He was a top-scoring fighter ace, one of the best pilots his country had. His sharp eyes could spot stars during daylight. He never lost a wingman in combat.
With grievous wounds to his head, one eye blinded and another masked by blood, he flew his airplane 600 miles home from a dogfight, and insisted on reporting to his commander after he landed.
He survived the brutal war. After the war, he met and befriended many of his aerial opponents, including the man who shot and blinded him. He prayed every day for his fallen opponents and comrades in battle. He became a Buddhist acolyte and never killed a living thing again, not even a mosquito.
His name was Saburo Sakai. He was Japanese.
He flew bomber escort in the devastating attacks on Clark airfield on December 8, 1941. On December 10, he shot down Captain Colin Kelly’s B-17 over Clark.
Sakai flew against the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies. He flew against Australians and Americans in the brutal aerial battles over the South Pacific. After recuperating from terrible wounds, he flew again, half blind, in the desperate aerial battles in the Central Pacific.
Sakai was born to fly. Excerpts from his autobiography, Samurai!, show why.
The Wildcat was clinging grimly to a Zero, its tracers chewing up the wings and tail. 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. I snap-rolled to throw him off. He would not be shaken. He was using my favorite tactics, coming up from under.
I chopped the throttle back and the Zero shuddered as its speed fell. I slammed the throttle forward again, rolling to the left. Three times I rolled the Zero, then dropped in a spin, and came out in a left vertical spiral. The Wildcat matched me turn for turn. Our left wings pointed at a right angle to the sea below us, the right wing at the sky.
I flew snap rolls and spins, during my aerobatic training. A snap roll is a horizontal spin — two seconds of pure aerodynamic violence. Spins aren’t even taught in pilot training anymore. Many of today’s airline pilots have never been in a spin before, never mind having recovered from one.
Sakai flew snap rolls and spins while under fire.
We held to the spiral, tremendous G pressures pushing us down in our seats. My heart pounded wildly, and my head felt as if it weighed a ton. The man who failed first and turned in any other direction to ease the pressure would be finished.
On the fifth spiral, the Wildcat skidded slightly, I had him, I thought. But the Grumman dropped his nose, gained speed, and the pilot again had his plane in full control. There was a terrific man behind that stick.
This is one of the most documented dogfights of World War II, and has been featured on History Channel and Discovery Channel episodes.
At Lae, in New Guinea (Amelia Earhart flew from Lae, on her last flight), Sakai flew with the sharpest pilots of Japan.
On May 7, four Zeros were ordered out for reconnaissance over Moresby, and, when each pilot saw who his wingmates were, he shouted happily. We were the wing’s leading aces. I had twenty-two planes to my credit; Nishizawa had thirteen; Ota now had eleven; and Takatsuka trailed us with nine. Our four best aces!
Nishizawa rocked his wings and pointed at ten fighters coming at us in a long column, 2,000 feet higher.
All four Zeros nosed up in a rapid, almost vertical climb, instead of rolling away and scattering as the enemy pilots expected. The first P-40 went up in a wild loop, trying to escape his own trap. I snapped out a burst. The shells caught him and tore a wing off. I came out of the climb in an Immelman and saw each Zero hammering away at a P-40. All burst into flames. The remaining six fighters were on us. We scattered to the right and left, coming up in tight loops and arcing over. All of us came out with a fighter beneath us. Three more P-40s disintegrated and burned; one escaped. The three remaining fighters ran for it.
I read Samurai! when I was a young boy. It inspired me to fly many battles in Zeros, Wildcats and Warhawks, all in my mind. But my favorite story, with three of Japan’s best Zero pilots, PO1C Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, PO1C Toshio Ota and Saburo Sakai, did not involve any bloodshed.
I was back at Moresby, circling above the field at 12,000 feet. Then two Zeros came in at my height. Nishizawa and Ota grinned at me and I waved back in greeting.
I slid my canopy back, described a ring over my head with my finger, then showed them three fingers. We were to fly three loops, all tied together.
One last look for enemy fighters, and I nosed down to gain speed, Nishizawa and Ota hugging my own plane. I pulled back on the stick, and the Zero responded beautifully in a high arcing climb, rolling over on her back. The other two fighters were right with me, all the way up and around in a perfect inside loop.
Twice more we went up and around, dove, and went back into the loop. When I came out of the third loop Nishizawa pulled up to my plane, grinning happily, and signaled that he wanted to do it again. I turned to my left; there was Ota, laughing, nodding his head in agreement. We dove to only 6,000 feet above the enemy field and repeated the three loops, swinging around in perfect formation. And still not a gun fired at us! I thought of all the men on the ground watching us and I laughed loudly.
Sakai, Nishizawa and Ota were reprimanded for that stunt, after an American plane flew over their base and dropped a message promising an all-out welcome if the Japanese aces did it again.
Sakai was wounded in August, 1942, over Guadalcanal.
Ota disappeared in a dogfight that same month.
Sakai’s best friend Nishizawa was shot down in October 1944 in a Ki-49 transport airplane, over Mindoro in the Philippines, by two American Grumman Hellcats. He had over 80 kills, one of Japan’s leading aces.
Sakai survived the war with over 60 kills.
Saburo Sakai published his autobiography in 1957. He became a peace advocate, critical of Japan’s role in starting the war. A lot of people, complete strangers, looked him up or wrote him, after the war. He never turned anyone down.
I wish I could have met him. As with most things in life, by the time you can afford it, it’s too late.
He was dining with American military officers at Atsugi Naval Air Station in September, 2000, and was reaching across the table to shake an American’s hand when he suffered a heart attack. He was 84.
He was born in 1916 in a farmhouse, from a family descended from Samurai, and lived his life by the Bushido code of honor.
Today is his birthday, August 25.
Posted in Bangkok, August 25, 2010
Links to the best of Saburo Sakai’s stories on the web
August 7, 1942 – Sakai is grievously wounded over Guadalcanal. A reenactment. This is the video where he meets the gunner who shot him down.
Sakai atones to a fighter pilot’s son, a moving story
Excerpts from Samurai!, by Saburo Sakai, Martin Caidin and Fred Saito.
copyright 1957, illustrated edition by Bantam Books