George T. “Joe” Sakato, a soldier whose heroism during World War II was not fully recognized for more than 50 years, until he and other Asian American veterans were belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony, died Dec. 2 at his home in Denver. He was 94.
He had congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Leslie Sakato.
Mr. Sakato first sought to enlist in the military not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. He was turned down. Even though he was born and raised in California, he was classified as an “enemy alien.”
“Enemy alien?” Mr. Sakato said in a 2009 oral history interview with the Japanese American Legacy Project. “What do you mean, ‘enemy alien’? I’m an American.”
He finally joined the military in 1944, hoping to serve in the Army Air Forces. Instead, he was assigned to the infantry as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Army unit composed entirely of Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans.
The 442nd, which took part in some of the fiercest battles in Europe during the war, gained renown as the most highly decorated combat unit, for its size and length of service, in U.S. military history.
Mr. Sakato said he was an unpromising recruit, incapable of climbing obstacle-course barriers in basic training and faring poorly in marksmanship. Nevertheless, the 5-foot-4 private took his place in the ranks, and in October 1944 he found himself on the march in the Vosges Mountains of northeastern France.
His unit’s assignment was to find and rescue the “Lost Battalion,” a group of 275 soldiers activated from the Texas National Guard who were trapped behind enemy lines. Two other rescue efforts had failed.
In mountainous, thickly forested terrain near Biffontaine, France, Mr. Sakato and the other Nisei soldiers slipped single-file through the trees at night. A soaking rain turned the earth to mud. Skirmishes and full-scale artillery barrages went on for days as the 442nd advanced against the Germans, one hilltop at a time.
On Oct. 29, 1944, Mr. Sakato was among a small band of soldiers seeking to hold a position when he noticed the Germans beginning to mount a counterattack. He warned a friend next to him, Saburo Tanamachi.
“For some reason he got up and says, ‘Where?’ and he got shot,” Mr. Sakato recalled in 2009. “Then [his] body went limp on me and then I knew he died. And I cried, hugged him, and, ‘God, why?’ ”
With tears in his eyes and his hands covered with Tanamachi’s blood, Mr. Sakato threw off his pack and climbed out of his foxhole.
“I just charged up that hill thinking, ‘I’m going to get the SOB who shot him or die trying,’ ” he said in 2001.
Running toward the Germans, Mr. Sakato fired his machine gun with a deadly precision he had never known in basic training. As his ammunition ran low, he pulled out his pistol, then picked up a discarded German rifle and continued his one-man attack, exposed to withering gunfire.
“I shot two or three guys,” he later said, “and then pretty soon the guys with white handkerchiefs were waving them.”
According to the official Army report, Mr. Sakato single-handedly stopped “an organized enemy attack.”
“During this entire action,” the military citation continued, “he killed 12 and wounded two, personally captured four and assisted his platoon in taking 34 prisoners. By continuously ignoring enemy fire, and by his gallant courage and fighting spirit, he turned impending defeat into victory and helped his platoon complete its mission.”
In the next few days, the Japanese American troops broke through the German lines and rescued the 211 surviving members of the Lost Battalion. The 442nd suffered hundreds of casualties, and the unit’s determined assault against overwhelming odds remains one of the most heroic group actions in wartime annals.
Mr. Sakato was later wounded by shrapnel in his upper body. While recovering in a military hospital, he heard from a fellow soldier that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest combat honor.
Mr. Sakato had not been told. He received the medal during a hasty ceremony at his hospital bed.
In time, he learned that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest award for wartime valor, but was denied. Only one Asian American soldier received the Medal of Honor during or soon after World War II: Sadao Munemori was awarded the medal in 1946, a year after he dived on a grenade to save comrades during a battle in Italy.
In the 1990s, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) sponsored legislation to review the military records of Asian Americans who fought in World War II. At a White House ceremony on June 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian American veterans. Only seven, including Mr. Sakato and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), were still alive. (Inouye died in 2012.)
Mr. Sakato was the last surviving member of those seven.
“I’m no hero,” he said of his Medal of Honor, “but I wear it for the guys that didn’t come back.”
George Taro Sakato was born Feb. 19, 1921, in Colton, Calif. He was one of seven children of Japanese-born parents. His father ran a barbershop before moving to Redlands, Calif., where the family sold groceries and meat.
Mr. Sakato was known as Joe throughout his life, his daughter said, in part because his parents, who had limited English-language skills, thought “Geo.” — the abbreviation for George — was pronounced “Joe.”
Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Mr. Sakato’s family moved to Glendale, Ariz., to avoid being forcibly sent to an internment camp. More than 100,000 Japanese Americans were uprooted from their homes on the West Coast and detained in inland camps for the duration of the war.
Before he entered Army, one of Mr. Sakato’s jobs was to deliver groceries to two internment camps in Arizona, where he saw several of his childhood friends.
After recovering from his war wounds, Mr. Sakato settled in Denver, where he worked as a postal clerk for 32 years.
His wife of 60 years, Bess Saito Sakato, died in 2007. Survivors include a daughter, Leslie Sakoto of Denver, and two brothers.
Mr. Sakato seldom spoke of his wartime experiences, but after more than 60 years, he said he still had nightmares.
Other memories stayed with him, as well. “I can remember going into a restaurant for a cup of coffee,” he told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in 2013, “and the two waitresses wouldn’t even wait on me.”
Mr. Sakato was one of about 14,000 soldiers who fought in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. After the congressionally mandated review of their wartime records, members of the 442nd received 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Star Medals and almost 10,000 Purple Hearts.
Besides Mr. Sakato, two other soldiers who took part in the rescue of the Lost Battalion, Barney Hajiro and James Okubo, received the Medal of Honor more than 50 years after the fact.
“It is long past time to break the silence about their courage,” Clinton said at the White House ceremony in 2000. “Rarely has a nation been so well served by a people it has so ill treated.”