Our Salute to Sakae Takahashi

Author: Joy Teraoka
Puka Puka Parades, June 2001, #2001-5

Article about Sakae Takahashi’s life from high school to forming Central Pacific Bank.

Sakae Takahashi December 8, 1919 – April 15, 2001

A few months ago we started writing an article about Sakae Takahashi. It was to be a tribute to him while he was alive, in recognition of his outstanding leadership and comradeship among the 100th veterans. Regrettably, as fate would have it, this article becomes a eulogy instead. Nonetheless, we want to celebrate his life-a remarkable one of commitment and service to the people of Hawaii, and the lasting legacy he left for generations to come.

Sakae Takahashi, a barefoot country boy growing up in the plantation town of Makaweli, Kauai, didn’t own a pair of shoes until he graduated high school and came to Honolulu to attend the University of Hawaii. Even then, he said the shoes just “pinched and hurt.”
During high school his budding leadership was evident when he was elected student body vice- president of the newly established Waimea High School. Also, a treasured memory among his friends was the winning touchdown Sakae made against the more experienced varsity football team from Kauai High. Sakae chuckled in characteristic modesty, “When my teammate blocked Kauai High’s punt, I was playing right end and just fell on the ball in the end zone for a touch down.” But for Waimea High School and its junior-year football players, that one and only score for the whole game, was a great victory.

Perhaps it was in this close knit, small town atmosphere where Takahashi’s character and sense of solid traditional values were molded. Besides being imbued with Japanese ethics of on, giri, and oyakoko, Sakae believed in loyalty, honesty, commitment, integrity, camaraderie and community-attributes which carried him through life. And he did this with quiet confidence, with no pomposity, no display of self-importance.

During his fifth year at University of Hawaii with a major in agriculture, Sakae began provisional teaching at Aiea Junior High School. Also, while in college, he enrolled in the ROTC program and with advanced training, earned a reserve officer’s commission as a 2nd lieutenant. Upon graduation, Sakae said his only concern at that time was to find a job.

Then the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, and changed the direction of many lives thereafter. As a commissioned reserve officer, Sakae wrote to Lt. General Delos Emmons to ask for orders. The very next day, he received orders to report for duty. Sakae served in the Hawaii Territorial Guard until December 21, 1941. Thereupon he was assigned to the 299th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, which was made up of outer Island residents while the 298th Infantry Regiment was comprised of men from Oahu.

In this turmoil, although no acts of sabotage by AJA were committed, waves of rumors and lies swept across the Islands, casting suspicion and distrust upon all those of Japanese descent. On December 7, the AJA soldiers were guarding the beaches from the enemy. A few days later, their rifles were taken away from them and they themselves were looked upon with mistrust. In Washington, the top brass seesawed back and forth, trying to decide what to do about all these AJA soldiers. At one point, all AJA in the Hawaii Territorial Guard were discharged even though they comprised one-third of the outfit. Only through strong petition by some of Hawaii’s powerful, respected groups and individuals who vouched for the AJA’s loyalty and their desire to serve the country, were they recalled for military duty.
Fearing the Hawaiian Islands might be invaded by the Japanese and further fearing there might be confusion in identifying the AJA soldiers from the enemy, Emmons requested that the Japanese American soldiers be sent to the Mainland as the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion. Another reason influencing this viewpoint was the existing doubt about the loyalty and trustworthiness of the AJA under wartime conditions. Initially, Sakae was against the idea of a separate, segregated army group for the AJA. He wanted to serve and be treated as an American in the army of the United States. Eventually, in retrospect, Sakae believed the segregated AJA unit provided the opportunity for the Nisei to prove their loyalty and demonstrate their courage and trustworthiness.

On June 5, 1942, the S.S. Maui departed surreptitiously in darkness for California with the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion aboard. Lt Col. Farrant L. Turner headed the Battalion with Major James W. Lovell as his assistant Sakae was among the 16 Nisei officers on board. On June 12, when they reached Oakland, the group was officially designated as the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate). However, even as they docked, the men were ordered to remain below deck until darkness fell. Then they were hustled onto trains with window blinds drawn so no outsiders could detect them. Three train loads, taking different cross country routes, carried them to far off Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. For the officers and enlisted men, not knowing what fate lay ahead made this a particularly suspenseful journey.

For the next six months, it was here at Camp McCoy that the 100th trained intensively in the scorching heat of summer and the biting cold of winter where they experienced their first snow.

On June 2, the “One Puka Puka” (100th, in Hawaiian pidgin) was again on a train to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The men were being groomed for overseas combat, drilling under even harsher and more rigorous conditions. Along with Lt. Hemy Kawano, Sakae was sent to Ft. Benning (Georgia) Officers Training School for more specialized training. His motto for leadership training was “Follow Me.” Sakae learned that to be a good leader one takes the position his men will follow where he leads. But Sakae emphasized that in actual battle that adage does not always apply because there are times when the leader has to control his men and guide them as to how they should be deployed. Essentially, the mark of a good leader is how he uses his troops. What matters is “conservation of assets”–keeping watch of what properties, ammunition, and weapons you have at your disposal, and “conservation of people”—keeping watch of your troops. Another important principle in battle is “do the greatest damage you can to the enemy with the least damage to your own troops.”

Finally, in August 1943, the 100th left the United States for overseas duty, landing in Oran, Africa. Lt. Col. Turner continued to declare that his men were ready and willing to fight in battle—not guard supply lines or enemy prisoners. Turner’s efforts resulted in the 100th becoming attached to the brilliant fighting men of Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder’s 34th Red Bull Division. On September 13, 1943, the 100th headed for the battlefields of Italy.

Takahashi was with Company F at the beginning of their Italian campaigns. However, after the 100th and 34th Division suffered many casualties in their liberation of Salerno, Pozzilli, Hills 590 and 600, the men of Companies E and F were deployed to Companies A, B and C to recoup their ranks. It was after Hill 600 that 1st Lt. Takahashi was assigned to Company B as commanding officer, replacing the injured Captain Taro Suzuki. Another officer, 1st. Lt. Young Oak Kim from Company E went to Company C. Eventually Kim became Takahashi’s Intelligence Officer (S-2) and Operations Officer (S-3) working closely with him on many successful battle strategies. They had the highest respect for each other, and together formed a brilliant team in their fighting efforts. Kim planned the operations, and Takahashi carried them out. Takahashi complimented Kim, remarking he was “gutsy,” and “a fighter.”

In Italy and France, the men who fought under Takahashi have called him a “damn good leader,” an “outstanding leader.” He won the respect of his men because he in turn respected them. Within Company B, Sakae recognized his capable leaders and gratefully acknowledged that he had the greatest number of leaders under him.

Although the 100th fought many horrendous battles, for Takahashi the most traumatic and challenging in Italy was at Monte Cassino. He declared it a disaster. Even though the 100th and their supporting divisions literally fought an heroic uphill battle, the abbey was impregnable. The Allied troops fought against insurmountable odds, in mud, rain, sleet, and bitter cold, suffering many lost lives and casualties. Ultimately, after a forced retreat, it necessitated the forces of five Allied divisions and repeated bombings of the abbey to finally conquer Cassino. Takahashi shook his head in dismay as he reflected upon the tragedy of Cassino. Despite their initial defeat, the 100th won tremendous respect from top military leaders for its courageous and dauntless efforts in battle. Just after Cassino, Sakae was promoted to the rank of captain on March 20, 1944.

In our discussion of what made the men such courageous soldiers, it was pointed out that most of the 100th came from close knit communities in Hawaii. Many knew each other before the war. A camaraderie developed during training that brought them closer together; in battle they knew each one depended upon the other. Even under fire in hazardous conditions, they would not abandon their fallen comrades, so committed was their brotherhood. As their parents taught them not to bring shame upon their family names, they could not shirk their duty or be derelict in their conduct on the battlefield. To do less would be to lose face. They fought as a team to do their utmost to achieve their objective.

Another component of almost super human courage is, ironically, “fear.” Takahashi analyzed it this way. Initially, you start out with fear of the dangers that constantly plague you–that something is going to happen to you. But there is that power within that takes control and you overcome that fear, making it possible for you to move ahead. He affirmed human beings develop that strength.. Also, after seeing the death and carnage about you, it gets to the point where you are driven by an obsession to kill the enemy. It is almost a madness.

During the war, three Distinguished Presidential Unit Citations were conferred upon the 100th and 442nd. For the battle of Belvedere, the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) was awarded its first Presidential Unit Citation. In the book Remembrances (pp. 125-127), Shurei Hirozawa documents the fight for Belvedere in which Takahashi’s Company B played a pivotal part in the success of this battle. Their mission was to get behind enemy lines, take the town of Belvedere, and cut off the main road to Sassetta. By using Company B’s 1st, 2nd, and 3rd platoons in an enveloping three pronged maneuver, they succeeded brilliantly in carrying out their assigned mission. With the help of Companies A and C, the 100th also took the town of Sassetta. In this fierce 2-day battle, the 100th routed the Germans, sending them in complete disarray. The jerries suffered tremendous defeat, surrendering not only 10 kilometers of ground, but also large quantities of weapons, equipment, vehicles. The enemy counted 178 killed, 20 wounded and 74 captures. The 100th suffered four killed and seven wounded.

The 100th/442nd Infantry Regiment won their second Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic deeds at Bruyeres and Biffontaine in France. Although Takahashi was injured in the fighting at Bruyeres and did not participate in the l00th’s return to Italy for the attack on the German Gothic Line, the men of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team won a third Presidential Unit Citation for this campaign.
Remarkably, four of the recent Medal of Honor recipients were from Takahashi’s Company B–2nd Lt. Yeiki Kobashigawa, Pvt. Shinyei Nakamine, Lt. Alan Ohata, and Pvt. Mikio Hasemoto. Takahashi explained that although there were many exceptional acts of heroism among all the units, he insisted his leaders document in writing the actions of his men that might warrant the awarding of the Distinguished Service Cross or other medals. Because of these preserved records, he was able to initiate the recommendations for his MOH recipients. Here, again, Takahashi’s foresight proved right on the mark.

During the freezing winter fighting in Bruyeres, both Takahashi and Young Ok Kim were injured. Takahashi was transferred to a hospital in the east coast of the United States. Among other AJA soldiers recuperating there was a young officer of the 442nd–Daniel Inouye. Here within these hospital walls, the young soldiers began to question what, if anything, were their sacrifices and efforts for. In long discussions, the men analyzed the AJA’s future possibilities back in Hawaii. Matured on the battlefields, more serious and focused on what their mission in public life might be, they concluded that to improve the quality of their lives and win social, and economic equality, the Nisei would have to do it through political means-rebuild the Democratic Party, backed by the returning AJA veterans of World War II.

On a less serious note, while convalescing, Sakae and another army buddy, Halo Hirose, rode up to the YWCA in New York “to meet some girls.” Sakae’s date was blonde, beautiful and bright. And Bette was her name. Surely it was fate. They must have had a great time, because eventually she became his wife and companion for 54 years of married bliss.

After his discharge, Sakae returned briefly to Hawaii, then applied under the GI Bill to Rutgers University School of Law. In 1948, he returned to Hawaii with a law degree and worked for Attorney’s Office of the City and County of Honolulu.

Upon his return to Hawaii with his new bride, Sakae soon became involved in reorganizing the Democratic Party with a whole new group of enthusiastic AJA veterans. Among those young motivated veterans were Daniel Inouye, Dan Aoki, Mike Tokunaga, Elton Sakamoto, Taro Suyenaga, to name just a few. John Burns, a liberal haole, also believed that a new revitalized Democratic Party could diminish the stronghold of the Republican Party that was so entrenched in the politics of Hawaii. Dramatic social, and economic changes were also taking place in the Islands-unionization, entrepreneurship, and democratization.

In the early post-war years, despite their return as heroes, many young Nisei men found that even with professional status, they encountered difficulty in getting loans, or getting ahead economically. The AJA realized that by pooling the Democratic Party, unions, and liberal factions together, they could become a recognized force in Island government. Sakae focused his energies toward representing the everyday working classes.

In 1950 he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors for the City and County of Honolulu and served for a year. In 1952, Governor Oren E. Long appointed him Treasurer of the Territory of Hawaii. Sakae won the distinctive honor of being the youngest and the first AJA to be appointed to the Governor’s cabinet. Other young AJA also ran successfully for political positions that quickly enhanced the position of the AJA community, and broke barriers that long held them down.

In 1949, Sakae, lacking both cash and credentials, could not qualify for a loan to buy a mere jacket at a Fort and Beretania clothing store. Others of Japanese descent were denied much needed loans to start businesses. These discouraging events convinced him more than ever of the need for a grass roots bank that would serve the small people. With unflagging determination, he and his colleague, Elton Sakamoto, vowed to work toward establishing such a bank. Gradually, his advancing career as Territorial Treasurer (1952-53), as Territorial Senator (1954-59), and as State Senator (1960-74) gave him the experience and contacts needed to guide them in their planning.

In A History of Service: The Central Pacific Bank Story 1954-1994, Arnold Hiura with Glen Grant trace the fascinating history of Hawaii’s third largest financial institution. Takahashi, Sakamoto, and Danny Inouye were the visionaries who gathered together a dedicated group of outstanding Issei and Nisei to initiate this dream. In the early, lean years, their “board meetings” were held under the trees at Ala Moana Park while eating plate lunches. Eventually, Mitsuyuki Kido invited them to his home for weekly gatherings to seriously continue their pursuit. This was the initial stage of Central Pacific Bank. Their plans gathered momentum. Through concerted effort, these young men solicited stockholders throughout the Island, and succeeded in raising the needed capital from the Japanese community. Ironically, many of these young pioneer bankers could not afford to buy the initial stock offering on their own, so they pooled or borrowed from family members to buy the minimum amount. With the experienced management of Japan’s Sumitomo Bank backing them, Central Pacific Bank finally received its charter on January 29, 1954, becoming the first bank to open in Hawaii since 1935.

Against all odds, Takahashi’s dream became a reality. He played a major role in every important phase of planning and management, of securing its first place of business from the Yee family on King and Smith Streets, and of purchasing the property on Alakea and King on which Central Pacific Bank erected its 22-story main office building. From 1954 to 1989 Sakae was instrumental in guiding this institution into becoming one of the largest banks serving the people of Hawaii. Indeed, this was the culmination of Takahashi’s dreams, ideals and values–of serving and representing the people of our Islands on equal terms, whether they be a barefoot country boy or a U.S. Senator.

Throughout the years, Takahashi served as a director, trustee, or board member of several large corporations and organizations such as Hawaiian Airlines, Security Title Corporation, the Japanese Cultural Center, and the Hawaii Army Museum Society. Until 1967 he remained a U.S. Army Reserve officer, retiring with the rank of colonel. He won numerous medals and awards for distinguished service during war and peace from both the U.S. and Japanese governments. He was a member of many veterans groups. Following the 100th Infantry Battalion’s motto of “For Continuing Service,” Sakae exemplified this ideal in every way.

To cap all his laurels, Sakae was a dedicated family man, who basked in the warm love of his wife, his four children, and numerous grandchildren. He had it all; he did it all; and he deserved it all.
In our interview with Sakae, one of the lasting impressions that remain of this truly great man was his genuine lack of pretension in speech and manner. He was confident but unassuming. Quiet yet forceful. A very caring person, rarely calling attention to himself. He was truly a “gem.”

We salute you, Sakae, the epitome of what the 100th Infantry Battalion stood for—loyalty, courage, strength, sacrifice and service. You were our leader and comrade in both war and peace. Your presence will, indeed, be missed. You are surely the “wind beneath our wings.”

(This article is based on a personal interview with Sakae Takahashi on April 11, 2001, at Club 100, with Kenneth Otagaki and Shurei Hirozawa, his very close and long time friends. Other information was gathered from Remembrances: 100th Infantry Battalion, 50th Anniversary Celebration, 1942-1992 published by the 100th Infantry Battalion Publication Committee; The Central Pacific Bank Story: 1954-1994 by Arnold Hiura with Glen L. Grant, 1994; Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and 442nd by Masayo Duus, 1983; Go for Broke by Chester Tanaka, 1982; I Can Never Forget: Men of the 100th/442nd by Thelma Chang, 1991; Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers, compiled by the Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board, 1998.)