DENVER — George “Joe” Taro Sakato, Medal of Honor recipient and honorary chairman of JAVA (Japanese American Veterans Association), passed away peacefully on Dec. 2 at his home in Denver. He was 94.
In his remarks to open the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2004, President George W. Bush singled out Sakato’s heroism among the 16 million Americans who served during the war. Bush said Army Pvt. Sakato, “in heavy fighting in France, saw a good friend killed, and charged up a hill, determined to shoot the ones who did it. Pvt. Sakato ran straight into enemy fire, killing 12, wounding two, capturing four, and inspiring his whole unit to take the hill and destroy the enemy. Looking back on it 55 years later, Joe Sakato said, ‘I’m not a hero. Nowadays they call what I did road rage.’ This man’s conduct that day gained him the Medal of Honor, one of 464 awarded for actions in World War II.”
Sakato was born on Feb. 19, 1921 in Colton (San Bernardino County) to Hatsu and Yoshitaka Sakato and grew up outside San Bernardino, where he graduated from Redlands High School. He moved with his family to Arizona to avoid being placed in an internment camp. When enlistments reopened for Nisei in 1943, he volunteered for duty at Glendale, Ariz., thinking he was joining the Army Air Corps. While being disappointed about this, he trained at Camp Shelby in Mississippi and was shipped to Italy with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in June 1944.
In September 1944, the 442nd was ordered to move from Italy to the southern front of France to engage the Germans in a two-front war. The 442nd was assigned to the 36th (Texas) Division, whose mission was to clear a German fortress in the Vosges forests; the enemy had built the fortress to prevent the Americans from entering the German homeland. History had told the Germans that since the days of the Holy Roman Empire no invading force was able to defeat the force that occupied the Vosges forests. The 442nd’s mission was to neutralize the forests, thereby allowing the Americans to invade Germany.
The 442nd had a two-fold mission in the battle for which Sakato was recognized. He helped smash the German forces that had trapped a battalion of the 36th Division. When the Germans retreated from the Vosges forests on Oct. 30, 1944, 211 Texans walked out and this allowed the 7th Army to pursue the Germans to and across the German border.
Sakato’s citation said he “distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 29 October 1944, on Hill 617 in the vicinity of Biffontaine, France. After his platoon had virtually destroyed two enemy defense lines, during which he personally killed five enemy soldiers and captured four, his unit was pinned down by heavy enemy fire. Disregarding the enemy fire, Pvt. Sakato made a one-man rush that encouraged his platoon to charge and destroy the enemy strongpoint.
“While his platoon was reorganizing, he proved to be the inspiration of his squad in halting a counter-attack on the left flank during which his squad leader was killed. Taking charge of the squad, he continued his relentless tactics, using an enemy rifle and P-38 pistol to stop an organized enemy attack. 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.
“Pvt. Sakato’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.”
Sakato was originally awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions, but a review in the 1990s — resulting from legislation sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) — upgraded it to a Medal of Honor. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton at a White House ceremony on June 21, 2000.
He was one of 22 Asian Americans, including 20 Japanese Americans, upgraded to a Medal of Honor and one of only seven who personally accepted their medals. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was also one of the seven.
Sakato was also a special guest during the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the 100th/442nd and Military Intelligence Service in Washington, D.C. in 2011.
Sakato, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service after settling in Denver, is survived by his daughter, Leslie, and brothers John and James. He was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 60 years, Bessie.