Sub-Lieutenant Saburō Sakai (坂井 三郎, Sakai Saburō, 25 August 1916 to 22 September 2000) was a Japanese naval aviator and flying ace (“Gekitsui-O”, 撃墜王) of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.
Sakai had 28-64 aerial victories (including shared) by official Japanese records, while his autobiography Samurai!, co-written by Martin Caidin and Fred Saito, claims 64 aerial victories. Such discrepancies are common, and pilots’ official scores are often lower than those claimed by the pilots themselves, due to difficulties in providing appropriate witnesses or verifying wreckage, and variations in military reports due to loss or destruction.
Saburō Sakai was born on 25 August 1916 in Saga in Japan. Sakai was born into a family with immediate affiliation to samurai and their warrior legacies and whose ancestors (themselves samurai) had taken part in the Japanese invasions of Korea between 1592 and 1598, but who were later forced to take up a livelihood of farming following haihan-chiken in 1871. He was the third-born of four sons (his given name literally means “third son”), and had three sisters. Sakai was 11 when his father died, leaving his 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.
On 31 May 1933 at the age of 16, Sakai enlisted in the Japanese Navy as a Sailor Fourth Class (Seaman Recruit) (四等水兵). Sakai described his experiences as a naval recruit:
“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 graduated as a Sailor Third Class (Ordinary Seaman) (三等水兵). He 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 the navy pilot training program. He graduated first in his class at Tsuchiura in 1937 and earned a silver watch, presented to him by Emperor Hirohito himself. Sakai graduated as a carrier pilot, although he was never assigned to aircraft-carrier duty. One of Sakai’s classmates was Jūzō Mori, who graduated as a carrier pilot and served on the Japanese aircraft carrier Sōryū flying Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers early in the war.
Promoted to Petty Officer Second Class (二等兵曹) in 1938, Sakai took part in aerial combat flying the Mitsubishi A5M at the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938–1939 and was wounded in action. Later, Sakai was selected to fly the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter in combat over China.
Service in World War II
When Japan attacked the Western Allies in 1941, 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 from the Tainan Kōkūtai (a Kōkūtai was an Air Group) that attacked Clark Air Base in the Philippines. In his first combat against Americans, he shot down a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and destroyed two B-17 Flying Fortresses by strafing them on the ground. Sakai flew missions the next day during heavy weather.
On the third day of the battle, Sakai claimed to have shot down a B-17 flown by Captain Colin P. Kelly. Sakai, who has often been credited with the victory, was a Shotai leader engaged in this fight with the bomber, although he and his two wingmen do not appear to have been given official credit for it.
Early in 1942, Sakai was transferred to Tarakan Island in Borneo and fought in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese high command 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 descended and approached the DC-3. He then saw a blonde woman and a young child through a window, along with other passengers. The woman reminded him of Mrs. Martin, an American who occasionally had taught him as a child in middle school and had been kind to him. He ignored his orders and flew ahead of the pilot, signalling him to go ahead. The pilot and passengers saluted him. Sakai did not mention the encounter in the aerial combat report.
During the Borneo campaign, Sakai achieved 13 more victories before he was grounded by illness. When he recovered three months later in April, Petty Officer First Class Sakai joined a squadron (chutai) of the Tainan Kōkūtai 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.
On the night of 16 May, Sakai and his colleagues, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Toshio Ota, were listening to a broadcast of an Australian radio programme, when Nishizawa recognised 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, his squadron included fellow aces Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Toshio Ōta. At the end of an attack on Port Moresby that had involved 18 Zeros, 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 flew over the Lae airfield and dropped a note attached to a long cloth ribbon. A soldier picked up the note and delivered to the squadron commander. It read (paraphrased): “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 Kōkūtai’s three leading aces felt Nishizawa’s aerial choreography of the “Danse Macabre” had been worth it.
On 03 August 1942, Sakai’s air group was relocated from Lae to the airfield at Rabaul.
On 07 August, word arrived that US Marines had landed that morning on Guadalcanal. The initial Allied landings captured an airfield, later named Henderson Field by the Allies, that had been under construction by the Japanese. The airfield soon became the focus of months of fighting during the Guadalcanal Campaign, as it enabled US 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 Kōkūtai.
US Marines flying Grumman F4F Wildcats from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal were using a new aerial combat tactic, the “Thach Weave”, developed in 1941 by the US 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:
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 07 August, Sakai and three pilots shot down 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, 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 skilfully manoeuvred 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.
Sakai was amazed at the Wildcat’s ruggedness:
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 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber flown by Lieutenant 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. According to Saburō Sakai this was his 60th victory.
Shortly after shooting down Southerland and Adams, Sakai spotted a flight of eight aircraft orbiting near Tulagi. Believing they were another group of Wildcats, Sakai approached them from below and behind, aiming to catch them by surprise. However, he soon realised that he had made a mistake – the planes were in fact carrier-based bombers with rear-mounted machine guns. Despite this realisation, he had progressed too far into the attack to back off, and had no choice but to see it through.
In Sakai’s account of the battle, he identifies the aircraft as Grumman TBF Avengers – he stated he could clearly see the enclosed top turret. He claimed to have shot down two of the Avengers (his 61st and 62nd victories) before return fire struck his plane. These kills were seemingly verified by the three Zero pilots following him, although no Avengers were reported lost that day.
However, according to US Navy records, only one formation of bombers reported fighting Zeros under these circumstances. This was a group of eight SBD Dauntlesses from Enterprise, led by Lieutenant Carl Horenberger of Bombing Squadron 6 (VB-6). The SBD crews reported being attacked by two Zeros, one of which came in from directly astern and flew into the concentrated fire from their rear-mounted twin 7.62 mm (0.3 in) .30 AN/M2 guns. The rear gunners claimed the Zero as a kill when it dove away in distress, in return for two planes damaged (one seriously).
Whatever the case, Sakai sustained serious injuries from the bombers’ return fire. He was hit in the head by a .30 calibre bullet, injuring his skull and temporarily paralysing the left side of his body (The wound is described elsewhere as having destroyed the metal frame of his goggles, and having “creased” his skull, a glancing blow which broke the skin and made a furrow in, or even cracked the skull, but did not actually penetrate it). Shattered glass from the canopy temporarily blinded him in his right eye and reduced vision in his left eye severely. The Zero rolled inverted and descended toward the sea. Unable to see out of his left eye due to glass and blood from his serious 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 dive. He considered ramming an American warship: “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 leaning the fuel mixture he might be able to return to the airfield at Rabaul.
Although in agony from his injuries Sakai managed to fly his damaged Zero in a four-hour, 47-minute flight over 560 nautical miles (1,040 km; 640 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 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 to a surgeon. Sakai was evacuated to Japan on 12 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. Nishizawa visited Sakai while he recuperated in the Yokosuka hospital in Japan.
Recovery and Return
After his discharge from the hospital in January 1943, Sakai spent a year training new fighter pilots. 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 flying warrant officer (飛行兵曹長). 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 US Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters which he had mistakenly assumed were friendly Japanese aircraft. William A. McCormick saw four Hellcats on the Zero’s tail, but decided not to get involved. Despite facing superior enemy aircraft, Sakai demonstrated his skill and experience by eluding the attacks and returning to his airfield unscathed.
Sakai claimed to have never lost a wingman in combat, but he lost at least two over Iwo Jima.
Sakai said he was ordered to lead a kamikaze mission on 05 July, but he failed to find the US 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. However, according to the aerial combat report, his mission was to escort bombers to and from their targets, and the afternoon of 24 June was the day Sakai joined the attack on the US task force.
In August 1944, Sakai was commissioned an ensign (少尉). After he was transferred to 343rd Air Group, he returned to the Yokosuka Air Wing again.
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 with Hatsuyo throwing away the dagger after Japan’s surrender, saying she no longer needed it.
Saburo Sakai participated in the IJNAS’s last wartime mission, attacking two reconnaissance Consolidated B-32 Dominators on 18 August, which were conducting photo-reconnaissance and testing Japanese compliance with the cease-fire. He initially misidentified the planes as Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. Both aircraft returned to their base at Yontan Airfield, Okinawa. His encounter with the B-32 Dominators in the IJNAS’s final mission was not included in Samurai!.
Sakai was promoted to sub-lieutenant (中尉) after the war ended.
Return to Civilian Life
After the war, Sakai retired from the Navy. He became a Buddhist acolyte – vowing to never again kill anything that lived, not even a mosquito.
Likewise, although Japan had been defeated in the Second World War with great loss of life, Sakai serenely accepted this outcome: “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: he had trouble finding a job; Hatsuyo died in 1947. He remarried in 1952 and started a printing shop.
Sakai sent his daughter to college in the United States “to learn English and democracy.”
Sakai visited the US and met many of his former adversaries, including Harold “Lew” Jones, the rear-seat gunner who had wounded him.
Following a US Navy formal dinner in 2000 at Atsugi Naval Air Station where he had been an honoured guest, Sakai died of a heart attack at the age of 84.
Saburo Sakai was survived by his second wife Haru, two daughters, and a son.
In Popular Culture
Claims have been made that his autobiography Samurai! includes fictional stories, and that the number of kills specified in that work were increased to promote sales of the book by Martin Caidin. The book was not published in Japan and differs from his biographies there.
In 1976, the movie Zero Pilot dramatised Saburo Sakai’s time as a fighter pilot in WWII. Sakai’s life portrayed by Hiroshi Fujioka. The movie was based on Saburo Sakai’s book Samurai!.