I’ve written here before about Saburo Sakai.
An American-styled education and a paucity of historical records from the ‘other side’ meant that I grew up with a one-sided view of history. Yet Samurai! captivated me as a boy. A Japanese pilot who could out-fly any Allied pilot. Who could see stars in daylight. Who shot down over 60 enemy airplanes, nearly twice the tally of his highest-scoring American counterpart.
I read Samurai! when I was 8 years old, and I WANTED to be a pilot. Few autobiographies can captivate 8-year olds. I built scale models of the Wildcat and the Zero, flew hundreds of dogfights in my imagination.
But there were gaps in the story – I wanted visuals. Sakai and the Japanese Navy’s Tainan Kokutai were the elite Japanese pilots in the Pacific. What did they look like? What were their airfields at Lae and Rabaul like? There were no photos.
Forty-five years later, I found Winged Samurai, by historian Henry Sakaida.
Persistently researched, packed with rare illustrations, Sakaida’s book is the perfect companion piece to Samurai!
Some of the photos have been published elsewhere.
The left photograph, above, shows the top pilots in the Tainan Kokutai. In Samurai!, Sakai deliciously describes head-on attacks flown by Nishizawa, Ota, Sasai and Takatsuka against five B-17s over Buna, August 2, 1942. Each pilot dived to gain tremendous speed, then climbed in a rolling firing pass, cross-controlled aileron and rudder to stabilize the Zero on a precise point roll, gun sight nailed on the bomb bay of his target, then flashed through the formation’s defensive fire in a twisting power climb.
Nishizawa, Ota, Sasai, Takatsuka and Sakai. In an actual photo.
The right photograph, which I have never seen before, is their airfield at Lae, New Guinea. It was from Lae that Amelia Earhart took off when she disappeared into history, before the war.
Sakai credited Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, his friend and Japan’s top-scoring ace, with over 100 enemy airplanes shot down.
Ironically, Nishizawa died as a passenger on a transport flight. Henry Sakaida’s book shows where.
Nishizawa was shot down by US Navy pilot Harold Newell on October 26, 1944, between Puerto Galera and Calapan in the Philippines, a spot I have flown over with Carlo!
On August 7, 1942, Sakai shot down ‘Pug’ Southerland over Guadalcanal in a dogfight well-documented on PBS, Discovery Channel and History Channel.
Minutes later, Sakai attacked what he thought was a group of American Wildcat fighter planes.
Sakai was wrong. They were SBD dive bombers – with rear gunners! Sakai was hit by .30 caliber machine gun bullets over the right eye and in his skull. In an epic struggle best described in Samurai! and Winged Samurai, Sakai leveled his plummeting Zero, treated his own wounds, and, half-blind and in agonizing pain, flew his damaged Zero fighter for nearly five hours back to Rabaul.
A year later, on June 24, 1944, Sakai, his right eye permanently blinded, was cornered over Iwo Jima. He outflew 15 American Hellcats in an exhausting dogfight. He snap rolled into left vertical spirals so many times that his right arm went numb. When he landed, incredulous mechanics did not find a single bullet hole in his Zero.
US Navy pilot William McCormick described watching four Hellcats on the Zero’s tail. The Zero was in a pure vertical left bank, in complete control, pulling a turn so tight that the American fighters stalled and fell out of the fight one by one, defeated by sheer aerodynamic mastery.
After the war, Sakai became a peace advocate, and kept a promise not to kill another living thing. He sought out many of his former adversaries. He was a guest at American military bases, leadership forums and veterans reunions.
Perhaps the most interesting reunion was the one with the man who so nearly killed Sakai – SBD rear gunner Harold Jones.
Sakai brought his damaged leather helmet and gave the man who shot him the gift of friendship.
Sakaida collected many photos, including Sakai’s mother, who had a great influence on Sakai’s disciplined upbringing.
But one last photo I’d like to share, taken by Sakai himself with his precious Leica camera, is that of Hatsuyo. They had been close since childhood, but it was only after Sakai was wounded did she reveal her frustration over his ignorance of her feelings for him. She and Sakai married, and she did her best to take care of him.
The post-war years were brutal for Japanese veterans, and Sakai had to sell his beloved Leica and do manual coolie labor. And Hatsuyo fell ill, and died.
Sakai suffered a heart attack while reaching across a dinner table to shake an American’s hand. He died in September, 2000. I wish I could have met him. He never refused anyone. He was just an e-mail away.
But now I have something almost as good. On the title page of my copy of Winged Samurai, bought from an Amazon.com reseller at random, I found this:
Saburo Sakai, the pilot I admire the most, signed my book.
Posted from Berlin, December 10, 2010
Links to the books and authors:
Samurai! — Stories about Saburo Sakai
Samurai! – Current edition of Sakai’s autobiography, the acclaimed book by Saburo Sakai and Martin Caidin.
Samurai! – Hardcover edition, out of print, available from re-sellers
Winged Samurai – The featured book by historian Henry Sakaida