fought for what this country could be, even while their families lived in internment camps. In the process, they paved the way to victory in WWII and a brighter future for all.”
The White House estimates 6,000 Nisei — or Japanese Americans born to immigrant parents — served in World War II.Like thousands of other Nisei sent to internment camps during World War II, Matsumoto was American-born and joined the military to get out of encampment and prove his loyalty to his country.
“I didn’t expect to be this successful,”Matsumoto said. “But we were able to survive even after we were surrounded for 12 days with no place to go.”
Matsumoto is known as a war hero, who tapped into enemy communication lines, thus saving the lives of thousands of U.S. troops in Burma.
In one battle, he barked contrary orders to Japanese enemy troops in their dialect, helping his own division take control. He spent a career in the Army, retiring as a master sergeant. His exploits, and those of Merrill’s Marauders, famous for its deep-penetration missions behind Japanese lines, often engaging Japanese forces superior in number, have been chronicled in several books.
In 1993, Matsumoto was inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame and in 1997 into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. In 2005, he was made an honorary Green Beret. Even today, the decorated war hero is a frequent guest at military and veterans events.
Lately, Matsumoto has been asked to show his medal at the Senior Center and at the Lions’ Club weekly meeting, where he has been met with smiles, handshakes and hugs.
“I’m embarrassed. I’m not a hero,” he said. “I’m just a member of the winning team.”
Matsumoto will also be recognized for the Congressional Gold Medal as part of the San Juan Island Chamber Awards, Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m. Call the chamber at 378-5240, for more info.