Saburo Sakai




Saburo Sakai was born on the 25th of August, 1916, in Saga, Japan, into a family of Samuria ancestry, but who made a living as farmers. Sakai, the third born of four sons, 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 the 31st of May 1933 at the age of 16, Sakai enlisted in the Japanese Navy. 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 -39 and was wounded. As a third-class petty officer, Sakai shot down a Russian built DB-3 bomber in October 1939.



Rather than being congratulated, however, Saburo Sakaï was harshly punished by his superior because he had not followed instructions. When the war with the United States began, Sakai participated in the attack of the Philippines. . On the 8th of December, 1941, Sakai flew one of 45 Zeros 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 flown by Captain Colin Kelly. This was the first B-17 shot down during the war. 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 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-4 flying at low altitude over dense jungle. Sakai initially assumed it was transporting important people, so he signalled to its pilot to follow him, but the pilot did not obey. Sakai came down and got much closer to the DC-4. 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 signalled him to go ahead. The pilot and passengers saluted.










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. On the 7th of August, 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. On the 8th of August, 1942, Sakai scored one of the best documented kills of WWII against an F4F Wildcat flown by James Sutherland (5 kills). Southerland parachuted to safety. 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 SBD Dauntless dive bombers, with their rear gunners, for American F4F fighters, Sakai attacked near Tulagi a SBD flown by Ensign Robert C. Shaw. Sakai fired 232 rounds at the SBD, but with its armour, self sealing tanks and twin machine guns in the rear cockpit, the dive bomber was proving a real adversary. 









"F6F Hellcat", proved to be everything expected of it, being powerful, rugged, easy to build and fly, and proving a major player in the defeat of Japan.






A blast from the SBD 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 across his head by a 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 gas mixture he might be able to make it back to the airfield at Rabaul. Although in agony from his injuries (he had a serious head wound from a bullet that had passed through his skull and the left side of his brain, leaving the entire left side of his body paralysed, and was left blind in one eye Sakai managed to fly his damaged Zero in a four-hour, 47-minute flight over 560 nautical miles 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 gas 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 drove him, as quickly but as gently as possible, to the surgeon. Sakai was evacuated to Japan on the 12th Of August, where he endured a long surgery without anaesthesia. The surgery repaired some of the damage to his head, but was unable to restore full vision to his right eye.


After his five-month recovery, Sakai spent a year training new fighter pilots and young Kamikaze pilots. 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 the 24th of June, 1944, Sakai approached a formation of 15 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 proved his still apparent superior flying skill, despite the loss of one eye. Sakai eluded every attack from the 15 F6Fs for over 20 minutes, returning to his airfield untouched. Sakai led a kamikaze mission on the 5th of July, 1944, but he failed to find the reported U.S. task force. 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 2000, Sakai drew attention for his critical comments about Emperor Hirohito's role in waging war). In August 1944, Sakai was promoted to ensign, a record-breaking 11 years from enlistment to commissioning. He made Lieutenant junior grade  a year later, just before the war ended. 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. He visited the U.S. and met many of his former adversaries in an attempt to reconcile with them. In 2000 Sakai briefly served as a consultant to the popular computer game Combat Fight Simulator 2. Saburo Sakai died of a heart attack on the 22nd Of September 2000 , at Atsugi Naval Air Station. He finished the war as Japans highest confirmed scoring Ace with 64 victories.