SA Richard Sakakida – OSI Hall of Famer Remembered

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

In celebration of the Office of Special Investigation’s 50th Anniversary, on Sept. 12, 1998, six former OSI members were inducted as the inaugural class of the concurrently established OSI Hall of Fame. The OSI Hall of Fame was created to recognize a few select former members of the organization who demonstrated exceptional dedication and leadership in the performance of their duties, which set them apart from others who have served in the organization.

Among those first six honorees, was Special Agent Richard M. Sakakida.

Richard Motoso Sakakida was born on Nov. 19, 1920, in Maui, Hawaii. His parents emigrated from Japan to the United States in the early 1900s. His family moved to Honolulu, Oahu, in 1923. Sakakida’s father passed away in 1928 which left his mother to raise their five kids on her own. Richard Sakakida graduated from McKinley High School in Honolulu in 1939. He was a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps there, serving as the Cadet Colonel during his senior year leading more than 300 cadets. He also graduated from the Hongwanji Japanese language school in 1939.

Upon graduating from high school he a secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, however, his mother was not keen on him attending the academy so he applied for a job with the Honolulu Police Department instead. However, he was turned down for not meeting the minimum height requirements. Instead, Sakakida secured employment working early mornings as an on-air announcer for a Japanese language radio program and also working in a pineapple cannery. 

In February 1941, Sakakida received a phone call from his former high school JROTC instructor who invited him to report to an interview with the military. At the interview he found himself among 30 other Japanese-American candidates who were being interviewed for an unknown position. Sakakida was the youngest candidate there and the only one who did not have a college degree. He completed the interview without knowing what he interviewed for. A few weeks later, he was notified he was selected as one of two applicants for a job with the Army.   

On March 13, 1941, Sakakida was sworn into the Army as a sergeant and assigned to the Corps of Intelligence Police, making him one of the first Japanese-Americans ever recruited into Army intelligence. He was initially told his duties would be to monitor Japanese radio broadcasts and to read Japanese newspapers, translating items he deemed might be important to Army leadership. Shortly after enlistment, Sakakida was interviewed by the Army’s Chief of Military Intelligence in Hawaii who had other ideas.

“The Army informed me my duties were of such a nature that my destination and my particular duties could not be revealed to anyone outside of my immediate family,” Sakakida recalled in a 1970s interview. “As to my destination, I was informed it would be the Philippines. No specific instructions were given as to how I would conduct myself or who to contact after arriving in Manila. I was assured someone would contact me upon my arrival.”   

Sakakida departed Hawaii on April 7, 1941, headed for the Philippines. Despite still having concerns over her son serving in the military, his mother said goodbye telling him simply: “This is your country. Do your best.” Without any formal espionage training, his mission was to spy on the Japanese in Manila and identify any Japanese nationals who might be working for the Japanese military there. 

He arrived in the Philippine capital city two weeks later, was contacted by an Army handler, and given the code name “Sixto Borja.” He moved into a Japanese hotel with the cover story that he was an American citizen and a merchant seaman who had jumped ship with plans to remain in the Philippines for a couple of years. Through his military intelligence contacts, Sakakida secured a job with a local company affiliated with Sears and Roebucks. He also accepted part-time work as a clerk at the hotel where he was living in exchange for room and board.

Over the next several months Sakakida ingratiated himself into the Japanese community in Manila and was able to identify and report on a number of individuals suspected as agents or members of the Japanese military. His skills as an undercover agent progressed to the point that in late November 1941 he was offered a job working for the Japanese government inside the Japanese Consulate office. Sakakida accepted the position which was scheduled to begin in January 1942, however, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, prevented this opportunity from occurring.    

With World War II underway, Sakakida remained undercover and accompanied a group of Japanese nationals to an evacuation center. He was quickly discovered by American interrogators there as an American citizen, but he convinced them to allow him to stay in the camp for his protection because of his Japanese heritage. They agreed and Sakakida was allowed to remain in the camp and continue his mission. His stay was short, however. After only three days he was arrested by the Philippine national police force as a Japanese spy when he returned to his former residence to retrieve some personal items. Interrogated again, this time by the Filipinos, he got lucky when he was recognized by a senior agent as once being in the company of an Army intelligence officer. His Army handler was contacted and Sakakida was given a reprieve from Philippine custody. Instead, he was “arrested” by Army officials and removed from the evacuation center keeping his undercover persona intact.  

Sakakida was subsequently transferred to the Army Signal Intelligence Office, which reported directly to the Allied Commander of the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur. Following the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, which began on Dec.12, 1941, Sakakida’s responsibilities included the deciphering of captured radio intercepts, conducting prisoner interrogations and translating captured documents. He served for a short time in Manila before moving with retreating Allied forces to the Bataan Peninsula and then joining MacArthur on the island fortress of Corregidor.           

In early March 1942, MacArthur evacuated from the Philippines under a direct Presidential order. A few weeks later, a telegram was received from Australia which instructed Sakakida and his group of military interpreters to leave Corregidor and join MacArthur’s headquarters there. Instead of leaving, Sakakida volunteered his position to a Hawaiian born civilian interpreter who was also the husband of a Japanese wife and father of three children, all of whom resided in Japan. The civilian interpreter was also a former employee of the Japanese diplomatic services. Sakakida feared for the interpreter and his family’s safety should he be captured by the Japanese Army. Willfully accepting great personal risk, Sakakida remained behind. 

Corregidor was surrendered to the Japanese on May 6, 1942. Sakakida, wearing a khaki uniform with no military markings, accompanied the American delegation to the surrender ceremony under the guise of serving as a civilian interpreter for the commanding general. Told by the Japanese that interpreters were not needed because they had brought their own, Sakakida was separated from the delegation and returned to Corregidor as a prisoner of the Japanese Army. The Japanese did not trust Sakakida’s cover story from the beginning.

“The interrogation started off in a very gentlemanly manner but finally ended in physical torture,” said Sakakida. “In spite of this, I continued to stick to the original story that I was a civilian and a victim of circumstances, brought to Corregidor as an interpreter because of my American citizenship. During the interrogation the Japanese tried to prove I was a member of the Army and the Intelligence Services so they could charge me for treason as a Japanese. Their interpretation was that anyone of Japanese ancestry owed allegiance to Japan.” 

For most of the next three months, the physical torture continued as the Japanese tried to mount a case of treason against Sakakida by forcing him to admit to being a member of the American intelligence services. If found guilty of this charge, Sakakida faced the death penalty.  Sakakida often had his hands tied behind his back before he was strung up by wire with his feet barely touching the floor. The Japanese often stripped him of his clothes and burned him with cigarettes before beating him mercilessly. They even stuck a hose in his mouth and filled him with water to the point of what felt like near bursting. Sakakida did not break.     

When Sakakida was born in 1920, his parents, as Japanese citizens, registered his birth with the Japanese consulate in Honolulu. Fortunately for Sakakida, when he entered military service in 1941, his mother had the foresight to take the appropriate expatriation actions necessary with the consulate to have any ties he may have had to Japanese citizenship voided.  After the Japanese Home Ministry in Tokyo reported to the Japanese Army that, as of August 1941, Sakakida’s Japanese citizenship was renounced, they could no longer legally charge him with treason and the physical torture sessions mostly stopped. They continued to try to get him to admit to his role as an American spy, but Sakakida remained steadfast, sticking to his cover story. He remained a prisoner under charges of disturbing the peace and order of the Japanese military until February 1943, when he was transferred to the custody of a Japanese colonel who served on their headquarters legal staff. Sakakida’s new role was to serve as the personal interpreter, housekeeper, orderly and cook for the colonel.

This situation provided a unique opportunity. He often found himself alone in the Japanese colonel’s office with access to countless documents which included sensitive information such as troop strength, supply lines, ship movements, etc. He was also privy to what seemed like an endless number of conversations among senior military staff members and the intelligence which they discussed. Because he worked for the legal staff, he also had personal contact with the family members of Filipino guerilla fighters, who had been captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. They would often visit the legal office trying to gain access to their loved ones. Through this connection, Sakakida passed on much of what he learned to Allied headquarters through the underground communication networks. 

Most of the Filipino guerillas captured by the Japanese were held in a single prison, administratively run by the Japanese, but manned mostly by Philippine nationals. Through his spy efforts, Sakakida learned the Japanese garrison typically conducted a security check at the prison every night between midnight and 2 a.m. Further, through his Filipino contacts Sakakida had the prison’s electricity turned off on a set day and time.  

One night in October 1943, Sakakida snuck out of his quarters wearing a stolen Japanese officer’s uniform. He led a group of four similarly dressed Filipino guerillas to the prison armed with .45 caliber Japanese pistols. They arrived at the gate just before midnight and just after the power to the prison was turned off.

“When the two gate guards saw us marching up to the main entrance they assumed we were the Japanese garrison guards and politely gave us a forty-five degree bow,” Sakakida remembered. “To their surprise we already had our .45’s stuck in their ribs and took over.  Approximately 25 guerillas who followed us immediately overpowered the prison authorities on guard and we freed 500 guerillas who had been interned or imprisoned.”

Immediately following the prison break, Sakakida snuck back into his quarters unobserved, arriving just in time for the 6:30 a.m. roll call. Later that morning, while he was working in the legal office, the Prison Superintendent rushed in to report the details of the escape. Incredibly, since the Japanese colonel was not present at the time, the superintendent asked Sakakida to relay the information regarding the prison break on his behalf, which he subsequently did with quiet exaltation.      

The sudden release of 500 Filipino guerillas into the countryside significantly expanded the ability of the underground communication networks to relay information to Allied headquarters. In late April 1944, Sakakida learned of 15 Japanese troop transports that left the Philippines in an attempt to attack American staging grounds and head off an expected American invasion of the island chain from the south. Through the guerillas, Sakakida quickly reported this information to Allied headquarters. Though he did not learn the success of his report until many months later, on May 1, 1944, those transports were met at sea by waiting American submarines which sank at least three of them with the loss of approximately 1,300 troops and all their accompanying war supplies. The surviving Japanese ships turned back.    

In October 1944, American forces invaded the Philippines. For the next seven months, Sakakida was forcibly moved with the Japanese Army as they retreated north. In June 1945, he escaped his captors, joining up with a small group of Filipino guerillas. He fought with the guerillas for approximately 10 days until he was wounded during a Japanese artillery bombardment. Due to the severity of his wounds, he was left behind alone. He performed impromptu surgery on himself using a razor blade to remove shrapnel from his abdomen before packing the wound with a poultice he made from river weeds. After three weeks, he finally traveled and spent the next two months wandering the jungle by himself, surviving on wild fruits and grasses, river water, and whatever else he could scrounge up for nourishment.

“Not knowing my exact location or where the nearest town or city might be located I continued to follow a river downstream hoping that I would get back to civilization somehow,” said Sakakida. “My progress was impeded due to malaria, dysentery and beriberi.”     

When the Japanese formally surrendered and World War II officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945, Sakakida remained unaware of world events as he was still lost in the jungle. Towards the end of the month, he finally stumbled across a patrol of American soldiers. At first he did not recognize them due to their unfamiliar equipment and he took cover. He contemplated they might be German troops due to the types of helmets they were wearing. After listening to their conversations from a concealed position for several minutes, he realized they were indeed Americans and he raised himself up out of the jungle with his hands in the air shouting: “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!” The soldiers were somewhat taken aback by the malnourished, scraggly-looking Japanese character in tattered clothes who spoke perfect English. Sakakida explained to them that he was a sergeant in the American Army, an escaped prisoner of war and a member of military intelligence. Still skeptical, the soldiers escorted him under guard to a nearby headquarters outpost where, after a few hours of questioning, his story was confirmed.  Sakakida’s war was finally over. 

Since Sakakida was one of a very few Americans with firsthand knowledge of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, despite his condition, he was only granted a very short leave before returning to duty to assist with the efforts to locate, identify, interrogate and prosecute Japanese military members suspected of war crimes. He would also personally testify at several war crimes trials, serving as a key witness relaying his observations and experiences as a prisoner of war. 

Sakakida commissioned into the officer corps as a second lieutenant in 1947. In 1948 he transferred from the Army to the Air Force joining the newly established Office of Special Investigations, where he spent the next 28 years working for the command, all but eight of those years located in Japan. He retired in September 1975 as a lieutenant colonel. His last assignment was as the commander of all OSI operations in Japan.

While his post-war experiences never quite matched the legend of what he accomplished during his time in the Philippines, his efforts in Japan after the war that helped build the peace, rank significantly among his greatest career accomplishments. Sakakida was credited with using his wartime experience to promote better understanding between the United States and Japan not through retribution or malice but through compassion and friendship. He developed and fostered relationships during the post-war occupation of Japan which continued to grow over the decades throughout all levels of the Japanese government. His efforts immeasurably benefitted the national security of both nations and the friendship and respect he shared with the Japanese people continued into his retirement.

On Jan. 23, 1996, Richard Sakakida died at the age of 75. His cause of death was attributed to a lengthy illness complicated by his war wounds. He left behind his wife, Cherry, whom he married in 1948. 

In 1994, Sakakida was submitted for consideration for the Medal of Honor. Though most of his exploits during the war were declassified by the time he retired, nobody really knew about them until two decades later because Sakakida himself never talked about them. During a 1995 interview, his wife, who was also for many years largely unaware of his wartime experiences, commented: “What he did was something he wanted to do for his country. He feels he did his best, and whether he gets recognized or not, it really doesn’t make any difference.”

In a 1996 letter to the Secretary of the Army in support of the Medal of Honor effort, Brig. Gen. Robert A. Hoffman, then OSI commander, wrote: “Richard M. Sakakida was a self-effacing man of honor and character who answered his country’s call when it needed him. He continued to do so whenever and wherever he was asked to serve after the war. Some of us in OSI had the privilege of serving with him, and we were better for it. We knew of his wartime exploits from others as he was not one who publicized his accomplishments for self-aggrandizement purposes.”   

After an extensive review, in 1998 the Army decided to posthumously award Sakakida the Distinguished Service Medal, presented for “exceptionally meritorious service as an undercover intelligence agent behind enemy lines.” During his 34 year military career, Sakakida also earned the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a Prisoner of War Medal and the Philippines Legion of Honor. In 1997, the Intelligence Operations Center at Fort Lewis, Washington, was named in his honor. In 1998, he was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Fifty years after World War II ended, Sakakida was asked by a newspaper reporter if he ever felt, as an American citizen of Japanese descent, his captors tried to cleanse him of “Yankee” spirit.  “They not only rekindled it,” Sakakida replied.  “They set it on fire.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part of OSI’s 2022 Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance. A Department of the Air Force pamphlet commemorating the occasion states that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have played a vital role in enriching America’s history since the 1850s, following the California Gold Rush. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter hosted a week-long celebration during the first week of May, with the following Presidents renewing the celebration over the next decade. In 1990, Congress passed a law expanding the observance into a month-long event. In 1992, the entire month of May was officially designated in law as AAPI Heritage Month.