Sakai: Japanese Ace
January 1962 American Modeler Article
Professional courtesy and respect for each other's piloting abilities has always been a part of the military aviation culture - even amongst and betwixt enemies. A combination of fear and awe followed the legendary Baron Manfred von Richthofen in the skies over Germany during World War I. Erich Hartmann may have been the WWII equivalent for Germany. Japan had Saburo Sakai, with 64 official victories, and who is rumored to have never lost a wing man.|
See accompanying article, "Sakai's 'Claude'" Mitsubishi Type 96."
Sakai Japanese AceEnsign Saburo Sakai, the leading living Japanese Ace of the second world war, is the only one who never lost a wing man during five years of aerial combat and more than 200 aerial engagements! Sakai never over-shot a landing or crash-landed any of the fighters he flew even when man and/or machine sustained extensive damage. Among his 64 official victories were these planes: Curtiss P-36 and P-40; Bell P-39; Grumman F4F, F6F and TBF; Lockheed Hudson; Brewster Buffalo; Boeing B-17 and B-29; North American B-25; Martin B-26; Douglas SBD.
Although Sakai on several occasions shot down four planes in one day - and three fighters in fifteen seconds - he never received a decoration from his Government. This pilot saw action over China, the Philippine Islands, Rabaul, Formosa, Lae, Guadalcanal, Tainan, Surabaya, plus dozens of other famous battle areas in the South and Central Pacific. Ensign Sakai has photographs and collaborating witnesses to indicate that he shot down Captain Colin Kelly's B-17 Flying Fortress. This disputes our wartime claim that Kelly gave his life by diving into a Japanese battleship!
Sakai was born on a tiny farm near Saga City on the Japanese island of Kyushu on August 26, 1916. His family belonged to the Samurai class - professional warriors dedicated to the defense of Japan.
In 1929 young Saburo moved to Tokyo to live with his uncle and attend school. When 16 he joined the Imperial Japanese Navy and served as an apprentice seaman on the battleship Kirishima. In 1937, Petty Officer Sakai was accepted for pilot training, soon designated the outstanding student pilot of the year, receiving the Emperor's silver watch. With the rank of Naval Aviation Pilot, Second Class, Sakai went into action over China flying the standard Japanese Navy Mitsubishi Type 96 fighter. This is best known by its Allied code name "Claude." His first victories came when Sakai shot down a Russian-built fighter and twin-engine bomber.
After Dec. 7, 1941, Sakai saw action as part of the Japanese advance towards Borneo and New Guinea. Now flying the new Mitsubishi "Zero," his "confirmed" list increased steadily. Saburo Sakai never wore a parachute because it hindered his movements in the cockpit. He removed radio equipment from his plane to increase performance. Most of his fellow pilots followed this practice - they considered it cowardly to bail out and be taken prisoner. Any pilot who did not return to his base was presumed dead.
In August 1942 a powerful United States amphibious force landed on Guadalcanal Island near New Guinea. Sakai was based on Rabaul 560 miles away. His squadron was ordered to fly to Guadalcanal and back as bomber escort without stopping to refuel. This was a rough assignment because it meant that each fighter would fly for over two hours, attack any intercepting USN "Wildcats," then return to base - total flying distance, about 1,300 miles. It was customary for these Jap Navy pilots to carry lunch and a bottle of soda during such long range assignments.
When the squadron took off early in the morning the rising sun beating through the canopy made Sakai thirsty. Forgetting that he was at 13,000' Saburo opened his soda bottle...its pressurized contents sprayed the entire windshield and his goggles. The cockpit air vent was open and the soda coating turned into a sticky film. Without water it was impossible to wipe clear goggles and windshield. Despite this Sakai shot down his 59th and 60th victims - a Wildcat and a Dauntless during the fighting over Guadalcanal.
As the Ace started back to Rabaul he spotted a formation of eight U.S. Navy planes through the smeared windshield and identified them as single-seat Wildcats. He began a surprise attack from below and to the rear of the formation. As he came within firing range Sakai found his targets not Wildcats but Avenger torpedo bombers fitted with rear-firing turrets above and below the fuselage. It was too late for the Zero pilot to take evasive action when eight .50 caliber guns began spitting lead.
Sakai set two Avengers on fire but the Zero's cockpit canopy was shattered and Sakai felt a stabbing pain in his ears. Everything turned red and the Ace passed out as his Zero plunged down through the low overcast. His wingmen followed him until he disappeared into the clouds.
Sakai regained consciousness but could not see. Instinctively he leveled off, horrified to find he could not move his left arm or leg. The slipstream biting at his face through the smashed windshield brought tears to Saburo's eyes. This enabled him to read his instruments. But blood ran down his face from a deep head wound. Sakai tried to pack the wound with first aid bandages but the slipstream ripped them loose. Finally he dropped to his knees in the cramped cockpit to get out of the slipstream and stuffed his silk scarf under his helmet. This staunched the gory flow but then Saburo realized he could see only with his left eye.
Soon drowsiness overtook the homeward bound Sakai. He would awake with a start to find his Zero skidding out of control or flying almost inverted. He slapped his swollen face violently to keep awake. The alternating pain and drowsiness soon took its toll on the flyer's endurance. He decided to die like a Samurai by diving into the first American ship he could find rather than plunge into the lonely Pacific. He flew back to Guadalcanal but could not locate a victim. So somehow he covered the 560 miles back to Rabaul. After circling the airstrip four times Sakai made a dead-stick landing and collapsed as he tried to climb out of the cockpit.
Sakai was hospitalized for months and underwent a series of operations. During his convalescence he was promoted to Warrant Officer. Just as the Americans turned the tide and began forcing the Japanese back toward their home islands, Sakai returned to combat. Based on Iwo Jima in June 1943 Sakai and his squadron mates waited for the U.S. assault.
When early warning radar spotted American carrier craft the Zeros climbed to the defense of the tiny island. In a tremendous dog-fight the one-eyed warrior shot down two Hellcats then found himself surrounded by 15 of these potent Navy fighters. He turned, rolled, dived and climbed to 14,000' in an effort to evade the .50 caliber bullets which seemed to fill the air.
Suddenly he spotted a cloud above the water and dived into it. This was a storm cloud in which the startled pilot and his Zero were tossed and tumbled like a leaf in the wind until they emerged - free of Hellcats. His fighter did not contain a single bullet hole.
As the Japanese forces retreated and our B-29 bombers began to pound their home islands Sakai was assigned to interceptor squadrons. He was promoted to Ensign and flew the high-performance "Raiden." But nothing could stop the Americans and soon the war was over.
The post-war years were a bitter struggle for survival. Sakai could not find employment. His profession was that of a fighter pilot. The occupation rules grounded him. He eked out a bare existence at manual labor. This hard life was too much for his wife. She died and her illness was attributed to poor diet and unhappy times.
Saburo Sakai along with several widows and brothers of his comrades who died in the war, now owns and operates a printing shop in Japan.
The personal story of this outstanding pilot is vividly described in Saburo Sakai's book "Samurai" which was written with the cooperation of Martin Caidin and Fred Saito. It is published by E.P. Dutton of N.Y.C. No World War Two air enthusiast should miss it.
Posted April 28, 2013