Sakae Takahashi

Takahashi fought through the entire first, bloody assault on Italy. “Everybody’s scared,” he was to write, “but you’ve got to move forward; you’ve got to overcome that fear. Once you start moving, you build up courage… (and) that fear gives way to the real fighting spirit.”8 Famously, at Cassino, the 100th Battalion was ordered by division headquarters to attack across the Rapido River. The goal was the heavily fortified monastery on the mountain above, which was the midpoint of the German line (the Gustav Line).

A and C Companies crossed the river in darkness, but Takahashi’s Company B was ordered to cross the next morning in daylight. Believing the order suicidal, the battalion commander refused to transmit it. As a result, he was forced to relinquish his command. “Everyone including Sakae knew it was a stupid order,” Kim recalled, “but he unquestionably obeyed. He wanted the U.S. Army to know the 100th was a great, dependable fighting force.” The crossing was a nightmare. The Germans also had sown the area with a new, hard-to-detect mine, and they also had flooded the flats around the river, causing the advancing troops to sink into the mud. Of the original 190 men in the company, only 46 were left to attempt the river crossing. Of those, only fourteen – among them Captain Takahashi — made it to the wall surrounding the German stronghold.

I did not then know of how many thousands died trying to penetrate the murderous German line, so I failed to ask Sakae how he subsequently felt when he was ordered to fall back. I do know his uppermost thought was to preserve his men to the utmost of his ability. It was for this that he had stayed in his tent on weekends in training camp, studying his manuals. Although his company would come to be regarded as courageous, he repeatedly described himself as “cautious” in his exercise of command.

As he looked back at the battle of Cassino, Takahashi seemed to be weighted down by an aura of sadness. I said he didn’t seem to like recounting war stories. He said he missed “the fellas,” as he called his men, and that he lived with a deep sense of regret at the loss or injury of each. When the 442nd joined what was left of the 100th at the northern Italian beachhead of Anzio, he was happy to see old friends from Hawaii, but he shuddered at what lay in store for them. By then, his leadership role was well known. A 442nd chaplain, the Rev. Masao Yamada, wrote home, “They are so battle hardened that we beginners feel green in their presence. I met Captain Takahashi, and he is a great leader. His men adore his command.”

Breaking out of the Anzio beachhead, Takahashi was hit in the neck by shrapnel, incurring an apparently minor wound that seemingly went unreported. In the push to liberate Rome, Companies B and C led the way. On June 2, 1944, near Rome, Takahashi was beating on the outside of an American tank, signaling it to move forward, when the tank was hit by the German’s dreaded 88 cannon. The explosion broke one of his ear drums, but he was out of action only briefly.

North of Rome, veering into the mountains at a town called Belvedere, with the attack again stalled, Takahashi helped plan a flanking move against the Germans, which he then led. It succeeded brilliantly, dislodging the Germans from the town and resulting in the taking of many prisoners and weapons.9 Recognition of the 100th began in earnest. For its accomplishments at Belvedere, the 100th received its first Presidential Unit Citation. In the ensuing weeks, two of the most influential publications in the U.S., TIME magazine and the New York Times, wrote glowingly of the Japanese Americans of the 100th Battalion. It was a national milestone in reversing the pattern of prejudice and discrimination.

The Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, inspected the American front lines on July 4, 1944. For the review, the 5th Army commander, General Mark Clark, insisted that Takahashi’s Company B be positioned front and center. General Charles W. Ryder, commander of the “Red Bull” 34th Division, escorted Stimson to review Company B. When he came to Takahashi, Ryder tapped Takahashi on the back and said, “My best outfit.”10 The moment must have been of more than passing interest to the U.S. Secretary of War, because he had been heavily involved in the inside, then-secret debate over using Japanese Americans in combat. He initially had weighed the idea of using Japanese Americans only in labor battalions, but then came down on the side of organizing real military units, writing to Chief of Staff George Marshall, “I don’t think you can permanently proscribe a lot of American citizens because of their racial origins. We have gone to the full limit in evacuating them – that’s enough.”

After securing the northern Italian port of Leghorn, the combined 100th Bn/442nd Regiment was shipped to France. There it battled its way into the Vosges mountains of northeastern France, beyond which lay the German homeland. The town of Bruyeres and its surrounding four peaks straddled a mountain pass that led the advancing Americans to Strasbourg in the Alsace region, near the German border. Takahashi’s Company B again was assigned to the most difficult task, taking the hill that dominated the town. It was the strategic key to the entire operation. Kim and Takahashi exposed themselves to German fire, beckoning the German troops to surrender. Initially nothing happened. At the last moment before the firing started, forty German soldiers surrendered, then many more surrendered as Company B stormed the hill.11 For this the 100th received its second Presidential Unit Citation.

With the two battalions of the 442nd Regiment still fighting German troops around Bruyeres, the Division commander ordered the 100th Battalion to push on without rest and take the high ground above the village of Biffontaine, to the northeast. This posed an enormous danger because their rear was unsupported. After reaching the ridge over the town, the 100th was surrounded by German troops. Attacked from all sides, without the resupply of food and ammunition, they then were ordered to resolve the situation by taking the town below. After doing so, they again were attacked from all sides by the Germans. The fighting was from house to house, hand to hand. Takahashi was wounded for the third time, this time taking a serious hit to his arm that resulted in heavy bleeding. He was evacuated on October 21, 1944, for long-term treatment and rehabilitation.

He had survived thirteen months of intense combat. “Throughout Northern Italy and France, Sakae and I took great risks to win battles quickly to reduce casualties,” Kim recalled. “Once we both had bullet holes in our uniforms but were not physically wounded.” Their good fortune had run out. Almost at the same time as Takahashi, Kim was seriously injured, and he too was evacuated. They were to remain lifelong friends.

Over and above the observation of General Clark, a redefinition of the 100th Battalion might more clearly underscore its enormous contribution to breaking down the German line. Where the going was hardest, where others failed, the 100th Battalion and its successor, the 100th Bn/442nd Regimental Combat Team, many times broke through, often led by Takahashi and B Company. Through courage and sacrifice, the unit was the tip of the American spear that bled the “soft underbelly,” in Churchill’s words – the Italian front — of the Third Reich.

Takahashi’s service to the U.S. Army continued through the Army Reserves. When the 100th Bn/442nd Regiment was reconfigured as a reserve unit in Honolulu, Takahashi became the commander. He subsequently served as commander of the 322nd Civil Affairs Group, and then as commander of the Ninth Army Corps Augmentation Group, which was responsible for contingency planning throughout a major portion of the Asian Pacific area. He retired with the rank of Colonel.

Changing Hawaii

After his evacuation from battle, he returned to his overarching cause, the transformation of Hawaii. Dr. Lawrence Fuchs, author of the widely read Hawaii Pono, recorded the story of Takahashi being hospitalized with the war-wounded Daniel K. Inouye near New York City. It was there, according to Fuchs, that Takahashi made his famous argument to Inouye, that to change Hawai’i they must get into politics. This, at least, Sakae acknowledged as being a true story. One can imagine him speaking quietly but forcefully at close range. Inouye underscored the importance of their repeated conversations by saying at that point, he had only a vague thought of not returning to the plantation, and that he was just beginning to think about politics.

As soon as he could be discharged, Takahashi elevated his sights from teaching agriculture to practicing law. Because he was already a college graduate, he was an early-day, post-war graduate of Rutgers Law School, earning his degree in 1948. As such, he was one of the first and most visible of the veterans who notched up their ambitions in the aftermath of war, supported by the GI Bill of Rights.

With Inouye as his best man, he married a beautiful New York girl, Bette, who became his lifelong love. When they returned to Hawaii, he took her to Camp 4 on the slopes of Kauai to meet his family. Imagine the scene. Bette was not only an East Coast city girl, but a Caucasian at a time when interracial marriage was rare. Of the many times I saw them together, I think their early crossing of the race line was one aspect of their strong bonding. They were leading the way. They had two girls, Karen and Kathryn, and then twin boys, Mark and Brian. Mindful that Sakae was the oldest son of a Japanese family, Bette eventually took care of her father-in-law in his old age for over two decades.

The First Japanese American Veteran Office Holder

Where most Japanese Americans up to that point had been elected through the dominant Republican Party, Takahashi opted to join John A. “Jack” Burns and the insurgent Democratic Party. He quickly became part of Burn’s inner circle, along with such pioneering Democrats as the educator Mitsuyuki Kido, the dentist Ernest Murai, attorneys Chuck Mau and William S. Richardson, and the ILWU leader Jack Kawano.

In 1950, at age thirty-one, Takahashi ran for and won a seat on the Honolulu Board of Supervisors, the equivalent of today’s Honolulu City Council. As such, he was the first Japanese American war veteran to win political office after the war.

In 1951, Burns, in his capacity as chairman of the Democratic Party, negotiated a deal wherein President Truman appointed Takahashi to the post of Territorial treasurer. It was the first time a Japanese American held high-level executive office in Hawaii. Takahashi was thirty-two.

The next year, owing to the Republican takeover of patronage resulting from the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as U.S. president, he was out of a job. But two years later he again ran for office, not for the House, where most people started, but the Senate of the Territory. He was the archetype of the Japanese American war veteran who swept the historic election of 1954, turning Hawaii from a conservative Republican society to a progressive Democratic society. Takahashi served in the Senate for twenty years, until 1974, hardly campaigning but never losing an election.