Sakai: Japanese Ace
1962 American Modeler Article
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,
'Claude'" Mitsubishi Type 96."
Sakai Japanese Ace
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
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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