Veteran "went for broke" to serve country (part 4)
From the moment George Sakato volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), he took to heart its motto: "Go For Broke!"
Adopted from a favorite Hawaiian dice game where players "risk everything they’ve got to win," Sakato revered the words and vowed to live by them.
"America was my country too and I’m an American," said Sakato, a Nisei (second generation Japanese American). "So that’s why I volunteered, to show my loyalty to the United States. I also thought that when I had a family someday, my children would be looked up to rather than down on as a ‘Jap.’"
After the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Sakato and his family moved from California to Arizona to avoid being sent to an internment camp. Hearing about the creation of the Nisei 100th Infantry Battalion and their contributions in the war, Sakato jumped at the chance to join the 442nd RCT a year later.
"The only problem was I couldn’t march and I couldn’t shoot," said George Sakato laughing. "So I have no idea how I ever became a Soldier. But I never quit. And maybe that’s what helped my determination to do my best for America while serving in World War II."
Sakato couldn’t know it then, but nearly two years later, the "Go For Broke" motto would turn a "zero into a hero."
The 442nd RCT had been ordered to rescue the 141st Regiment, 36th Infantry trapped by enemy forces on a ridge in the Vosges Mountains near Biffontaine, France.
Despite ten previous days of vicious fighting to liberate the French towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine, the 442nd RCT sprang into action as ordered.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 26, Sakato, E Company 2nd Battalion, 442nd RCT, began moving through the dark forest to a designated assembly point.
The Vosges Mountains in Eastern France made traveling complicated with its notoriously thick trees, excessive vegetation growth, and dense fog. During the journey through the forest, each Soldier held on to the backpack of the man in front of him to stay on course and keep from getting lost.
After relieving 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry, who had failed to rescue their sister unit, the Nisei were attacked by enemy forces.
The heavy bombardment forced the Soldiers to dig in. Freezing from the cold temperatures and exhausted from the lack of sleep, they lay in the foxholes for countless hours, listening to the cries from those wounded.
Reports regarding the 141st worsened the next day. The enemy had counterattacked, surrounded, and blocked the road behind the 141st. A strong road block and a defense line in back of the surrounded battalion with automatic weapons, self propelled guns and reinforced infantry had also been added.
Although just about four miles from friendly forces, the steep hills, ravines and fields littered with mines made it seem far longer.
The few roads that crossed the terrain were narrow, mud-saturated trails with German roadblocks.
The Nisei had to fight with whatever they could carry such as bazookas, grenades, machine guns, pistols and rifles with bayonets. Adjusting artillery was impossible due to the tall trees and steep slopes. And the rugged terrain made tank travel exceptionally difficult.
Sakato’s role in the rescue attempt began with an assault on Hill 617, Oct 28. While "G" Company made a holding attack on the front of the hill, the rest of the battalion made a sweep to surround the enemy on the right.
By nightfall, "E" and "F" companies had completed their turn and were deployed on the Northern slope of Hill 617. The next morning two G Company platoons once again attacked up the hill.
A heavy bombardment by the Germans forced the Nisei Soldiers back to their original position.
Their attack, however, had diverted the main enemy effort allowing E and F Companies to move behind enemy positions.
While the Germans continued to fire down on the Nisei Soldiers, Sakato and his unit moved up the hill.
Once in position, they charged the enemy lines. A counter attack by Germans on the left soon followed. But despite the fierce machine gun fire spraying down on Sakato’s platoon, the Soldiers edged forward.
Suddenly, Sakato glanced up to see one of his fellow Soldiers and good friend, Pvt. Saburo Tanamachi, stand up and then fall back into his foxhole.
Quickly, Sakato crawled out of his ditch and ran to Tanamachi .
"I picked him up and held him tight," said Sakato quietly. "I remember trying to say something, but his body went limp on me and I knew he was dead."
That’s when Sakato got mad, very mad, and decided it was time to "Go For Broke."
Through his tears, the Nisei who’d had a hard time keeping up on road marches and shooting straight, grabbed his Thompson sub-machine gun and pistol, firing as he ran up Hill 617.
He wasn’t alone for long. The "Go for Broke" motto had mustered the other Nisei Soldiers as well.
Matching Sakato’s courage and vigor, they pushed forward and fought beside him. During the charge up the hill, Sakato killed 12, wounded two, and captured four German soldiers.
Destroying two enemy defense lines and capturing 34 prisoners, the Nisei platoon turned defeat into victory.
In the late afternoon, E Company started downhill to join G Company moving forward and cleared up the remaining enemy forces. Between the companies, the Nisei killed another 100 and captured 41 more POWs.
Later, Sakato went back to Tanamachi and found the 1921 silver dollar that he always carried.
Upon his return to the states, Sakato presented the coin to Tanamachi’s mother.
"We were close because we had been together since basic training," said Sakato grinning at the mention of Tanamachi’s name. "I still remember when we paid $10 to spend five hours in the Waldorf Astoria in New York City before we left for overseas."
After the sixth day of heavy artillery gunfire, the Germans finally surrendered.
The battle to save the 141st Regiment, or "Lost Battalion" as it came to be known, was the 442nd’s most famous rescue. It was also responsible for the 442nd sustaining casualties two or three times more than the 211 that were left to be saved. And according to official U.S. Army records, the operation is regarded as one of the 10 most ferocious battles in Army history.
Initially, Sakato was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. In 2000, it was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.
"I don’t know whether I deserve that medal, but I do know the 442nd RCT always seemed to be in the thick of every fight," said Sakato. "But we didn’t ask questions. We just did our duty. We were willing to die for our country."
Sakato also says he’s no hero. "Nowadays, they’d call what I did ‘road rage,’" he said.
Winner of the MG Keith L. Ware Journalism award. Category I: Story Series.
Civilian Winner: Renita Foster, IMCOM–NERO, The Monmouth Message, Fort Monmouth Public Affairs