Denver resident George Taro "Joe" Sakato is 91 years old, but nearly seven decades haven't erased the memory of what happened on the battlefields of northeast France during World War II.
During a battle to rescue the surrounded "Lost Battalion" of Texans in the Vosges Mountains, a German bullet struck his friend, Pvt. Saburo Tanamachi, who fell into his foxhole, Sakato recalled this week in Wailuku. He rushed to help Tanamachi, but his friend tried to say something and died in his arms.
Enraged, Sakato said he wanted to kill the Germans who had killed his friend. Disregarding his own safety, he charged up a hill, zigzagging as he went, firing a Thompson submachine gun.
World War II veterans Shigeo Iwamasa of Wailuku (from left), George Taro “Joe” Sakato of Denver and Hideo “Pakala” Takahashi of Lahaina take a break to pose for a picture during a gathering of veterans of the famed 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team on Monday at the Wailuku Hongwanji Mission. Sakato was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2000 for heroism during combat in France during World War II.
The Maui News / BRIAN PERRY photo
He was credited with killing 12 Germans and with inspiring a counterattack that captured 34 enemy troops. Sakato said he remembers killing six Germans and capturing about two dozen.
"They gave me too much credit," he said.
For his heroism, Sakato was awarded the Medal of Honor, belatedly on June 21, 2000, at the White House by then-President Bill Clinton. Twenty-one other Americans of Japanese ancestry also received the medal at the ceremony, all but seven of them posthumously.
Sakato, a member of the 442nd's E Company, said he was visiting Hawaii to attend the Medal of Honor Society's convention last week. More than 50 of the nation's 81 living Medal of Honor recipients took part in activities in Honolulu. They earned their awards for valor in conflicts ranging from World War II to the current war in Afghanistan.
On Monday, Sakato was with more than a dozen Maui veterans of the famed 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team during a get-together at the Wailuku Hongwanji Mission.
"I had to see all these boys," he said. "Most of them are all gone."
Sakato sat next to Hideo "Pakala" Takahashi, 89, of Lahaina and Shigeo Iwamasa, 88, of Wailuku - both of whom served with Sakato in E Company.
Sakato was born Feb. 19, 1921, in Colton, Calif. He graduated from Redlands High School, and his family moved to Arizona during the war to avoid internment. He joined the Army in March 1944.
Sakato recalled how his segregated unit of Japanese-American soldiers was sent to rescue the "Lost Battalion" and assault Hill 617 near the city of Biffontaine in the Vosges Mountains of France on Oct. 29, 1944.
He said the hill had strategic value because it overlooked an area of the valley where the battalion of Texans had been surrounded.
Using his hands to describe the battle's landscape, Sakato showed where the Texans were holed up and how E Company went behind German lines to attempt to take Hill 617. He said his unit moved out in the dark, in single file, each man holding on to the backpack of the man in front of him.
The soldiers were able to break through the German lines and then hold off a counterattack in which the Germans surrounded the American troops, he said.
During the battle, he said, he was putting a clip of bullets in his rifle when his friend, Tanamachi, was shot. Sakato said he experienced what people today might call "road rage" and could think only of killing the "bastards" who had shot his friend.
"I was mad," he said.
Sakato said he used a Thompson submachine gun he had found in an American tank to attack the Germans who were moving uphill toward a rocky ledge.
There, they were pinned and most surrendered, he said.
Sakato said he was uninjured during the battle, but later he was hit in the back by shrapnel from a bomb blast. The shrapnel went through his backpack and overcoat. It hit his spine and lodged in his lung, where it remains today, he said.
He said he walked himself to an aid station for medical attention. He was hospitalized for the rest of the war.
Sakato also was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
While he proudly wore his Medal of Honor while meeting fellow veterans on Maui, he has said he doesn't wear it to remind himself of his bravery.
"I don't wear this for being a hero," he said. "I wear this for those who didn't go home."
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.