LOS GATOS, Calif. — Col. Thomas T. Sakamoto (retired), a member of the Military Intelligence Service Language School’s first class during World War II, passed away on Oct. 18 at the age of 95.
A resident of Los Gatos, he was born in San Jose in 1918 and his youthful life was centered around church, sports and community activities. In 1934, while in high school, he was sent to Kumamoto Prefecture to receive a Japanese education. Four years later, after graduating from Kyushu Gakuin, he returned to the U.S. and was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Because of his proficiency in Japanese, Sakamoto was recruited into the secretly formed Military Intelligence Service (MIS). Just over a month before Pearl Harbor, he was one of 60 students enrolled in an elite first class of the Japanese language school at the Presidio of San Francisco. Upon graduation, because of his superior knowledge of Japanese, he became an instructor.
However, eager for combat, Sakamoto volunteered for duties with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Australia and encountered his first battle at Los Negros Island with the Texas 1st Cavalry. The first Japanese POW he faced called him a traitor, but his interrogation of the prisoner resulted in information that allowed his unit to repel a major attack.
After taking part in MacArthur’s successful island-hopping campaign, Sakamoto stood proudly on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay to witness Japan’s formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.
“Tom served this country gallantly and faithfully even though his parents and family were interned at Rohwer Relocation Center, Arkansas, for the duration of the war,” his family said in a statement.
During the occupation of Japan, Sakamoto translated for journalists from Allied countries who visited Hiroshima and witnessed first-hand the destruction caused by the atomic bomb.
After helping to democratize Japan, Sakamoto fought in Korea and in Vietnam. In 1961, he interpreted for President Dwight Eisenhower during his visit to Okinawa.
Upon achieving the rank of colonel, Sakamoto stated that proving loyalty to America on battlefields was his most significant accomplishment.
After retiring from the Army, he served as senior vice president/manager of Sumitomo Bank in Cupertino and San Jose.
Working with the National Japanese American Historical Society, the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service, he was instrumental in efforts to preserve Building 640, the site of the first MIS Language School, and develop it into the MIS Historic Learning Center, which opened its doors on Nov. 11, just weeks after his passing.
He was also featured in the documentaries “Uncommon Courage: Patriotism and Civil Liberties” and “MIS: Human Secret Weapon.”
Sakamoto was preceded in death by his wife, Sadie; brothers George and Donald; and sister Clara (Kenji Honda). He is survived by brothers Frank (Maryann), Jim (Kaz), and Paul; sister Bertha (Tom); sisters-in-law Mary and Aggie; and nephews and nieces.
A private funeral service was held on Oct. 25 at San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin. His family thanked the professionals at Palo Alto VA Hospital, Hospice of the Valley, The Terraces of Los Gatos, and NexGen Healthcare Inc. for the outstanding care he received.
Instead of koden, the family asked that donations be sent to the National Japanese American Historical Society, 1684 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94115, for maintenance of the MIS Historic Learning Center.