Staff Sergeant
Itsumu Sasaoka

May 18, 1916 - January 31, 1945

Aiea, Oahu, Hawaii - Stalag III


 

 

Itsumu Sasaoka was born on May 18, 1916 (his Army records state he was born in 1915) and was from Aiea, Oahu, Hawaii. He was the son of Takichi and Chiyono (Hanamoto) Sasaoka. Before entering the service on June 30, 1941, he was a yardman. Itsumu had 5 brothers and sisters.

Before the war his parents had moved back to Japan and lived in Hiroshima. His father died there on 23 December 1939. His mother just after the war in 1948.

Like many young Japanese Americans, Itsumu Sasaoka joined the US Army, despite the fact that the United States interred all Japanese Americans and the feeling was very anti-Japanese. Many felt they needed to show their patriotism and love for their country. The US Army assigned most of these to the 100th Infantry Regiment/442nd Regimental Combat Team which was to gain fame for their tenacity and courage in the campaigns of North Africa, Italy and perhaps most famously, in the Vosges mountains, France, when they were ordered to break through German lines to rescue an surrounded American battalion in October 1944.




 

A coy, 100th Infantry Battalion
 
442nd Regimental Combat Team

The 442nd would prove themselves time and time again. Their casualties were astounding and theirs would be one of the most decorated units of the US Army in World War Two.

On June 30, 1941, Itmusu Sasaoka was inducted into the US Army at Schofield Barracks, Oahu (serial no. 30101548). He trained at Schofield Barracks, Oahu, Camp McCoy, Wisconsin and Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He was assigned to the 298th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Battalion, 1st Battalion, Company A.

S/Sgt Sasaoka was a battle-hardened veteran of the campaigns in North Africa and Italy when his unit was moved to France in the summer of 1944.

After the breakout from the Normandy beachhead, the Allied forces had the Germans on the run. In October 1944, the 100th Battalion had been sent to France to become the 1st battalion of the newly formed 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This new unit was sent to the Vosges area to join the attack here. The Germans meanwhile had set up strong defensive positions in the Vosges.

On October 22, the Battalion prepared an attack on Biffontaine. Franz Steidl writes in Lost Battalions: " On Sunday, 22 October, Rev. Hiro Higuchi held services before the 2nd Battalion headed east again. Christians and Buddhists prayed side by side, reflecting on their own lives, mindful of the irony inherent in fighting for a country that kept their families in internment camps, and stamped the Buddhists' dog tags as "Protestant" as a matter of expediency.

Later that morning Companies E and F engaged a company of German bicycle troops who had infiltrated the Col de Arnelle during the night. After a sharp firefight, General Haeckel's men (the Germans) cleared the field, leaving a number of dead and six prisoners. And while the 3rd Battalion mopped up pockets of resistance near Belmont, the 100th Battalion established itself on the high ground overlooking Biffontaine. Company B had already cut the eastern approaches to the village and shot up a German truck convoy, when Grenadier Regiment 736 counterattacked. [...] Soon firefights were raging on three sides of the American Battalion, but the German thrust was not strong enough to penetrate its defenses. The protracted fighting left the Nisei short on ammunition and water, and their medical facilities overwhelmed with casualties.

To make the matters worse, a supply column from Belmont was ambushed in the hills just south of town.  Lt. David Novak’s infantry platoon, mounted on five light tanks, made easy targets for the German machine guns.  The Americans lost three killed and several wounded in the initial burst. As they tried to turn, Lt Ray Gainey’s tank became mired in mud.  Staff Sgt Sasaoka, himself seriously wounded, covered the withdrawal with stead stream of fire from his gun.  But as his tank lurched forward and he fell off and was later listed as missing in action."

Lyn Crost writes in Honor By Fire: "The 100th had advanced more than a mile from the nearest friendly troops; the forest trail over which it had come was patrolled by the enemy, and Germans had tapped its phone line. Ammunition was nearly exhausted and the men were using captured German supplies. Water and food couldn’t get through. An armored force carrying water, food, and ammunition, with a platoon of Nisei soldiers riding the tanks, fought to break through German lines. It was ambushed by enemy fire, but Sgt. Itsumu Sasaoka stayed on top of his tank and kept firing his machine gun.  Critically wounded, he continued shooting until the convoy passed the Germans. Then, weakened by loss of blood, he fell from his perch.  Although the tanks were finally forced to retreat, friends went back to search for Sasaoka. He was never found."

This action is also described in Ambassadors in Arms by Thomas B. Murphy: "Pence was becoming increasingly worried about the 100th.  During the afternoon he sent an armored task force down the soggy Belmont-Biffontaine road to try to push through with rations, water, and ammunition.  Some soldiers of the Company A platoon rode on the tanks, which soon ran into Jerry small-arms fire.  Sergeant Itsumu Sasaoka, firing a machine gun atop one of the tanks, was badly wounded but kept shooting until they had pushed past the enemy fire.  Then, weakened by loss of blood, he fell to the ground.  Later reported missing in action, he was awarded a DSC.  The tanks struggled ahead a little farther, but were finally stopped by a roadblock defended by fifty Jerries.  Some of the riflemen tried to push on through the woods, but none reached Biffontaine that day."

This episode was written down by Orville C Shirey (S-3 Operations Officer of the 3d Battalion 442d Regimental Combat Team), in AMERICANS, The Story of The 442d Combat Team, as follows:

"At 0830 October 22 [1944] the 3d Battalion moved out with all three rifle companies abreast, slowly flushing the remaining Germans from cover. The terrain was extremely rough and the troops were under artillery fire from the front, left front, and right flank. Meanwhile the 100th Battalion had disposed its companies so that they held a semicircular defensive position overlooking Biffontaine from three sides. The enemy, seeing the move, launched a counterattack supported by artillery, "screaming meemies", and flak gunfire. Firefights were soon raging on three sides of the battalion, but the enemy had not sufficient strength to make good his attack. The 100th was still in a critical position, however. The troops had almost exhausted their ammunition supply in beating off the attack; there was a critical shortage of water, and evacuation facilities for the wounded were very inadequate.

To combat the supply problem five light tanks from Task Force Felber took off from Belmont with a platoon of Company A [100th Bn] riding outside. They carried ammunition and water and were attempting to break through to the 100th by way of the Belmont-Biffontaine road. No sooner had the tanks gotten into the hills when they were ambushed by an enemy force of fifty men defending the road. The infantry platoon was practically defenseless. The first burst of fire killed three men and wounded several others. The heroism of one of the wounded, Staff Sergeant Itsumu Sasaoka, was the only thing saved the others. Manning a machine gun on the rear tank Sasaoka was badly hit in the first burst of enemy fire. In spite of his wound he clung to his gun and kept a steady stream of fire on the enemy positions alongside the road, until all of the tanks had passed the enemy positions. Then weakened by his wound and unable to hang on any longer, he fell from the lurching tank. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, although missing in action. The tanks did not complete their mission, being unable to negotiate the steep terrain. The infantry and some of the tank crews tried to make contact on foot, but they were unable to locate the battalion."

S/Sgt Sasaoka was captured by the Germans. Later he was sighted at a German POW camp (Stalag III). When the Russians were about to liberate the camp, most POW's were forced to march to the west and another camp. This was one of the so-called Death marches. A group remained behind in the camp. They woke up one day to find their camp guards gone. Not much later the Russians appeared and several Americans, holding a white flag went to meet them. The Russians opened fire and killed several, thinking they were Germans. Something similar happened to the group that were marched away. When the Russians caught up with them, they thought they intercepted a German column and opened fire. Again, several Americans were killed. S/Sgt Sasaoka was one of those killed. It is not known if he was with the column or still in the camp. His remains were never recovered. His DSC was awarded posthumously. 

His citation reads:

"The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Itsumu Sasaoka (30101548), Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an
armed enemy while serving with Company A, 100th Infantry Battalion, 442d Regimental Combat Team, attached to the 36th Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces in France. On 22 October 1944, near Belmont, France, Staff Sergeant Sasoka was assigned as a machine gunner on the last tank of a task force during the execution of a daring thrust through enemy-held terrain in an effort to relieve a friendly unit which had been surrounded and cut off by the enemy. As the task force advanced over a mountain trail, the enemy opened fire from well dug-in positions on both sides of the trail. Although seriously wounded by the first burst of hostile fire, Sergeant Sasoka, displaying a disdain for personal safety seldom surpassed, clung to his machine gun and directed a hail of bullets into the enemy positions in a last desperate attempt to prevent the other members of his platoon from being subjected to the lethal enemy crossfire. Finally, unable to hang on any longer due to his weakened condition, Sergeant Sasoka fell from the lurching tank. His magnificent courage and devotion to duty were in large measure responsible for the successful accomplishment of his platoon's mission and for saving the lives of many of his comrades. Staff Sergeant Sasaoka's intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty at the cost of his life, exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 36th Infantry Division, and the United States Army."

S/Sgt Sasaoka was also awarded the Purple Heart, 2 Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster to Purple Heart, Distinguished Unit Badge, 1 Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster to Distinguished Unit Badge, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Cam­paign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

Army records on his time as a PoW state that he was reported MIA on November 24, 1944 and that he died as a PoW in Stalag 3C Alt Drewitz Brandenburg.


S/Sgt Itsumu Sasaoka is mentioned on the Margraten Wall of the Missing.


(picture courtesy of Mr. Jim Yamashita)


 

Margraten, The Netherlands

 

Acknowledgements:
Dave, JAVA website
Mr. Jim Yamashita
Mr. Terry Shima
Mr. Seiki Oshiro
Mr. Grant Ichikawa
Mr. and Mrs. Denis Teraoka

Sources:
Lost Battalions, Franz Steidl, Presidio Press, Novato, California, 1997

Honor By Fire
, Lyn Crost, Presidio Press
, Novato, California, 1994
Ambassadors in Arms, Thomas B. Murphy
AMERICANS, The Story of The 442d Combat Team, Orville C. Shirey,
Infantry Journal Press, Washington, 1946
Japanese American Veterans Association Website
Katonk.com

Japanese American War Veterans website
www.homeofheroes.com

Directions to Margraten American Military Cemetery

Updated 1 April 2009


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This website is dedicated to the men and women who died and/or are buried in The Netherlands during World War II.

 

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