Richard Sakakida Spied on the Imperial Japanese Right Under Their Noses
The Nisei war hero endured torture and near-starvation, yet passed valuable intelligence to the U.S. Army
It was 1942, not long after the fall of the American stronghold of Corregidor that guarded Manila Bay in The Philippines.
U.S. Army Sgt. Richard Sakakida was in the hands of the dreaded Kempeitai, the Imperial Japanese military police. Sakakida was an undercover agent of the Corps of Intelligence Police, the forerunner of the Counter Intelligence Corps that oversaw the U.S. Army’s spy-hunters during World War II and the Cold War.
In The Philippines, he had questioned captured Japanese aviators, deciphered codes and papers and passed information he gathered covertly to the Army’s G-2 intelligence staff officer there.
But he had long been under suspicion as far as the Japanese were concerned. Captured and imprisoned at Bilibid Prison, he faced weeks of torture.
“I was strung up with my hands tied behind my back and the rope tossed over the ceiling beam,” Sakakida recounted. “The rope was pulled until I was dangling on my toes when the questioning began and the beatings started. The questions they kept asking were, ‘What were your duties in the military?’ and ‘What was your military rank?’”
He refused to break, sticking to his cover story that he was a draft-dodging U.S. civilian Nisei, the child of Japanese immigrants, trapped in The Philippines because of the war.
When it became obvious that the ropes weren’t working, his Kempeitai interrogators turned to pressing lit cigarettes into his flesh. They even forced a rubber hose down his throat and pumped water into his stomach.
“I could feel my stomach being bloated. It felt as if it was ready to explode,” Sakakida said.
It went on for five months. He never broke. What’s more, the Japanese eventually believed his story, released him, and then assigned him to the Imperial Japanese 14th Army Headquarters as an English interpreter for a Japanese colonel – where he collected intelligence on the colonel and memorized the contents of classified documents.
“Of all the unsung heroes of World War II, Richard Sakakida must rank as one of the most remarkable,” wrote Ian Sayer and Douglas Botting in America’s Secret Army: The Untold Story of the Counter Intelligence Corps. “For courage, fortitude and loyalty to his adopted homeland there were few to rival him. Yet outside a small circle of veteran CIC agents Sakakida’s name is almost unknown, and his extraordinary story has never been fully told.”
Some believe he should have received the Medal of Honor. Others questioned his story – and his loyalty to the United States – describing him as “an opportunist who embellished his own history, and betrayed his country in the process.”
A CIC report refuted accusations that Sakakida had committed any wrongdoing. Veterans who knew him vigorously defended him.
“Richard Sakakida was captured by the Japanese, tortured and forced to work for the Japanese army in the Philippines,” Dr. James McNaughton, a U.S. Army historian and author of Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II, said during a 2015 re-union in Hawaii of the last surviving Japanese-American military intelligence veterans of World War II. “What did he do? He used his position of influence to get information about the Japanese military operations and give it to the Philippine guerrillas. Very, very brave. If he was ever discovered, it would have cost him his life.”
Sakakida died in 1996. But newspaper reports, an oral history history about his exploits, and historians’ research piece together a story of an incredible man who overcame enormous odds as an intelligence agent.
It all began in 1941 before the attack on Pearl Harbor while Sakakida was a young man living in Hawaii. Col. Walter Gilbert, Sakakida’s former ROTC instructor at McKinley High School, asked him if he would be interested in work that would use his knowledge of Japanese language and culture.
Gilbert was vague about the details of the work, but that didn’t blunt Sakakida’s interest. He saw it as an opportunity to visit the mainland.
After three days of testing, Sakakida discovered he was at the top of the candidate list. But instead of the U.S. mainland, Sakakida found himself at Hawaii’s Fort Shafter where he enlisted, received the rank of sergeant, and commenced an intensive training program in military intelligence.
Eventually, he received orders for The Philippines. There, the CIP ordered him to infiltrate the Japanese business community and quietly collect as much information as he could.
He stayed at an elite Manila hotel, got a job posing as a Sears-Roebuck Co. representative, and began to ingratiate himself to Japanese businessmen.
“Fortunately, my young age proved to be an asset for they all treated me like their kid brother and looked after me,” he said. “This enabled me to closely monitor their activities. I also voluntarily helped at the front desk and this gave me access to various information about the guests.”
Manila was doomed to fall to the Japanese after the beginning of American involvement in the Pacific War. But the Army’s work in The Philippines was far from finished.
“Just prior to the surrender the G-2 had called me and said, ‘We depend on you to get in on their side and try to get intelligence for the benefit of the U.S. forces. I doubt whether you can do it because they will really work on you,’” Sakakida said. “This was the only directive and caution I received.”
“Being of Japanese ancestry and serving in the American forces, I was charged by the Japanese with treason,” he continued. “Furthermore, those Japanese soldiers who were POWs on Bataan all identified me as an American sergeant who had interrogated them. For this reason, I was separated from other American POWs and incarcerated with Japanese prisoners.”
Not long after, he was taken into custody by the Kempeitai. But from the beginning, Sakakida decided he would rather die than give up any information.
“I was determined that they would not get a damn thing from me,” he said. “I had a mission to carry out and also I remembered my aged mother’s parting words. She had said, ‘You are in the service. This is your country. Don’t bring any disgrace to yourself and especially to the family. Do your best. That is all I ask.’”
After his release, Sakakida made contact with a well-organized resistance group. He passed on as much information as possibly could, often at great risk and always from memory.
The intelligence was priceless. It included Japanese troop movements, ship arrival and departure schedules, and even a portion of the Japanese Expeditionary Force’s plan to invade Australia.
As the war progressed, the Japanese army decided to retreat into the mountains, anticipating a U.S. invasion. Fearing Japanese retribution as well as growing suspicion that he was an American agent, Sakakida took the opportunity to escape with a Filipino guerrilla group.
Desperate for food, he lived on grass and berries. Injured in an exchange of artillery fire between the guerrillas and the Japanese, he suffered a belly wound that became badly infected and left him peppered with shrapnel.
He chose to treat the wound himself: “Since I had no access to 9-1-1, I got my razor blade and became Doctor Sakakida.”
Found weeks after the war ended by American soldiers, Sakakida eventually helped with war crimes investigations.
But he said he gave up hopes for revenge – even when he confronted the men who had tortured him in prison.
“I told them that the war was over and I was certain that whatever they had done was because of the war,” he said. “I did my duty and no longer begrudged any of them. This is the way I was brought up.”
For his World War II service, Sakakida received the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, and the Commendation Medal, as well as honors from the government of the Philippines. Remaining in the military, he transferred to the U.S. Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1975.
In 1988, the Army selected him as a member of the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Although efforts to award him the Medal of Honor failed, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal – the third highest award in the U.S. military – in 1999.