I was saddened to hear yesterday of the passing of George “Joe” Sakato, a Denver resident who was a World War II hero, a veteran of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team/100th Battalion that fought in Europe during World War II. He was 94 years old. Adele Arakawa of 9News broadcast a moving tribute to Joe that’s worth viewing.
“We were fighting prejudice in the States … and fighting the Germans in Europe,” he told Arakawa in 2013.
The last time I saw Joe (he preferred everyone call him Joe) was during the annual Japanese American community’s Nisei Veterans’ Memorial Day Service at Fairmount Cemetery, where a memorial to Nisei veterans was built to honor not only the WWII veterans but also all local deceased JA vets since then. My father’s name is included where non-WWII vets are honored.
Joe Sakato always attended the service accompanied by his daughter Leslie, but he was in poor health earlier this year, so I don’t think any of us expected him to show up this year.
But shortly after the speeches began, there he was, with his daughter at his side. As always, Joe got special recognition during the memorial service. You can read a terrific profile of Joe on the Discover Nikkei website, provided by Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project.In 2014, Erin and I helped Corky Lee, a New York-based photographer who calls himself the “undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate” (the title fits), meet and photograph Joe for his collection of notable Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We met Joe and Leslie at the Nisei War Memorial, and he pointed to a name, Saburo Tanamachi, on the WWII section of fallen heroes.
Joe often told the story of how his friend and squad leader Saburo, who had earlier received a Silver Star for bravery, died in his arms after being shot by a Nazi soldier during the harrowing battle to rescue the “Texas Lost Battalion” in the forests of France in the waning days of the war. The 442nd, mostly Japanese Americans, suffered 800 casualties to save 200 Texans who were hopelessly trapped. When his friend crept forward to aid a wounded soldier and was fatally shot, Joe became enraged and charged up the hill, and killed 12 Germans, wounded two and captured four.
Every time Joe told that story, he choked up as if the memory was from just yesterday. It was for that battle that he was honored with the Medal of Honor.He was the only member of the 442nd “Go for Broke” Medal of Honor recipients in Colorado, and the last surviving member of the 442nd who had been honored with the medal in a ceremony with President Clinton, half-a-century after his heroic actions.
He was also included last year on a commemorative stamp from the US Post Office celebrating Medal of Honor recipients. The New York Times ran this obituary today about Joe.
Anyone who knew Joe will miss his irrepressible spirit and good humor. With Joe’s death, another Nisei — second-generation — hero has passed on.
But we should remember all of them for their heroism and honor their memory as Japanese Americans move forward into fourth, fifth and even sixth generations. We owe them a debt of gratitude for what they accomplished in the past, to help our community thrive today and in the future.
Here’s a video produced by the Medal of Honor Foundation about Joe Sakato’ heroism:
Sakato, George from Medal of Honor Foundation on Vimeo.
Here’s a tribute from the Japanese American Veterans Association.
And here’s a post on the Library of Congress website.
I have the greatest respect for Joe Sakata and all who have served our country. I am saddened to learn of his death and sincerely offer my sympathies to his family. However, that was my brother, Saburo, who died that day and I do take issue with you describing him as “foolish”. I have no way of knowing if this was Joe’s description but I do know that my brother was never foolish, he gave his life for others, he was a hero too.
Hi Hiroko, the choice of words was mine, and I didn’t mean to pass judgement on your brother. I’ve changed the word to “inexplicably.” Thanks for posting your comment!
Mr. Gil Asakawa,
I am Saburo Tanamachi’s niece, and I am wondering if you would please read and answer what was written below:
Sandra, I am wondering why Asakawa said that Saburo was “foolish” to stand up. Saburo was the squad leader and to lead an attack or to assess the terrain a true leader had to do what he thought was right He probably thought he had no alternative but to stand. Saburo, the squad leader, may have had orders to advance, to attack now, at that moment. We don’t know, if Asakawa knows, he should tell the readers. The 442nd squad and platoon leaders were known to make smart decisions. [One platoon leader, a lieutenant, refused to follow Major General Dalquist’s direct orders to charge. During the 5 days of the rescue operation Dahlquist went to front lines and gave orders directly to the battalion, company and platoon commanders. The Lieutenant told the General you can bust me but I will not execute your orders and get all my men killed. I will do it my way. He did, the mission was achieved, and the casualties were less.] How else can a true leader lead? A true leader is not going to order one of his men to expose himself. A true leader would expose himself and that is what Saburo, the squad leader, did. That is why the men respected Saburo, that is why Sakato reacted the way he did — out of respect and admiration for his leader. Sakato, by standing up and charging, was he also “foolish”? To do less, he would no longer be the leader he would lose the respect of his men.
You might write to Asakawa, under the kind of combat situation Saburo and Sakato were in — if he knew the situation at that time and the pressures Saburo was under — what would he have done.
Hi Sandra, I have never been in a combat situation like that. I’ve already changed the wording, which was my choice after hearing Joe tell his story many times. He would shake his head and was mystified why your uncle stood up. He never explained that he might have been scouting the terrain. Thank you for posting your comment.