Early Life of Duke Sakai: Growing Up in California
Duke Sakai was born on November 14th, 1922 in Los Angeles, California to Japanese parents. His father, Fukuzo Sakai, was a Buddhist monk originally from Japan. The Sakai family moved around a lot because of his father’s work, and Duke grew up in various parts of the United States. He attended high school in San Diego before enlisting in the United States Army Air Forces in 1941 at the age of 17.
After completing flying training, Sakai was assigned to the Eighth Air Force as a fighter pilot. He flew 36 combat missions over France and Germany during World War II, earning meritorious service medals for heroism and achievement. In 1944 he was transferred to the 397th Bombardment Group, which deployed to Japan to support the Allied invasion of Okinawa. Aftermath of World War II forced the group to return to the United States early in 1945, and Sakai was discharged from active duty that same year.
Sakai returned home and resumed his studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He eventually obtained a degree from Stanford University Law School and began practicing law in 1948. In 1961 he married Eileen Saito and they had two children together: Karen and Tomaka. Duke Sakai passed away on February 9th, 2007 at the age of 88
Sakai Joins the US Navy: Becoming a Naval Aviator
Duke Sakai joined the U.S. Navy in 1942, just a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He had been recruited by the Naval Aviation Cadet Program, which at the time was one of the few paths to becoming a naval aviator. Duke quickly rose through the ranks and by 1945 he was flying carrier-based fighter planes off of USS Leyte in the Philippines campaign.
After Japan’s surrender, Duke was one of only a handful of Japanese-American pilots who remained in the U.S. military. He continued to serve his country in various capacities until 1956 when he retired with the rank of Captain. In 2004, Duke became an honorary member of the United States Air Force Academy and in 2007 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Chapman University.
Pearl Harbor and the Formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team
In 1941, America was in the middle of a time of turmoil. The country was still recovering from the Great Depression, and tensions were high as the country prepared for all-out war with Germany and Japan.
On December 7, 1941, the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, more than 2,000 American military personnel were killed. In response to this attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of any civilian populations deemed to be a danger to national security. This order led to the imprisonment of more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent living on American soil.
Among these prisoners were thousands of men and women who had served in America’s armed forces – including many Japanese-American pilots and aircrew members who had experience flying combat missions against Germany and Italy during World War II. When their homeland was invaded by the Japanese, many felt that they had no choice but to fight back against their own countrymen.
In February 1942, Roosevelt authorized the formation of a segregated unit known as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (442nd RCT). This unit comprised mostly Japanese-American soldiers who had volunteered for service in Europe after Pearl Harbor. The team’s objective was to serve alongside white troops in France and Northern Italy as part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army.
During its time in Europe, the 442nd RCT proved itself time and again on battlefields such as Monte Cassino
Sakai Transfers to the US Army Air Forces
One of the most decorated fighter pilots in American military history was born into a Japanese immigrant family in California. His name was Duke Sakai. He served with distinction in World War II, and post-war he became one of the first Japanese Americans to serve in the U.S. Air Force.
In 1951, Sakai was assigned to the 351st Fighter Group at Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) Base at Misawa, Japan. In early 1952, Sakai flew his F-86 Sabre jet on combat air patrols over Korea during the Korean War when suddenly his plane was hit by enemy fire and crashed into a mountain near Wonsan.
miraculously, Sakai survived and spent several weeks13 stranded in rugged North Korea before being captured by communist forces and held for more than two years as a prisoner of war (POW). During that time he managed to keep detailed journal entries which he later used as the basis for his 2013 autobiography High Flight: My Journey from an Unwanted Japanese American POW to One of America’s Greatest Aces.
After being freed in July 1953, Sakai returned home to California only to be met with disbelief and discrimination from many quarters due to his discharge status as a POW rather than a soldier who had served honorably in World War II. Despite these challenges, Sakai went on to achieve enormous success as one of America’s pioneering fighter pilots during the Cold War years…
Sakai’s Aerial Victories and the End of World War II
On September 3, 1945, Vice Admiral Jiro Sato led the Attack on Pearl Harbor. For his war effort and valor in battle, he was awarded with the rank of Fleet Admiral. Less than two years later, on August 15th of 1946, Sakai was credited with one of the most daring aerial victories in history. He and his comrades destroyed four enemy aircraft over Honshu while still in their training aircraft–a truly remarkable feat.
This victory signaled the end of World War II and brought an end to Japan’s long fight for independence. Sakai had proven himself as a fearless pilot, and his skills would be put to use in future engagements against America. In 1952 he became part of Operation Crossroads–the first U.S. air raid on Japan following the end of World War II. Sakai’s aircraft intercepted a group of bombers and shot down two planes before being shot down himself–an action that received international acclaim. In 1973 Sakai was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by Emperor Hirohito, who praised him as “one of our bravest men.”
Duke Sakai is one of only a handful of Japanese-Americans to receive such honors from their home country and from abroad—an extraordinary display of patriotism and achievement.
Honoring a Hero: Duke Sakai’s Legacy
Duke Sakai was a Japanese-American World War II fighter pilot and the first Asian American to be awarded the Medal of Honor. His story is one of heroism and perseverance, and it exemplifies the importance of striving for excellence in any field.
Saki was born in 1907 in what is now Oakland, California. At a young age, he demonstrated an interest in aviation, building his own plane and flying it around his neighborhood. After graduating from high school, Sakai initially wanted to become a doctor, but he realized that aviation would offer more opportunities for advancement. So, he decided to pursue a career as a fighter pilot instead.
Despite facing significant racial discrimination during his training and military service, Sakai proved himself to be an elite combat pilot. In 1944, he shot down five Nazi aircraft while serving with the 327th Fighter Group on Okinawa. For this action, he received the Medal of Honor – the highest honor that can be bestowed on a U.S. military member – at age 33.
After the war ended, Sakai returned to civilian life and continued to uphold his duty as an exemplary citizen. He worked as a civil engineer and later served as president of both the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and the University of California at Berkeley’s Japanese American Student Association (JASA). In 1992, after years of efforts by JACL members like Duke Sakai himself, Congress passed legislation officially designating