George T. Sakato didn’t think he would be much of a combat soldier. He was only 5 feet 4 inches tall, and he couldn’t hit the target on the rifle range in Army basic training.
But in a firefight in the Vosges Mountains of northeast France in October 1944, Private Sakato engaged in extraordinary feats of heroism. He killed five German soldiers and captured four others, then made a one-man rush under heavy fire that enabled his squad to destroy a German strongpoint atop a hill. When his squad leader was killed in a counterattack, he took charge, killed another seven enemy soldiers and assisted in taking 34 prisoners in all.
Sakato died Wednesday in Denver at 94. He was the last survivor of the seven living Japanese-American veterans to whom tribute was paid more than a half a century after they fought gallantly for a nation that feared and loathed their people.
His daughter, Leslie, confirmed his death.
Sakato’s exploits, near the town of Biffontaine, were among the numerous feats of bravery displayed by the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in their rescue, amid heavy casualties, of more than 200 soldiers from the Texas National Guard, who had been trapped by the Germans and came to be known as the Lost Battalion.
(The original Lost Battalion, doughboys from the 77th Infantry Division, held off Germans who had trapped them in the Meuse-Argonne campaign of World War I.)
Sakato received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s highest second-highest award for bravery. He was also recommended for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. But like other Asian-American soldiers at a time when the Japanese represented the enemy, he was denied it.
Or at least until June 21, 2000. On that day, in a gesture of belated recognition, Sakato and 21 other Asian-Americans — all but two of them of Japanese ancestry — were finally awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton in a ceremony at the White House.
Fifteen of the medals were awarded posthumously, those recipients having either died in the war or afterward.
The 22 medal presentations were the outgrowth of a Pentagon inquiry pressed by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii to identify Asian-Americans who may have deserved the Medal of Honor in World War II but did not receive it, presumably because of prejudicial attitudes.
The recipients included Akaka’s colleague from Hawaii, Sen, Daniel K. Inouye, who lost an arm fighting in Italy. Inouye died in December 2012.
Only one Japanese-American had received the Medal of Honor during World War II or immediately afterward. That soldier, Private Sadao Munemori, was honored posthumously in 1946. He had fallen on an exploding grenade to save two fellow soldiers alongside him during the Italian campaign.
Sakato was a Nisei, an American-born citizen of Japanese descent.
In the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese, citizens as well as aliens, were removed from the West Coast to inland internment camps, deemed collectively as security risks, which history has determined they were not.
“In order to prove our loyalty, I volunteered into the service,” Sakato told PBS in 2003.
“I’m an American and I want to be respected as an American, even though I look like the enemy,” he said, recalling his sentiments when war came.
George Taro Sakato, known to his friends as Joe, was born on Feb. 19, 1921, in Colton, California, where his parents owned a barber shop. When he was a youngster, the Sakato family moved to Redlands, California, and operated a meat market and grocery.
Weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Sakatos moved to Phoenix rather than be shipped to an internment camp. Sakato sought to enlist in the Army Air Forces about a year later.
He was rejected, however: The military was classifying Nisei as enemy aliens, notwithstanding their indisputable U.S. citizenship. Another year would pass before he was allowed to enlist.
When he did, in March 1944, Sakato believed he had been accepted by the Air Forces. But as he discovered, they still did not want Japanese-Americans, and when his troop train arrived at Camp Blanding, Florida, he learned he had been taken by the ground Army. He was trained as an infantryman.
His prospects for surviving the war seemed none too bright.
As a child, the smallest of five brothers, “I was skinny and I got pneumonia, chickenpox, measles, anything that came by,” he told Densho, the Seattle-based Japanese-American Legacy Project, in 2009. In Army training camp he was unable to climb 8-foot-high walls, he said, so “I went around ‘em.” Moreover, he said, “I couldn’t shoot that rifle.”
The Army shipped him to Europe nonetheless, assigning him to the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In the battle to help rescue the Lost Battalion, Sakato was enraged and grief-stricken when a buddy died alongside him.
As he told Densho: “I cried, hugged him, and ‘God, why?’ Laid him down and looked at all the blood in my hands and I said, ‘You son of a bitch.’ Threw the pack off, picked up the tommy gun, and I got out of the hole and zigzagged back up, run this way and I’d run that way. I shot two or three guys, and then pretty soon the guys with white handkerchiefs were waving them.”
He was evacuated to the United States with a battle wound. When he came home, as he told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in 2013, “I can remember going into a restaurant for a cup of coffee and the two waitresses wouldn’t even wait on me.”
He settled in Denver and became a postal worker.
Beside his daughter, Sakato is survived by his brothers James and John. His wife, Bess, died in 2007.
“I don’t know whether I deserve that medal,” Sakato told Renita Menyhert in the oral history “Remember Pearl Harbor” (2012). “But I do know the 442nd RCT always seemed to be in the thick of every fight. We didn’t ask questions. We just did our duty. We were willing to die for our country.”