Saburo Sakai

Saburo Sakai

August 16, 1916 - September 22, 2000
Saburo Sakai was born August 26th 1916 in the farming village of Nishiyoka in Saga prefecture on Kyushu island, Japan. He came from a family descended from a long line of Samurai, Japan's ancient warrior class. Taught to live by the code of Bushido (Hagakure - the code of the Samurai), which meant serving the lords of Saga and living your life prepared to die. Sakai, the third born of four sons, had 3 sisters. His father died when he was eleven leaving his mother alone to raise seven children on a one acre farm. He had an uncle that worked for the Ministry of Communications who offered to adopt him and provide for a better education. Sakai was not prepared for the change however because although he was always at the top of his class back home, his new school proved to be out of his league. As education was always taken very seriously in Japan, he quickly became the "black sheep" of his new class.

This brought shame to the family and his uncle was very disappointed. Saburo spent that whole summer studying trying to catch up but it was futile. He began hanging around with kids his uncle did not approve of and picking fights with larger boys. Yes, young Saburo Sakai was beginning to make his mark as a fighter. Unfortunately, his school was not as impressed as I am and they sent a note to his uncle who quickly sent him home in disgrace. This brought great shame not only to Saburo and his family but also to the entire village. "I knew that I had to leave my village. I could not stay there any longer so I enlisted in the navy when I was sixteen. This was in May 1933. I reported to Sasebo Naval Base for training, which was about ninety kilometres from my village, but far enough away for me."

As hard as life was, growing up a fatherless boy under the code of Hagakure, even this harsh upbringing could not prepare him for the brutality of his basic training. Recruits were severely beaten with rattan sticks for the slightest perceived infractions. "I remember sometimes passing out from the blows. The body and mind can take only so much punishment". When a recruit passed out they'd throw cold water on him to revive him. It was not uncommon for the petty officers to drag a man from his bunk in the middle of the night and throw the beats on him. If any man cried out he was given more "discipline". Said Sakai - "We were to suffer in silence. Period". Peer pressure was considered the best medicine for correcting "mistakes" so when one recruit screwed up they all paid. "Although there were some who were sadistic, there was a method in all of this madness. It made us tough as nails, and in battle this is often the decisive factor. After the first six months we were completely automated in our manner. We dared not, or even thought about questioning orders or authority, no matter how ridiculous the order". He graduated from basic training and was assigned to the battleship Kirishima as a turret gunner. The treatment there was no better. Wanting to raise his station in life, Saburo studied long and hard and in 1935 he passed the Naval Gunnery School entrance exam. Afterwards he was assigned to the battleship Haruna as petty officer 3rd class.

"This ship had sixteen-inch guns, the largest in the world at that time; this class of battleship would only be surpassed by the Yamato and Musashi, and all the world knew we had the best great ships."

Sakai speaks of the flight school recruiting process: "there were three ways to enter flight school in the early days. Remember that the recruiting method in the time before 1941 was very different than after we were at war with your country. The need for pilots caused the quality to drop steeply as the war went on. However, in 1937 when I was selected, there were three ways to get in: Officers graduating from the Naval Academy at Eta Jima, petty officers from the fleet, and young men recruited from the schools who would start their careers as pilots, similar to your ROTC program today. Pilot selection was very strict; the men chosen in 1937 when I was selected were a different breed. The men selected to fly in 1944-45 would not have been qualified to even pump fuel into my aircraft at this time, if that shows you how select the program was. I remember that 1,500 men had applied for training, and seventy had been selected that year.

I was one of them, and all were non-commissioned officers from the fleet. This does not include the ensigns coming from the academy; they had their own selection process. That year I do not believe any civilian recruits were chosen, but that would change as the war with America continued. I was twenty years old; I knew that my acceptance into flight school dismissed my previous dishonour, and my uncle and family were so proud of me. The entire village was proud of me. I knew this was my greatest and last chance, and when I reported to Tsuchiura, I knew this was a completely different world." In 1936 he began flight training.
After graduation, "We had additional training in land and aircraft carrier landings at the Naval bases of Oita and Omura in Kyushu, and instrument flying was stressed heavily. This cannot be underestimated, for it saved my life in 1942 I can tell you. This training lasted three months, although I never flew from a carrier during the war. Then I was sent to Formosa (Taiwan) where we had a base at Kaohsiung. Then I was sent to south-eastern China and in May 1938 I had my first combat."

On December 8, 1941, only hours after Pearl Harbour, Sakai flew one of 45 Zeroís from Tainan Squadron that attacked Clark airfield in the Philippines. "We started our day at 0200 hours. Our take off was ordered by the commander Saito, but a fog came in and we were delayed. We stayed with our planes waiting, and had breakfast. We received the news of the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Aleutians, and we wondered if the Americans would be expecting us during our attack. Finally at 1000 we were ordered to take off. The mission started badly when a bomber crashed on take-off killing all of the crew. We took off and reached 19,000 feet when I saw a formation of American bombers coming towards our airfield. The Americans always had great reconnaissance and knew where we were. Our orders as the top fighter cover were to attack any aircraft coming towards the base, so we attacked and allowed the others to continue on.

Then we saw that these planes were Japanese Army bombers on a routing flight, and no one had informed the navy that they were coming or even in the area. This was almost tragic. We reformed and continued on. When we arrived over Clark Field we were amazed that we had not been intercepted, although there were five American fighters below us who did not attack, and we could not; our orders were to not engage until all of our bombers were in the area. I was also amazed that all of the American planes were in perfect alignment for an attack, and we strafed and bombed, and thoroughly destroyed everything. After the bombers destroyed the base I saw two B- 17s and went into a strafing attack. We had already dropped our empty external fuel tanks, and we swept in with guns blazing. My two wing men and I shot them up, and as we pulled out the five P-40s we had seen jumped us. This was my first combat against Americans, and I shot down one. We had destroyed four in the air and thirty-five on the ground. This was my third air victory, and the first American, but not the last. I flew missions the next day, and the weather was terrible, a rainstorm that blinded us. The third day was 10 December and we had twenty-seven fighters on this sweep, and this was when I caught a B-17 that was flown by Captain Colin P. Kelley. This was the first B-17 shot down during the war."

Japan destroyed most of the allied air force in the Pacific in just a few months and Sakaiís Tainan Squadron became known for destroying the most allied planes in the history of Japanese military aviation. On August 7, 1942, 18 Zeroes received the order to attack Guadalcanal. The range from Rabaul was 560 miles, barely within the range of the Zero fighters. Sakai shot down 3 F4F's in this battle and then found 8 enemy planes in the distance, which he presumed to be F4Fís as well. Sakai was wrong. They were SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, which carried rear machine gunners. Sakai's Zero became a target for 16 guns. Sakai shot down 3 SBDís, but was struck across his head by a bullet, enough to almost blind one eye and leave him somewhat paralyzed. He survived, flying 4 hours and almost 600 miles back to Rabaul. He barely had eyesight but was able to land his plane. By the time he landed, his gas tank was empty.
Sakai resumed flying air combat, but his bad eye sight got him into trouble. On June 24 1944, he approached 15 planes that he thought were Zeros, but were U.S. Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters. In a high-flying chase that has become legendary, Sakai eluded every single attack from 15 Hellcats for over 20 minutes, returning to base untouched.

Here's an interesting story that just might be true...
Several years ago, a former Dutch military nurse contacted the Japanese Military, attempting to locate a Japanese fighter pilot that spared her life over New Guinea in 1942. She was flying in a Dutch military C-47 at low altitude over dense jungle. On board were 11 wounded soldiers and 6 children being evacuated from a combat area. Suddenly, a Japanese Zero appeared alongside the plane. It is not hard to imagination their panic as she and the children began frantically waving, hoping to ward off an attack. After a few moments of terror, the Zero pilot waved back, gave a quick wing wobble and flew away. The C-47 erupted with cheers.

For over fifty years, this Dutch nurse wanted to meet the pilot who had spared their lives. The Japanese Military located that pilot and it was none other than Saburo Sakai, who had been flying combat air patrol on that day. Sakai had thought about downing the C-47 for a moment as was the order of the day, but seeing the waving hands and terrified faces, he was moved to mercy.

Another story to add here is when Saburo went in combat against a Hudson (serial A16-201) of the 32nd Squadron of the RAAF during an air cover mission over Buna on July 22 1942. Hoping to down the plane easily Sakai took pursuit of the twin-engine bomber , the bomber flown by Plt/Off Warren F. Cowan however made a brusque turn back in order to perform a head to head attack on Sakai's Zero, in position of inferiority bearing odds of 8 to 1 Cowan maintained his position dispersing the Zero's in total disorder before Sakai finally shot him down. Sakai being the sole surviving witness of this fact he decides to send his testimony to the Australian Ministry of Defence in 1997 asking that a posthumous citation would be given to Cowan and his crew. It was refused by the Australian Ministry of Defence.....

After 7 years and some 200 combat missions resulting in an estimated 64 kills, Saburo Sakai flew his last one on August 17, 1945. (Japan surrendered August 14, 1945) "I had a chance to combat the B-29 formations, and I must say that their speed and altitude were incredible, and their defensive fire was very accurate and heavy. I assisted in the destruction one bomber that crashed in the ocean. This mission was launched after we were ordered to stand down and surrender, so it never went into the official records, but the USAF records recorded the loss over Tokyo Bay.

Saburo Sakai was indeed an Ace, downing 64 Allied aircraft, and most of all, never losing a wingman in over 200 missions. He experienced injuries, but always brought his aircraft home. After WWII, Sakaiís writings described the cruel reality of war and combat. Starting from his book "Samurai", he kept writing and lecturing on leadership based on his experience.

Soon after the war, appalled not only with the loss of life that his countrymen had suffered, but seeking atonement for the loss of life he had brought about peering through his own gun sights and squeezing a trigger, Sakai became a lay Buddhist acolyte, a devotion which he continues to this day. According to Sakai, he has not killed any creature, "not even a mosquito," since the last time he stepped from the cockpit of his A6M5 "Zero" one hot August day in 1945.

On September 22nd, 2000, he attended a party at the American Atsugi Military base. He had dinner, but felt sick and was taken to the Hospital. During various examinations, Sakai asked the Doctor "May I sleep now?" and his Doctor responded "Yes, you can sleep while we proceed". Saburo Sakai closed his eyes and never opened them again. Japanís legendary Ace had died at the age of 84.

Saburo a few years before his death

Sakai signature and slogan "Never Give Up"