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Saburō Sakai (坂井 三郎)
Sakai Cockpit A5M.jpg
PO2/c Sakai in the cockpit of a Mitsubishi A5M Type 96 fighter (Hankow airfield, China in 1939)
Nickname Sky Samurai
Born (1916-08-25)August 25, 1916
Died September 22, 2000(2000-09-22) (aged 84)
Place of birth Saga, Japan
Place of death Atsugi Naval Air Station, Japan
Allegiance Japan Empire of Japan
Service/branch Naval Ensign of Japan Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service (IJN)
Years of service 1933-1945
Rank Sub-Lieutenant
Unit Tainan Air Group
Yokosuka Air Wing
Battles/wars World War II
*New Guinea campaign
*Solomon Islands campaign
*Philippines campaign (1944)
Sub-Lieutenant Saburō Sakai (坂井 三郎 Sakai Saburō?, August 25, 1916 – September 22, 2000) was a Japanese naval aviator and flying ace ("Gekitsui-O", 撃墜王) of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.

Sakai was the Imperial Navy's fourth-ranking ace and Japan's second leading fighter pilot to survive the war, surpassed only by Tetsuzō Iwamoto.

Early lifeEdit

Saburō Sakai was born on August 25, 1916, in Saga, Japan, into a family of samurai ancestry whose ancestors had taken part in the Japanese invasions of Korea but who were forced to make a living as farmers following haihan-chiken in 1871. Sakai, the third born of four sons (his given name literally means "third son"), had three sisters.

Saburō was 11 when his father died, leaving Saburō's mother alone to raise seven children. With limited resources, Sakai was adopted by his maternal uncle, who financed his education in a Tokyo high school. However, Sakai failed to do well in his studies and was sent back to Saga after his second year.

With no other options, on May 31, 1933 at the age of 16, Sakai enlisted in the Japanese Navy as a Sailor Fourth Class (Seaman Recruit) (四等水兵). Saburō Sakai describes his experiences as a naval recruit:[1]

Sakai as young pilot

Sakai posing in front of the hinomaru on his Mitsubishi A5M Type 96 fighter (Wuhan, 1939).

"The petty officers would not hesitate to administer the severest beatings to recruits they felt deserving of punishment. Whenever I committed a breach of discipline or an error in training, I was dragged physically from my cot by a petty officer. 'Stand tall to the wall! Bend down, Recruit Sakai!' he would roar. 'I am not doing this because I hate you, but because I like you and want you to make a good seaman. Bend down!' And with that he would swing a large stick of wood and with every ounce of strength he possessed would slam it against my upturned bottom. The pain was terrible, the force of the blows unremitting."

After completing his training the following year, Sakai was graduated as a Sailor Third Class (Ordinary Seaman) (三等水兵). Sakai then served aboard the battleship Kirishima for one year. In 1935, he successfully passed the competitive examinations for the Naval Gunners School. Sakai was promoted to Sailor Second Class (Able Seaman) (二等水兵) in 1936, and served on the battleship Haruna as a turret gunner. He received successive promotions to Sailor First Class (Leading Seaman) (一等水兵) and to Petty Officer Third Class (三等兵曹). In early 1937, he applied for and was accepted into a pilot training school. He graduated first in his Naval Class at Tsuchiura 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.

Promoted to Petty Officer Second Class (二等兵曹) in 1938, he first took part in aerial combat flying the Mitsubishi A5M in the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938-1939 and was wounded. Sakai shot down a Soviet built DB-3 bomber in October 1939. Later he was selected to fly the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter in combat over China.

Service in World War IIEdit

Southeast AsiaEdit


Saburō Sakai as a petty officer wearing life preserver.

When the war with the United States began, Sakai participated in the attack on the Philippines as a member of the Tainan Air Group. On 8 December 1941, Sakai flew one of 45 Zeros[2] from the Tainan Kokutai that attacked Clark Air Base in the Philippines. In his first combat against Americans, he claimed a Curtiss P-40 shot down and two B-17 strafed on the ground. Sakai flew missions the next day during heavy weather. On the third day of the battle, he shot down a B-17 Flying Fortress flown by Captain Colin P. Kelly. This was the first B-17 shot down during the Pacific war, and Sakai admired its capacity for absorbing damage. Japanese aviators destroyed most of the Allied air power in the Pacific in just a few months. Sakai's Tainan Kokutai became known for destroying the most enemy planes in the history of Japanese military aviation.

Early in 1942, Sakai was transferred to Tarakan Island in Borneo and fought in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese high command had instructed fighter patrols to down 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 Douglas DC-3 flying at low altitude over dense jungle. Sakai initially assumed it was transporting important people and signaled to its pilot to follow him; the pilot did not obey. Sakai came down and got much closer to the DC-3. He spotted a blonde woman and a young child through the window, along with other passengers. The woman reminded him of Mrs. Martin, an American who had occasionally taught him as a child in middle school and had been good to him. He decided to ignore his orders and flew ahead of the pilot, signaling him to go ahead. The pilot and passengers saluted.[3][unreliable source?]

File:Saburo blue navy jacket.jpg

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 First Class Sakai joined a squadron (chutai) of the Tainan Air Group (kokutai) under Sub-Lieutenant Junichi Sasai at Lae, New Guinea. Over the next four months, he scored the majority of his victories, flying against American and Australian pilots based at Port Moresby. Sakai never lost a wingman in combat, and tried to pass on his hard-earned expertise to more junior pilots.

His squadron included fellow aces Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Toshio Ōta. On the night of May 16, Sakai, Nishizawa and Ota were listening to a broadcast of an Australian radio program, when Nishizawa recognized the eerie "Danse Macabre" of Camille Saint-Saëns. Inspired by this, Nishizawa came up with the idea of doing demonstration loops over the enemy airfield. The next day, at the end of an attack on Port Moresby that involved 18 Zeros,[4] the trio performed three tight loops in close formation over the allied air base. Nishizawa indicated he wanted to repeat the performance. Diving to 6,000 ft (1,800 m), the three Zeros did three more loops, without receiving any AA fire from the ground. The following day, a lone allied bomber came roaring over the Lae airfield and dropped a note attached to a long ribbon of cloth. The soldiers picked up the note and delivered to the squadron commander. It read "Thank you for the wonderful display of aerobatics by three of your pilots. Please pass on our regards and inform them, that we will have a warm reception ready for them, next time they fly over our airfield". The squadron commander was furious and reprimanded the three pilots for their stupidity, but the Tainan Kokutai's three leading aces felt Nishizawa's aerial choreography of the "Danse Macabre" had been worth it.[citation needed]

Pacific TheaterEdit

On 3 August, Sakai's air group was relocated from Lae to the airfield at Rabaul.

Saburo Sakai flightgear

Sakai in flightsuit.

On 7 August, 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. The airfield soon became the focus of months of fighting in the Battle of Guadalcanal, as it enabled U.S. airpower to hinder the Japanese attempts at resupplying their troops. The Japanese made several attempts to retake Henderson Field, resulting in continuous, almost daily air battles for the Tainan Kokutai.

U.S. Marines flying F4F Wildcats from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal were using a new aerial combat tactic, the "Thach Weave", developed in 1941 by the U.S. Navy aviators John Thach and Edward O'Hare. The Japanese Zero pilots flying out of Rabaul were initially confounded by the tactic. Saburō Sakai described their reaction to the Thach Weave when they encountered Guadalcanal Wildcats using it:[5]

"For the first time Lt. Commander Tadashi Nakajima encountered what was to become a famous double-team maneuver on the part of the enemy. Two Wildcats jumped on the commander’s plane. He had no trouble in getting on the tail of an enemy fighter, but never had a chance to fire before the Grumman’s team-mate roared at him from the side. Nakajima was raging when he got back to Rabaul; he had been forced to dive and run for safety."

On 8 August, Sakai scored one of his best documented kills against an F4F Wildcat flown by James "Pug" Southerland, who by the end of the war became an ace with five victories. Sakai, who did not know Southerland's guns had jammed[citation needed], recalled the duel in his autobiography:

"In desperation, 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, and every second his guns were moving closer to the belly of my fighter. I snap-rolled in an effort to throw him off. He would not be shaken. He was using my favorite tactics, coming up from under."

They were soon engaged in a skillfully maneuvered dogfight. After an extended battle in which both pilots gained and lost the upper hand, Sakai shot down Southerland's Wildcat, striking it below the left wing root with his 20 mm cannon. Southerland parachuted to safety.[6]

Sakai was amazed at the Wildcat's ruggedness:[7]

" I had full confidence in my ability to destroy the Grumman and decided to finish off the enemy fighter with only my 7.7 mm machine guns. I turned the 20 mm cannon switch to the 'off' position and closed in. For some strange reason, even after I had poured about five or six hundred rounds of ammunition directly into the Grumman, the airplane did not fall, but kept on flying. I thought this very odd - it had never happened before - and closed the distance between the two airplanes until I could almost reach out and touch the Grumman. To my surprise, the Grumman's rudder and tail were torn to shreds, looking like an old torn piece of rag. With his plane in such condition, no wonder the pilot was unable to continue fighting! A Zero which had taken that many bullets would have been a ball of fire by now. "

Not long after he downed Southerland, Sakai was attacked by a lone SBD Dauntless dive bomber flown by Lt. Dudley Adams of Scouting Squadron 71 (VS-71) from USS Wasp. Adams scored a near miss, sending a bullet through Sakai's canopy, but Sakai quickly gained the upper hand and succeeded in downing Adams. Adams bailed out and survived but his gunner, R3/c Harry Elliot, was killed in the encounter.[8] According to Saburō Sakai this was his 60th victory.[9]

Serious woundsEdit

During the air group's first mission of the battle of Guadalcanal, having just shot down Southerland and Adams, Sakai was seriously wounded in a failed ambush near Tulagi of eight SBDs, a mixed flight from Bombing Squadrons Five and Six (VB-5 and VB-6).[10] Mistaking the SBDs for more Wildcat fighters, Sakai approached from below and behind, targeting a VB-6 Dauntless flown by Ens. Robert C. Shaw. The sturdy dive bombers with their rear-mounted twin 7.62 mm (0.3 in) machine guns proved tough adversaries, and a blast fired by one or more of the SBDs' rear gunners, possibly including Shaw's gunner, AO2/c Harold L. Jones, shattered and blew away the canopy of Sakai's Zero.[11]

The description of this aerial battle from Saburō Sakai is different.[12] He spotted eight planes in two flights of four and initially identified them as F4F Wildcat fighters. When he attacked - followed by three other Zero fighters, he discovered that the airplanes were TBF Avengers because he clearly distinguished the top turret and the ventral machine gun. He shot down in flames two of the TBF Avengers and these two victories (61st and 62nd) were verified by the other three Zero pilots but during this day, no TBF Avengers were reported lost.[12] This is an example how even an experienced pilot during the heat of battle, may not identify correctly enemy airplanes or receive verified credit for airplanes not shot down.

Sakai sustained grievous injuries from the return fire; he was struck in the head by a 7.62 mm (0.3 in) bullet, blinding him in the right eye and paralyzing the left side of his body. 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 fuel mixture he might be able to make it back to the airfield at Rabaul.

Sakai wounded

Rabaul, 8 August 1942: A seriously wounded Sakai returns to Rabaul with his damaged Zero after a four-hour, 47-minute flight over 560 nmi (1,040 km; 640 mi). Sakai's skull was penetrated by a machine-gun bullet and he was blind in one eye, but insisted on making his mission report before accepting medical treatment.

Although in agony from his injuries (he had a serious head wound[13] from a bullet that had passed through his skull and the right side of his brain, leaving the entire left side of his body paralyzed, and was left blind in one eye,[14]) (The wound is described elsewhere as having destroyed the metal frame of his googles, and "creased" his skull, meaning a glancing blow that breaks the skin and makes furrow in, or even cracks the skull, but does not actually penetrate it.) Sakai managed to fly his damaged Zero in a four-hour, 47-minute flight over 560 nmi (1,040 km; 640 mi) 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 fuel 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 Hiroyoshi Nishizawa drove him, as quickly but as gently as possible, to the surgeon. Sakai was evacuated to Japan on 12 August, where he endured a long surgery without anesthesia. The surgery repaired some of the damage to his head, but was unable to restore full vision to his right eye. Nishizawa visited Sakai while he was recuperating in the Yokosuka hospital in Japan.

Recovery and returnEdit

After his discharge from the hospital in January 1943, Sakai spent a year training new fighter pilots.[15] With Japan clearly losing the air war, he prevailed upon his superiors to let him fly in combat again. In November 1943, Sakai was promoted to the rank of warrant officer (海軍准尉). In April 1944, he was transferred to Yokosuka Air Wing, which was deployed to Iwo Jima.

On 24 June 1944, Sakai approached a formation of 15 U.S. Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat[citation needed] fighters which he mistakenly assumed were friendly Japanese aircraft. In a chase that has become legendary, Sakai demonstrated his skill and experience. Despite his loss of one eye and facing superior enemy aircraft, Sakai eluded attacks by the Hellcats for more than 20 minutes, returning to his airfield untouched.

Sakai was ordered to lead a kamikaze mission on 5 July, but he failed to find the U.S. task force. He was engaged by Hellcat fighters near the task force's reported position, and all but one of the Nakajima B6N2 "Jill" torpedo bombers in his flight were shot down. Sakai managed to shoot down one Hellcat, then escaped the umbrella of enemy aircraft by flying into a cloud. Rather than follow meaningless orders, in worsening weather and gathering darkness, Sakai led his small formation back to Iwo Jima, preserving the aircraft and pilots for another day.

In August 1944, Sakai was commissioned an ensign (少尉) — a record-breaking 11 years from enlistment to commissioning in the very rank-conscious Japanese navy. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant (中尉) one year later, just before the war ended.

About the same time, Sakai married his cousin Hatsuyo, who asked him for a dagger so she could kill herself if he fell in battle. His autobiography, Samurai!, ends happily with Hatsuyo throwing away the dagger after Japan's surrender, saying she no longer needed it.

Sakai destroyed or damaged more than 60 Allied planes during World War II, mostly American. He was one of just three pilots from his pre-war unit who had survived. Sakai never said how many victories he had. His total of 64 was determined by Martin Caidin, co-author of Sakai's autobiography.

Saburo Sakai participated in the IJNAF's last wartime mission, attacking two reconnaissance B-32 Dominators, Hobo Queen II s/n 42-108532, and unnamed 42-108578, on 18 August, which were conducting photo-reconnaissance and testing Japanese compliance with the cease-fire. He initially misidentified the planes as a B-29 Superfortresses. Both aircraft returned to their base at Yontan Airfield, Okinawa. (Sakai says in his book Samurai, that he did not attack any planes on this date or time, (Caidin) therefore making a mistake.)

Back to civilian lifeEdit

Saburo Sakai Zero

Sakai's A6M2 Zero, tail code V-173, preserved at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra[16]

After the war, Sakai retired from the Navy. He became a Buddhist acolyte and vowed he would never again kill any living thing, not even a mosquito.[14] Sakai harbored no animosity toward those who had been "the enemy" during WW2, and urged others not to do so either. When asked about Japan's eventual surrender, he responded: "Had I been ordered to bomb Seattle or Los Angeles in order to end the war, I wouldn't have hesitated. So I perfectly understand why the Americans bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima."

Times were difficult for Sakai; finding a job was difficult for him because of conditions imposed by the Allies, and because of anti-military provisions placed into the new Japanese Constitution. He eventually started a successful printing shop, which he used to help his former comrades and their families with employment. Sakai's wife died in 1954[17] and he later remarried.

He visited the U.S. and met many of his former adversaries, including Harold "Lew" John, the tail-gunner who had wounded him.[18] In 2000, Sakai served briefly as a consultant for the popular computer game Combat Flight Simulator 2.

In his later years, Sakai was asked to appear as a motivational speaker at Japanese schools and corporations. His theme was always the same, the credo by which he lived his entire life: "Never give up."

Sakai expressed concern for Japan's collective inability to accept responsibility for starting the war[citation needed], and over the popular sentiment that only the military — not the political leaders — were responsible. He decried the kamikaze campaign as brutally wasteful of young lives; Sakai also drew attention with his critical comments about Emperor Hirohito's role. "Who gave the orders for that stupid war?" he asked in an interview reported August 10, 2000, by The Associated Press. "The closer you get to the emperor, the fuzzier everything gets."

Just months before he died, Sakai officially admitted to reporters that he still prayed for the souls of the airmen (Chinese, American, Australian and Dutch alike) he had killed in action. "I pray every day for the souls of my enemies as well as my comrades," he said. "We all did our best for our respective countries...Glorifying death was a mistake; because I survived, I was able to move on - to make friends in the U.S. and other countries."

Saburo Sakai died of a heart attack in 2000, following a U.S. Navy formal dinner - where he had been an honored guest - at Atsugi Naval Air Station. He was 84. Sakai had sent his daughter to college in the United States "to learn English and democracy." There she married an American, and gave Saburo two American-born grandchildren. He is survived by all three.



  • "Samurai!" by Saburo Sakai, Martin Caidin and Fred Saito. Bantam. (1978)
  • "Osprey Aircraft of the Aces No. 22 - Imperial Japanese Navy Aces 1937-45" by Henry Sakaida
  • "Winged Samurai - Saburo Sakai and the Zero Fighter Pilots" by Henry Sakaida, Champlin Fighter Museum, 1985, ISBN 0-912173-05-X
  • "Zero Fighter", a Toho movie about Sakai from 1976 (cover of German DVD version shown). Cinema poster: "Ozora no Samurai"
  • "Challenge for the Pacific: Guadalcanal: the Turning Point of the War" by Robert Leckie. Random House. 1968

External linksEdit

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