Saburo Sakai

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PO2/c Sakai in the cockpit of a Mitsubishi A5M Type 96 fighter (Hankow airfield, China in 1939).

Lieutenant junior grade Saburo Sakai (坂井三郎 Sakai Saburō?, August 25, 1916September 22, 2000) was a Japanese naval aviator and flying ace ("Gekitsui-O", 撃墜王) of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. Sakai was the Imperial Navy's fourth-ranking ace and Japan's second leading fighter pilot to survive the war (after Tetsuzo Iwamoto).


[edit] Early life

Sakai posing in front of the hinomaru on his Mitsubishi A5M Zero fighter (Hankow, 1939).

Saburo Sakai was born on August 25, 1916, in Saga, Japan, into a family of samurai ancestry, but who made a living as farmers. Sakai, the third born of four sons (his given name literally meaning "third son"), had three sisters. Saburo was 11 when his father died, leaving Saburo's mother alone to raise seven children. Sakai apparently didn't excel in his academic studies.

On May 31, 1933, at the age of 16, Sakai enlisted in the Japanese Navy. Saburo Sakai describes his experiences as a naval recruit: [1]

"The petty officers would not hesitate to administer the severest beatings to recruits they felt deserving of punishment. Whenever I committed a breach of discipline or an error in training, I was dragged physically from my cot by a petty officer. 'Stand tall to the wall! Bend down, Recruit Sakai!' he would roar. 'I am not doing this because I hate you, but because I like you and want you to make a good seaman. Bend down!' And with that he would swing a large stick of wood and with every ounce of strength he possessed would slam it against my upturned bottom. The pain was terrible, the force of the blows unremitting."

Sakai then served as a turret gunner aboard the battleship Kirishima until 1936, when he applied and was accepted into a pilot training school. He graduated first in his Naval Class at Tsuchiurain in 1937, earning a silver watch presented to him by Emperor Hirohito himself. Sakai graduated as a carrier pilot, although he was never actually assigned to aircraft carrier duty.

He first took part in aerial combat flying the Mitsubishi A5M in the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938-1939 and was wounded. As a third-class petty officer, Sakai shot down a Soviet built DB-3 bomber in October 1939. Later he was selected to fly the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter in combat over China.

[edit] Service in World War II

[edit] Southeast Asia

Saburo Sakai as a petty officer wearing life preserver.

When the war with the United States began, Sakai participated in the attack of the Philippines. On December 8, 1941, Sakai flew one of 45 Zeros[2] from the Tainan Kokutai that attacked Clark Airfield in the Philippines. In his first combat against Americans, he shot down a P-40. Sakai flew missions the next day during heavy weather. On the third day of the battle, he shot down a B-17 Flying Fortress flown by Captain Colin P. Kelly. This was the first B-17 shot down during the war, and Sakai admired its capacity for absorbing damage. Japanese air forces destroyed most of the Allied air force in the Pacific in just a few months. Sakai’s Tainan Kokutai became known for destroying the most Allied planes in the history of Japanese military aviation.

Early in 1942, Sakai was transferred to Tarakan Island in Borneo and fought in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese high command had instructed fighter patrols to down any and all enemy aircraft encountered, whether they were armed or not. On a patrol with his Zero over Java, just after shooting down an enemy aircraft, Sakai encountered a civilian Dutch DC-3 flying at low altitude over dense jungle. Sakai initially assumed it was transporting important people, so he signaled to its pilot to follow him, but the pilot did not obey. Sakai came down and got much closer to the DC-3. He spotted a blonde woman and a young child through the window, along with other passengers. The woman reminded him of a Mrs. Martin, an American who had occasionally taught him as a child in middle school and been good to him. He decided, against orders, not to shoot down the Dutch aircraft and flew ahead of the pilot and signaled him to go ahead. The pilot and passengers saluted.[3]

Sakai wearing flight helmet.

During the Borneo campaign, Sakai achieved 13 air victories before he was grounded by illness. When he had recovered three months later in April, Petty Officer 1st class Sakai joined a squadron (chutai) of the Tainan Air Group (kokutai) under Lieutenant junior-grade Junichi Sasai at Lae, New Guinea. It was here, over the next four months, that he scored the majority of his victories against American and Australian pilots based out of Port Moresby. Sakai never lost a wingman in combat, and also tried to pass on his hard-won expertise to more junior pilots.

His squadron mates included fellow aces Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Toshio Ohta. On the night of May 16, Sakai, Nishizawa and Ota were listening at the lounge room to a broadcast of an Australian radio program, when Nishizawa recognized the eerie "Danse Macabre" of Camille Saint-Saëns. Inspired by this, Nishizawa came up with the idea of doing a few demonstration loops right over the enemy airfield. The next day, at the end of an attack on Port Moresby with 18 Zeros [4], the trio performed three tight loops in close formation over the allied air base. After that, Nishizawa indicated that he wanted to repeat the performance. Diving to 6,000 feet (1,800 m), the three Zeros did three more loops, without any AA fire from the ground. Of course, Lieutenant Sasai, commander of Sakai's Chutai, was not very amused about this performance, but the Tainan Kokutai's three leading aces secretly agreed that Nishizawa's aerial choreography of the "Danse Macabre" had been worth it.

[edit] Pacific Theatre

On August 3, Sakai's air group was relocated from Lae to the airfield at Rabaul.

Sakai in flightsuit.

On August 7, 1942, word arrived that U.S. Marines had landed that morning on Guadalcanal. The initial Allied landings captured an airfield, later called Henderson Field by the Allies, that was under construction by the Japanese on Guadalcanal. This airstrip soon became a main focus of months of fighting in the Battle of Guadalcanal as it enabled U.S. airpower to hinder the Japanese attempts at resupplying. The Japanese made several attempts to retake Henderson Field. These attempts resulted in continuous, almost daily aircraft battles for the Tainan Kokutai.

U.S. Marines flying F4F Wildcats from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal were using a new aerial combat tactic, the "Thach Weave", developed in 1941 by the US naval aviators John Thach and Edward O'Hare. The Japanese Zero pilots flying out of Rabaul were initially confounded by the tactic. Saburo Sakai relates their reaction to the Thach Weave when they encountered Guadalcanal Wildcats using it: [5]

"For the first time Lt. Commander Tadashi Nakajima encountered what was to become a famous double-team maneuver on the part of the enemy. Two Wildcats jumped on the commander’s plane. He had no trouble in getting on the tail of an enemy fighter, but never had a chance to fire before the Grumman’s team-mate roared at him from the side. Nakajima was raging when he got back to Rabaul; he had been forced to dive and run for safety."

On August 8, 1942, Sakai scored one of the best documented kills of WWII against an F4F Wildcat flown by James "Pug" Southerland (5 kills). Sakai, who did not know Southerland's guns weren't working, describes the beginning of the duel in his autobiography:

In desperation, I snapped out a burst. At once the Grumman snapped away in a roll to the right, clawed around in a tight turn, and ended up in a climb straight at my own plane. Never before had I seen an enemy plane move so quickly or gracefully before, and every second his guns were moving closer to the belly of my fighter. I snap-rolled in an effort to throw him off. He would not be shaken. He was using my favorite tactics, coming up from under.

The two were soon engaged in a skillfully maneuvered dogfight. After an extended battle in which both pilots gained and lost the upper hand, Sakai shot down Southerland's Wildcat, striking it below the left wing root with his 20 mm cannon. Southerland parachuted to safety. [6]

Sakai described the Wildcat's ability for absorbing damage: [7]

I had full confidence in my ability to destroy the Grumman and decided to finish off the enemy fighter with only my 7.7 mm machine guns. I turned the 20 mm. cannon switch to the 'off' position, and closed in. For some strange reason, even after I had poured about five or six hundred rounds of ammunition directly into the Grumman, the airplane did not fall, but kept on flying. I thought this very odd - it had never happened before - and closed the distance between the two airplanes until I could almost reach out and touch the Grumman. To my surprise, the Grumman's rudder and tail were torn to shreds, looking like an old torn piece of rag. With his plane in such condition, no wonder the pilot was unable to continue fighting! A Zero which had taken that many bullets would have been a ball of fire by now.

[edit] Serious wounds

During the air group's first missions of the battle of Guadalcanal, Sakai was seriously wounded in combat with Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers from USS Enterprise's Bombing Squadron Six (VB-6). Mistaking TBF Avengers torpedo bombers, with their rear gunners, for American F4F fighters, near Tulagi Sakai attacked a TBF flown by Ensign Robert C. Shaw. Sakai fired 232 rounds at the TBF but with its armor, self-sealing fuel tanks and twin machine guns in the rear cockpit, the dive bomber proved a tough adversary. A blast from the TBF rear gunner, Harold L. Jones, shattered and blew away the canopy of Sakai's Zero.

Sakai sustained grievous injuries from the return fire; he was struck in the head by a .30 caliber bullet, blinding him in the right eye. The Zero rolled over and headed upside down toward the sea. Unable to see out of his remaining good eye due to blood flowing from the head wound, Sakai's vision started to clear somewhat as tears cleared the blood from his eyes and he was able to pull his plane out of the steep seaward dive. He considered crashing into one of the American warships: "If I must die, at least I could go out as a Samurai. My death would take several of the enemy with me. A ship. I needed a ship." Finally the cold air blasting into the cockpit revived him enough to check his instruments, and he decided that by using a lean fuel mixture he might be able to make it back to the airfield at Rabaul.

Rabaul, 8 August, 1942: A seriously wounded Sakai returns to Rabaul with his damaged Zero after a four-hour, 47-minute flight over 560 nautical miles (1,040 km). Sakai's skull was creased by a machine-gun bullet and he was blind in one eye, but insisted on making his mission report before accepting medical treatment.

Although in agony from his injuries (he had a serious head wound [8] from a bullet that had passed through his skull and the left side of his brain, leaving the entire left side of his body paralyzed, and was left blind in one eye[9]) Sakai managed to fly his damaged Zero in a four-hour, 47-minute flight over 560 nautical miles (1,040 km) back to his base on Rabaul, using familiar volcanic peaks as guides. When he attempted to land at the airfield he nearly crashed into a line of parked Zeros but, after circling four times, and with the fuel gauge reading empty, he put his Zero down on the runway on his second attempt. After landing, he insisted on making his mission report to his superior officer before collapsing. His squadron mate Hiroyoshi Nishizawa drove him, as quickly but as gently as possible, to the surgeon. Sakai was evacuated to Japan on August 12, where he endured a long surgery without anesthesia. The surgery repaired some of the damage to his head, but was unable to restore full vision to his right eye. Nishizawa visited Saburo Sakai, while he was recuperating in the Yokosuka hospital in Japan.

[edit] Recovery and Return

After his five-month recovery, Sakai spent a year training new fighter pilots and young Kamikaze pilots.[10] When Japan began losing the air war, he prevailed successfully upon his superiors to let him fly again. In April 1944 he was transferred to Yokosuka Air Wing that was deployed to Iwo Jima.

On June 24, 1944, Sakai approached a formation of fifteen aircraft that he thought were Japanese, but were actually U.S. Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters. In a high-flying chase that has become legendary, Sakai demonstrated his skill and experience, despite the loss of one eye and facing superior enemy aircraft. Sakai eluded every attack from the fifteen F6Fs for over 20 minutes, returning to his airfield untouched.

Sakai was ordered to lead a kamikaze mission on July 5, 1944, but he failed to find the reported U.S. task force. He and his men were engaged by Hellcat fighters near the task force's reported position. All but one of the Jill torpedo bombers in his flight were wiped out. Sakai managed to down a Hellcat fighter, and escaped the umbrella of Hellcats by flying into a cloud. Rather than follow meaningless orders, in worsening weather and gathering darkness, Sakai led his small formation back to the island, preserving aircraft and pilots for another day (after the war, Sakai decried the kamikaze campaign as brutally wasteful of young lives, and shortly before his death in year 2000, Sakai drew attention for his critical comments about Emperor Hirohito's role in waging war).

In August 1944, Sakai was promoted to ensign (少尉)--a record-breaking 11 years from enlistment to commissioning. He made Lieutenant junior grade (中尉) a year later, just before the war ended.

Just before the end of the waer Sakai married his cousin Hatsuyo, who then asked him for a dagger, so that if he died in combat she could kill herself. That proved unnecessary, as Sakai survived the war. The book The Samurai ends in scene of Hatsuyo throwing the dagger away, declaring she will never need it anymore.

During the war, Sakai destroyed or damaged 60+ Allied planes--mostly American. He was one of three from his original unit who survived the war. Sakai never actually said how many he shot down. The number 64 was arrived at by Martin Caidin, co-author of Sakai's autobiography.

Sakai participated also on the last IJNAF mission, shooting down a reconnaissance B-32 Dominator Hobo Queen II (s/n 42-108532), which had wandered in the Japanese airspace unescorted. He initially misidentified the plane as B-29 Superfortress.

[edit] Back to civilian life

After the war, Sakai retired from the Navy as a lieutenant. He became a Buddhist acolyte and vowed that he would never again kill another living thing, not even a mosquito.[11]

Civilian life was very difficult for Sakai and he found it hard to find a job due to limiting conditions imposed by the Allies and certain provisions that had been placed into the new Japanese Constitution. He eventually was able to start a printing shop and used this to help his former comrades and their families with work or whatever else he could do. Sakai reported that his print shop later became successful. His wife Hatsuyo died in 1954.[12] He later remarried.

He visited the U.S. and met many of his former adversaries in an attempt to reconcile with them, including the rear gunner who shot him.[13] In 2000 Sakai briefly served as a consultant to the popular computer game Combat Flight Simulator 2 by Microsoft.

In his later years, Sakai was asked to appear as a motivational speaker for Japanese schools and corporations. His theme was always the same, the credo by which he lived his entire life: "Never give up."

Sakai expressed concern for Japan's collective inability to accept responsibility for starting the War, and the popular sentiment that only the military and not political leaders were responsible. "Who gave the orders for that stupid war?" he said in an article reported August 10, 2000 by The Associated Press. "The closer you get to the emperor, the fuzzier everything gets." Only months before his death, Sakai told reporters that he still prayed for the souls of the Chinese, American, Australian and Dutch airmen he had killed. "I pray every day for the souls of my enemies as well as my comrades," he said. "We all did our best for our respective countries." "Glorifying death was a mistake," he said. "Because I survived I was able to move on and make friends in the U.S. and other countries."

Saburo Sakai died of a heart attack on September 22, 2000, following a US Navy formal dinner, where he had been invited to as an honored guest-at Atsugi Naval Air Station. Sakai had sent his daughter to a university in the United States "to learn English and democracy." She married an American, and thus he is survived by his daughter and two U.S.-born grandchildren.

[edit] Notes

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[edit] External links

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