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Nikkei View

RIP George “Joe” Sakato

Joe Sakato at the Nisei War Memorial in Denver, taken during a March, 2014 photo shoot. He’s holding a photo of himself being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

I was saddened to hear 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.

Joe Sakato is second from the front in the left row in this WWII photograph of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. (click for full image)

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 and his daughter Leslie Sakato at the 2015 Memorial Day service for Nisei Veterans in Denver. (click for full size)

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.

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 Sakato points to the name of his friend Saburo Tanamachi, who died in his arms during the WWII battle to rescue the “Texas Lost Battalion.”

Joe often told the story of how his friend Saburo 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 inexplicably stood up and was killed, 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 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’s heroism:

Sakato, George from Medal of Honor Foundation on Vimeo.


*This article was originally published on Nikkei View, on December 4, 2015.


© 2015 Gil Asakawa

442nd army Colorado denver Go for Broke Medal of Honor memorial military Nisei War Memorial sakato veterans World War II

About this series

This series presents selections from Gil Asakawa’s “Nikkei View: The Asian American Blog,” which presents a Japanese American perspective on pop culture, media, and politics.

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