Henry Sakaguchi arrived at Colorado Public Radio recently wearing the cap of his World War II unit: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The hat hasd the words “go for broke” on the front.
"That was the combat team's motto,” Sakaguchi told Colorado Matters. "It means to go all out." It’s a motto Sakaguchi said his unit lived and died by while fighting the Axis powers in Europe during the war.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team became the most decorated U.S. military unit of its size. It was made up of almost entirely of second-generation Japanese-Americans. The exception was the leadership, who were mostly white. Sakaguchi said that led to some tension. But one commander had this advice: "He told us if somebody ever calls you a Jap or something, don't back down. Fight for your rights."
Sakaguchi, who is 97 and lives in Denver, spoke to CPR News as part of an ongoing series documenting the lives of World War II veterans and survivors living in Colorado. His parents immigrated from Japan, and Sakaguchi grew up on a farm near Brighton.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 by Japan, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war during his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech. The following February, Roosevelt ordered the relocation of people of Japanese ancestry. They were rumored to be spies, plotting to sabotage the U.S. war effort. So, with Executive Order 9066, more than 100,000 people were forced into internment camps, many of them American citizens.
Sakaguchi said his family was lucky to have been living in Colorado.
"In our community, there wasn't too much prejudice," said Sakaguchi. "Most of our neighbors were German descent, and [at] the elementary school where we went there were about 15 or 20 of us Japanese-Americans."
Colorado's then-governor Ralph Carr called the president's order unconstitutional: "An American citizen of Japanese descent has the same rights as any other citizen... If you harm them, you must first harm me." The position cost Carr his political career.
There was an internment camp in Colorado — the Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache. Sakaguchi and his family though were able to stay on their farm. Then, in 1943, at the age of 22 and despite the nation’s mistrust of Japanese-Americans, Sakaguchi joined the U.S. Army.
"I felt patriotism and also I wanted to prove my loyalty to America because America didn't believe that we were loyal citizens," he said.
After basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, Sakaguchi’s unit went off to Europe, Italy specifically, in 1944. Sakaguchi was assigned to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion as a radio mechanic and operator. He'd fight in both Italy and France, and he was grateful he never had to be in the infantry.
"Being in the artillery, I didn't know how lucky I was until we got in actual battle and I saw what the infantry was going through," he said.
Eventually, Sakaguchi's battalion advanced into Germany, where they liberated a sub-camp of the Dachau concentration camp in May 1945. He recalled stopping for lunch near a shed as his unit approached the death camp.
"Just on the other side of the shed," he said, "we found about 150 bodies just stacked up like cordwood in their prison stripped [uniforms], and they were just skin and bone."
In January 1946, the Army discharged Sakaguchi. He got married soon after and went to technical school to study radio and TV repair. He pursued that work for most of his life, including running his own repair shop. He also had four children.
In 2011, Sakaguchi and his unit received the Congressional Gold Medal. And he earned the French Legion of Honour in 2013.
Sakaguchi said he thinks about the war “every once in awhile,” most particularly he wonders "how the buddies I knew… [are] doing."
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Editor's Note: A previous version of this story said Sakaguchi received the Congressional Medal of Honor instead of the Congressional Gold Medal. The story has been corrected.