Army Pvt. George Sakato helped his unit win a battle on the way to victory against Germany in World War II.
Fifty-six years later, he earned a far more personal and unexpected victory — over discrimination.
Sakato’s Army career nearly ended before it began. When he tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps in 1943, he was deemed an “undesirable alien” because of his Japanese ancestry. Sakato’s family had moved to Arizona the year before to avoid the internment camps where other Japanese Americans were forced to live.
By 1944, the exploits of the Japanese Americans enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard led the United States to change its mind. Sakato, then a private, shipped off to Naples as a replacement for the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which would later become the most decorated unit of the war.
In October 1944, Sakato and his unit found themselves pinned down by German fire at a hill near the border town of Biffontaine, France. Sakato led a one-man charge that rallied his squad to take the hill and capture dozens of German prisoners.
A few days later, he helped rescue hundreds of encircled American soldiers before being injured and spending eight months in the hospital.
For those accomplishments, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor — and denied. He instead received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest award for valor.
“They said before that I should have received it, but discrimination held it back,” Sakato said.
Back in the United States, Sakato’s service earned him little in the eyes of those who judged him by his appearance.
“I can remember going into a restaurant for a cup of coffee … and the two waitresses wouldn’t even wait on me,” Sakato said.
Decades later, the Army reviewed the records of Sakato and 21 Asian Americans and agreed that Sakato had been wrongfully denied.
He first found out that President Bill Clinton had accepted the Army’s recommendation when he got a call from a newspaper reporter.
“I thought someone was pulling my leg,” he said.
Sakato said he never told his daughter, Leslie Sakato, much about what he did in the war when she was young. As she grew up, he minimized his actions with phrases like, “I’m just a regular guy who climbed up a hillside.”
Leslie would learn about the friend that died in Sakato’s arms at Biffontaine in France and how that desire to avenge his comrade’s sacrifice fueled his will to fight.
“My father is a very nurturing, loving person — so the dichotomy was very hard to put together,” she said.
Sakato, now 91, said he hasn’t stopped traveling since he received his upgraded award. Calls come from all over the country, asking him talk about his experiences. The late recognition has soothed the ambivalence left over from a time when a man could be both lauded for his deeds and looked down upon for his ancestry.
“It’s been such a blessing,” Leslie said. “I think my father’s identity has really been formed by his experiences in the war. To be recognized by President Clinton resolved some questions from the past.”