During World War II, xenophobic Americans — who lived in a “melting pot” of nationalities — were so terrified of Asians after the attacks on Pearl Harbor that the government rounded up people of Japanese descent and put them in concentration camps. Sakato’s family lived in California, where they were shopkeepers, but moved to Arizona to avoid internment. “In order to prove our loyalty, I volunteered into the service,” he said — the U.S. military. It was 1943. “I’m an American and I want to be respected as an American, even though I look like the enemy,” he thought at the time. He had been born in the United States, and was a citizen, but he was rejected by the Army because he was of Japanese descent. Or, as the military put it, an “enemy foreigner.” Yet a year later, the Army accepted him into the infantry, and even though he did poorly in basic training (he was very small, and “I couldn’t shoot that rifle”), he was assigned to the 442nd Infantry Regiment — which consisted entirely of soldiers of Japanese ancestry. “We didn’t ask questions,” he said of his regiment. “We just did our duty. We were willing to die for our country.”
On 29 October 1944, while fighting in France to rescue more than 200 soldiers from the Texas National Guard (known as the Lost Battalion of World War II), “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, Private 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. During this entire action, 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. Private 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.” Yet he was turned down for a Medal of Honor — the highest medal for valor — because he was of Japanese descent. That was not rectified until 2000, after a review of the actions of Japanese-American soldiers. On 21 June of that year, 22 Medals of Honor were presented to Asian soldiers; at the time, only seven of the soldiers were still living, including Sakato, who was a retired postal worker from Denver, Colo. All the other medals were awarded posthumously. The 442nd Regiment was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. “Joe” Sakato died December 2 — the last of those seven soldiers. He was 94.
Author’s Note: The description of Sakato’s “extraordinary heroism in action” is from his Medal of Honor citation.