In 1942, George Sakato's family moved from California to Arizona, to avoid being sent to an internment camp for Japanese Americans. The twenty-one-year-old Sakato tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps but was rejected because of his draft status—4-C, undesirable alien. Then in 1943, because of the exploits of Japanese Americans in the Hawaiian National Guard's 100th Infantry Battalion in battles at Salerno, Montecassino, and Anzio, the government allowed other Japanese Americans in the service. Sakato enlisted in the Army, joining his older brother, Henry, who had volunteered before Pearl Harbor. After finishing basic training in the summer of 1944, the brothers were sent to Naples as replacements for the "Go for Broke" Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated American unit in the war.
In August, the 442nd boarded ships for a landing at Marseille. For the next two months, Sakato's unit fought its way north through France. In late October, it attacked the Germans around the town of Biffontaine, an area near the German border that was too mountainous for armor. Its objective, Hill 617, overlooked an open valley cut in half by the railroad line running from Strasbourg to Paris. The Germans were entrenched at the top of the hill, firing down on the American troops trying to mount an assault.
Just before midnight on October 28, Private Sakato's company was ordered to flank the Germans and get behind their position. It was so dark that each GI had
to hold on to the back strap of the man in front of him while moving forward. At dawn, the Americans attacked, Sakato leading the assault. With a Thompson submachine gun he had scavenged from a disabled tank, he killed five German soldiers.
Sakato's platoon secured the hill and sent prisoners back down to the Americans below. Then the Germans counterattacked; one of his close friends was hit and died in his arms. Seeking vengeance, Sakato took charge of the squad, fighting with an enemy rifle and pistol he picked up from the battlefield after his tommy gun ran out of ammunition. He killed another seven Germans and led his platoon in capturing thirty-four more. His unit held its position until it was relieved.
A few days later, the 442nd attempted to break through the Germans' encirclement of a battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment, known as the Lost Battalion. The Japanese American unit suffered more than 800 casualties in rescuing the 211 trapped GIs. During the battle, Sakato was knocked down by a mortar shell; the bulky winter overcoat he was carrying in his pack kept him from being killed by the shrapnel that struck his spine and lungs.