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Japanese Ace Saburo Sakai
by Jim "Twitch" Tittle

Article Type: Military History
Aritlce Date: January 24th, 2001

The Grumman tried to match the turn with me. For just that moment I needed, his underside filled the range finder and I squeezed out a burst. The cannon shells exploded along the fuselage. The next second thick clouds of black smoke poured back from the plane and it went into a wild, uncontrolled dive for the sea.

At least a half dozen Grummans were on my tail, their wings sparkling flame as they opened fire. Another left roll-fast! The six fighters ripped past my wing and zoomed in climbing turns to the right.

I slammed the throttle on overboost and rolled right. The Zero closed the distance rapidly. Fifty yards away I opened up with the cannon, watching shells move up the fuselage and disappear into the cockpit. Bright flashes and smoke appeared beneath the glass and the Hellcat swerved crazily and fell off on one wing trailing a growing smoke plume.

That is Saburo Sakai's description of kills number sixty-three and sixty four after a scramble from Iwo Jima on June 24, 1944. A minute later he was the prey in a wild, long running melee with fifteen F6F's over the island, twisting, skidding, turning and wrenching his plane around to avoid the American .50 caliber rounds that filled the air around him.

Sakai- postwar

He evaded the pack only by plunging into a huge cumulus cloud. Upon landing, astonished mechanics informed him that not one bullet had pierced the Zero. This was astonishing since it was Sakai's first combat in two years after having lost an eye!

One of seven children, Sakai was born on August 26, 1916 in the village of Saga, Japan which is on the main island's southern part. He was a Samurai. This meant little in those times as the nineteenth century had seen abolition of the caste system in Japan.

Saburo moved to Tokyo to attend secondary school, living with an uncle. He found himself to be only an average scholastic student but excelled in fighting with young men who were his senior in age. In 1933, after two years as a problem student, the sixteen year old briefly returned to Saga and then enlisted in the Imperial Navy.

Basic training was brutally harsh with constant corporal punishment being administered. J.N.A.F. flight training was rigorous but yielded the best pilots. This amounted to only 100 men per year in the 1930's, however.

Lae aces

In 1938 China, flying the Mitsubishi Type 96 "Claude," Sakai was fortunate enough to score a kill against a Chinese Russian-made Polikarpov I-16. Sometime later he was on a scramble where he chased a Soviet-built SB twin-engined bomber. He got one engine smoking good when he realized his Claude must turn back or run out of fuel in enemy territory.

Upon arrival of the fabled Mitsubishi Zero, he scored again while in China during 1941. On December 7th Sakai dispatched his first American fighter, a P-40, near Clark Field in the Philippines. The first B-17 fell to his guns two days later.

Java in early 1942 saw Sakai run his score up with P-36's, P-40's and F2A Buffaloes. The P-36's and F2A's were woefully inadequate against the Zero. But Lae, New Guinea was the place where he and several other Navy pilots would become legends.

At Lae Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, Toshio Ota and Sakai soon became known as the "clean-up trio" with their swift pouncing tactics upon unwary American planes. The first P-39 Airacobras they'd seen proved no better adversaries than all the other inferior types encountered before. Sakai once destroyed a P-39 with two rounds of 20mm from each of the Zero's two weapons.

Last flyable Zero

Nishizawa was a virtuoso of aerial combat. His wild flying and fighting techniques ultimately made him Japan's Ace of Aces with 103 victories. Tall, thin and suffering from recurring tropical maladies, he was a pensive, aloof, solitary and silent man; the antithesis of a worshipped, hero fighter pilot. But once in the air this strange man transformed into an extroverted, untamed genius. His moves were heart-stirring, breathtaking, unpredictable and brilliant. Ota was the opposite; quick to laugh and outgoing.

Lae Wing's leader, Lt. Junichi Sasai, was not a typical officer. He was more in tune with the enlisted pilots. This fine aerial tactician was constantly at the side of wounded or sick pilots during their suffering with possibly contagious fungus diseases. He so fanatically ministered to the well-being of his men, that to a man, they would lay their lives down for him if the need arose.

During this heady time on Lae all these men scored triples in combat and Sakai once took down four. Nishizawa chalked up six on one mission. This was no easy feat since the A6M2s had but 60 rounds per gun for its two 20 mm cannons and 500 r.p.g. for the two 7.7 mm machine guns. These men were shooters.

The A6M2 Zero-Sen Model 21, or "Zeke" by Allied fighter code name, was superb for the Japanese carrier and island war in the Pacific. It was well engineered and easy to maintain. Light construction to save weight and increase performance was the idea.

The 915 h.p. Nakajima Sakae 12 fourteen cylinder radial air-cooled engine thrust the 5,300 pound fighter along at 332 m.p.h. at 16,570 feet. But its climb rate of 4,500 ft/min. was amazing for the time. This type of performance was only matched late in the war with gobs of horsepower. And many an Allied pilot was shocked to witness its turning ability.

The Zero sacrificed durability though. A single incendiary round could set off its gas tanks and there was no armor to protect the pilot. The pilots on Lae even removed their radios to increase performance further. They functioned quite well with WW I style hand signals. The Zero's light weight prohibited fast diving and American fighters could always escape given enough altitude.

But a most interesting incident took on June 9, 1942. Then a congressman, President Lyndon Johnson was aboard a B-26 as an observer for President Franklin Roosevelt during a raid on Lae. The surprise attack of B-26's, B-17's and B-25's scrambled twenty five Zeros in counterattack.

Sakai found a straggling B-26 (with Lyndon Johnson onboard) with engine trouble and fired cannon shells at it because "it was a strayed sheep before a lion," he observed. He left the damaged, but still flying, plane to rejoin the main fight on the formation and claimed two other B-26 victims. By only a twist of fate, history, as we know it, was not altered.

Compassion was not a quality lacking in this samurai. Over Guadalcanal Sakai got into a wild dogfight with an F4F Wildcat turning so violently he "grayed out." He soon had the upper hand and at 50 yards he pumped 200 rounds of 7.7mm at the Grumman's cockpit. With a bit of excess speed he over ran the F4F then winced and waited for the slugs to hit him. But the enemy plane flew straight and level.

The Zero dropped back wing to wing with the Wildcat. In the cockpit was a middle-aged fellow with blood stains on his khaki uniform. The plane was damaged all over but remained in flight. Sakai felt strange. He'd never before seen an enemy pilot weakened like this and he had thoughts of letting the plane go.

"This was no way to kill a man," he reasoned. He shook his fist at the flyer in desperation. The man weakly waved back as their eyes met in the narrow distance between the planes. Sakai reasoned that there was no reason to aim at the pilot again and slid behind the stricken blue fighter.

At that moment the F4F pulled up into a loop. That settled it. Sakai aimed for the engine and barely stroked the cannon trigger. The engine began to flame and the pilot rolled over and bailed out. He did not grasp the shroud lines as he drifted towards the beach.

Awhile later Sakai's four plane element was attacked by a lone SBD Dauntless dive bomber which made a firing pass hitting his Zero's canopy before making for a cloud. Astounded, Saburo closed on the SBD killing the rear gunner as he walked shells up the fuselage to the engine. The pilot got out. This was his 60th kill.

Now the four Zeros were separated from the rest. But several miles ahead Sakai spotted a formation. He gunned the engine and his quartet closed. They appeared to be eight Wildcats and they closed up to a tight formation. Perfect. Like this he could get two in the first pass. 200 yards....100...70...60...

Wait! They weren't fighters! They were TBF Avenger torpedo-bombers. Both the Grumman aircraft had similar silhouettes. Sakai had never seen a TBF before. It was too late. Any move would expose the Zero even more to the eight ball turrets each with their fifty caliber gun. He opened up with everything he had and held down the triggers. At twenty yards two planes sprouted flames from the hits.

Then searing pain enveloped Sakai and he could see nothing. (His pilots later confirmed the two Avengers as his 61st and 62nd kills.) His men saw the stricken Zero fall into a low cloud layer and disappear. They assumed him dead.

Wind racing through the shattered windscreen jarred Sakai to semi-consciousness and it was a reflex to level the Zero out. But everything was red and he could not move his left arm or leg. The fighter was in good shape- no fire, no gas odor, engine running smoothly. It was the pilot that sustained the damage.

As best he could, Sakai used his scarf to plug the gash in his skull as pain and nausea alternatively swept over him. Slowly he got his bearings and began steering towards Rabaul operating controls in the Zero with one arm. With diminished vision and partial paralysis working against him Sakai's Zero was a handful.

With prop pitch back and R.P.M.'s down to 1,700 the Zero plodded slowly along to conserve fuel. More than an hour passed before Sakai spotted a coral reef he recognized to be sixty miles from home. Fuel was diminishing now though. He estimated only a few minutes worth was sloshing in the tank.

The Rabaul volcano loomed ahead! He'd done it! But he wasn't on the ground yet. Thinking the better of ditching in the water, Sakai lined up his airplane with the narrow runway for a normal approach. On the ground no one could believe the sight of his plane settling into the landing groove.

Flipping off the ignition switch to avoid an explosion source, for even the minuscule amount of fuel left, Sakai sank onto the runway. He faded out to black, but soon saw friendly faces around him. As they carried him out he demanded to report to Captain Saito.

"Stupid bastard. Doesn't even know what he looks like. Crazy, that's what he is!" muttered Nishizawa. As if in a perfectly timed movie script, Sakai passed out while standing before the captain.

Chunks of .50 were pulled from his scalp and he underwent a long, grueling and horrendously painful eye operation while conscious. A long convalescence followed. It was doubtful that Sakai would fly again.

But as the war situation changed, Sakai did indeed fly again. In Japan's twisted wisdom, an experienced pilot like Sakai was sent on a kamikaze mission. He and his wingmen were forced back due to overwhelming numbers of Hellcats. He scored an unclaimed kill during a tussle to defend his section but he didn't "watch it go down."

Soon all of Sakai's old mates from Lae were gone, including Nishizawa who was lost while he was a passenger in a transport plane. From piecing accounts together, it is probable that U.S. Marine ace Marion Carl shot down Lt. Sasai.


He test flew the Raiden, "Thunderbolt" (Jack), the Shiden "Lightning" (George), and the Reppu "Hurricane" (Sam). These were great planes with heavy armament, self-sealing gas tanks and armor protection, but there were too few of them with too few experienced pilots to fly them.

Sakai drew blood one more time. After the atomic bombs were dropped and Japan was one day from surrender he flew a final mission. Though forbidden to fly with capitulation so near, he and a few other pilots scrambled to intercept a B-29 over Tokyo Bay one night. Jiro Kawachi and Sakai sent the Super Fortress down with their A6M5's which mounted two 20mm cannons and two 13mm machine guns.

The base commander was angry but understood the men's intentions. There was no official claim of the B-29. Many years later Saburo Sakai met the TBF gunner who wounded him. The wound probably saved his life for he was out of action during many battles for two years. He was invited aboard U.S. aircraft carriers where he met many American WWII fighter pilots before he died too.

In all his combats Sakai stated proudly that he never lost a wingman. His personal narrative is his book, SAMURAI. There is no similar account by any high ranking Japanese ace. It truly is a unique window on the early Pacific air war from the Japanese pilot perspective.

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