It’s a reunion Bernie Bieker always cherishes.
Bieker, who grew up on a farm in the Washington area and still lives here these days, recently attended a reunion with Roy Matsumoto and the Merrill’s Marauders, reliving their days in World War II.
It’s not the first time the heroes have been reunited.
“I’ve been to four or five reunions. They’re on Labor Day weekend every year,” Bieker said. “This year’s reunion was in Minneapolis. I plan on going to next year’s in Fort Worth.”
Bieker, now 92 years of age, spent 37 months in the Army starting in 1942, was one of approximately 3,000 men who were recruited for a new unit that was formed during 1943 for service in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater.
The unit, which was officially designated as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), became better known as Merrill’s Marauders. The men in the unit were the only American forces which fought on Asiatic soil during World War II, according to Bieker.
Merrill’s Marauders were named after the unit’s commander, Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, by war correspondents following the unit as the Americans — aided primarily by native Kachin guerrillas and Chinese forces — fought to drive the Japanese out of Burma.
The goal was to re-establish a supply route between Burma and China, which had been cut off since the Japanese captured Burma in early 1942.
The primary purpose of Merrill’s Marauders, according to Bieker, was to serve as a “spearhead” force in order to motivate the Chinese forces.
“We wanted to get rid of the Japanese in Burma, and we were able to accomplish that,” Bieker said.
Matsumoto Joins Unit
Matsumoto, an American soldier of World War II, played a major role in helping the Marauders.
Matsumoto was born in Laguna, Calif. When he was 8 years old, his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in Hiroshima, Japan. He returned to California nine years later, attending and graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in 1933. He remained in Long Beach when his parents took his brothers and sisters back to Hiroshima.
In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into detention camps by the U.S. government. They lost homes, farms and businesses, and had no idea when or if their constitutional rights would be restored.
Many volunteered for the military, one of the few ways out of the camps. Most fought in Europe, but the Pacific war demanded the service of Japanese-speaking linguists.
Fourteen men volunteered to go to Burma with Merrill’s Marauders. Because of the danger of the mission, most were not expected to return alive. They fought against the Japanese army, even though many of them had families in Japan. Matsumoto was one of the 14 men who joined the unit.
Matsumoto was awarded the Legion of Merit for his actions in the battle of Nhpum Ga. The Marauders 2nd Battalion was trapped at Nhpum Ga (Maggot Hill).
Every night, Matsumoto crawled out close to the Japanese lines and listened to them talk and secured information.
One night, he returned with information that the Japanese were going to attempt to cut off a part of the perimeter. After helping set up an ambush, Matsumoto waited with the rest of the Marauders for the attack to start.
When the attack came, the Marauders sprang the trap, mowing down the first wave of attackers. When the second wave stalled in confusion, Matsumoto stood up and yelled for them to attack, causing the second wave to meet the same fate as the first.
By spying on the Japanese and translating their battle orders, Matsumoto was credited with saving the lives of many of Merrill’s Marauders and was recognized as a hero.
Now 100 years of age, Matsumoto currently lives with his wife on San Juan Island, Wash.
Bieker said he never ran across Matsumoto during the war. It was at the reunions where he first met him.
“I would say he’s just like any other American. Once you get him talking, he can go on and on. We were all there during the war to do a job. He was there fighting against his own people,” Bieker said of Matsumoto. “The last I heard, there are 89 of us left out of the 3,000 in Merrill’s Marauders. The reunions are good. I don’t know many people when I go, but I see a lot of different people. I find out who everyone is all over again.”
Bieker worked for the City of Washington water department during his career. He currently lives with his daughter, Wanda Weirich, on Bieker Road (named after his father), just outside of the Washington city limits.