Saburō Sakai

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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(s)Sky Samurai
Born(1916-08-25)25 August 1916
Saga, Japan
Died22 September 2000(2000-09-22) (aged 84)
Atsugi Naval Air Station, Japan
Allegiance Empire of Japan
Service/branch Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service (IJN)
Years of service1933–45
Rank海軍中尉 (Kaigun-chūi)
UnitTainan Air Group
Yokosuka Air Wing
Battles/warsSecond Sino-Japanese War
Pacific War

Sub-Lieutenant Saburō Sakai (坂井 三郎, Sakai Saburō, 25 August 1916 – 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 aerial victories (including shared) by official Japanese records,[1] while his autobiography Samurai!, co-written by Martin Caidin and Fred Saito, claims 64 aerial victories.[2] 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.

Early life[edit]

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 to 1598, but who were later forced to take up a livelihood of farming following haihan-chiken in 1871.[3] He is 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:

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."[4]

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 a pilot training school. 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.

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. He shot down a Soviet built Ilyushin DB-3 bomber in October 1939. Later, Sakai was selected to fly the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter in combat over China.

Service in World War II[edit]

Southeast Asia[edit]

Saburō Sakai as a petty officer wearing life preserver

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[5] from the Tainan Kōkūtai (a Kōkūtai was an Air Group) that attacked Clark Air Base in the Philippines. In his first combat against Americans, 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.[6]

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, signaling him to go ahead. The pilot and passengers saluted him.[7] Sakai did not mention the encounter in the aerial combat report.[8]

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 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, his squadron included fellow aces Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Toshio Ōta. At the end of an attack on Port Moresby that had involved 18 Zeros,[9] 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.[10]

Pacific Theater[edit]

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

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 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 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 Kōkūtai.

U.S. 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 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:[11]

On 7 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:[12]

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.[13]

Sakai was amazed at the Wildcat's ruggedness:[14]

Not long after he downed Southerland, Sakai was attacked by a lone Douglas 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.[15] According to Saburō Sakai this was his 60th victory.[2]

Serious wounds[edit]

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 fight near Tulagi against eight SBD Dauntlesses, a mixed flight from Bombing Squadrons Five and Six (VB-5 and VB-6).[16] Mistaking the SBDs for more F4F Wildcat fighters, Sakai approached from below and behind, targeting a VB-6 Dauntless. The dive bombers, with their rear-mounted twin 7.62 mm (0.3 in) .30 AN/M2 guns, destroyed the canopy of Sakai's Zero.[17] Saburō Sakai's account of this battle is different.[2] He spotted eight aircraft in two flights of four, and initially identified them as F4F Wildcat fighters. After he attacked with three other A6M2 Zero fighters, he discovered that the aircraft were actually Grumman TBF Avengers because he clearly distinguished the enclosed top turret. He shot down two of the TBF Avengers (his 61st and 62nd victories), which were verified by the other three Zero pilots. During this day, no Avengers were reported lost.[2] As it was difficult to mistake a Dauntless for a Wildcat, and only the Avenger had a gun mounted on the underside facing to the rear. Sakai's version is the only one that is credible, as the Dauntless had no way to fire at enemies attacking from below.

Sakai sustained serious injuries from the return fire of the lower rear gunner. He was hit in the head by a .30 caliber bullet, injuring his skull and temporarily paralyzing the left side of his body.[18][dead link] (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 leaning the fuel mixture he might be able to return to the airfield at Rabaul.

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[19] 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 to a 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 recuperated in the Yokosuka hospital in Japan.

Recovery and return[edit]

After his discharge from the hospital in January 1943, Sakai spent a year training new fighter pilots.[20] 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 U.S. Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters which he mistakenly assumed were friendly Japanese aircraft. William A. McCormick saw four Hellcats on the Zero's tail but decided not to get involved. Sakai demonstrated his skill and experience. Despite facing superior enemy aircraft, Sakai eluded attacks by the Hellcats, returning to his airfield untouched.[21]

Sakai claimed to have never lost a wingman in combat; however, he lost at least two over Iwo Jima.[22]

Sakai said as follows: he 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.[23] While, according to the aerial combat report, his mission was to escort bombers to and from their targets, and it was afternoon 24 June the day Sakai joined the attack on the U.S. task force.[22]

In August 1944, Sakai was commissioned an Ensign (少尉). After Sakai was transferred to 343rd Air Group, he returned to 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 happily with Hatsuyo throwing away the dagger after Japan's surrender, saying she no longer needed it.

He was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant (中尉), after the war ended.

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!.

Back to civilian life[edit]

Sakai's A6M2 Zero, tail code V-173, preserved at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra[24]

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.[18]

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.[25] He remarried in 1952 and started a printing shop.

Sakai sent his daughter to college in the United States "to learn English and democracy."[26]

Sakai visited the US and met many of his former adversaries, including Harold "Lew" Jones, the tail-gunner who had wounded him.[27]

Following a US Navy formal dinner in 2000 at Atsugi Naval Air Station where he had been an honored guest, Sakai died of a heart attack at the age of 84.

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.[28]

Saburo Sakai was survived by his second wife Haru, two daughters, and a son.[29]



  1. ^ Sakai saburo research book, pp.277.
  2. ^ a b c d Sakai et al. 1978[page needed]
  3. ^ Sakai et al. 1978, pp. 1, 3.
  4. ^ Forquer, John A. "The Kamikaze: Samurai Warrior, A New Appraisal." Retrieved: 5 April 2015.
  5. ^ "A6M2b Zero Model 21 - Saburō Sakai, V-107, Tainan Kōkūtai." Retrieved: 5 April 2015.
  6. ^ Shores, Cull and Izawa 1992, p. 182.
  7. ^ Interview from April 2000 Archived June 6, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Japan Center for Asian Historical Record, Tainan Air Group action report Reference code C08051602100.
  9. ^ "V-173, a Mitsubishi Zero A6M2, flown by Sakai during summer of 1942." Archived 2012-02-04 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 9 April 2015.
  10. ^ Guttman, Jon. "Hiroyoshi Nishizawa: Japan's World War II Ace of Aces.", 12 June 2006 (originally published in Aviation History, July 1998 issue). Retrieved: 27 December 2015.
  11. ^ "Naval Aviation News" July/August 1993 Archived June 19, 2006, at the Wayback Machine Archived copy at the Library of Congress (April 10, 2010).
  12. ^ Sakai, S. "Samurai!" p. 160-162
  13. ^ "Dogfight with James Southerland flying F4F Wildcat." Pacific Wrecks. Retrieved: April 5, 2015.
  14. ^ Saburo Sakai: "Zero"
  15. ^ Sakaida 1985, pp. 74-75.
  16. ^ Winged Samurai, pp. 74-76.
  17. ^ 'Sakaida 1985, pp. 76, 78-79.
  18. ^ a b "[permanent dead link]
  19. ^ "Original flight helmet Sakai wore on his fateful mission when he was wounded." Retrieved: April 5, 2015.
  20. ^ Hards, Scott."An afternoon with Saburo Sakai.", 1998. Retrieved: 9 April 2015.
  21. ^ Sakaida 1985.[page needed]
  22. ^ a b Japan Center for Asian Historical Record, Yokosuka Air Group action report Reference code C13120487500.
  23. ^ Sakaida 1998.[page needed]
  24. ^ "REL/08378 - Mitsubishi A6M2 Model 21 Zero Fighter Aircraft: Japanese Navy Air Force." Archived 2012-03-25 at the Wayback Machine Australian War Memorial. Retrieved" 13 April 2012.
  25. ^
    • Sakaida, Henry. Winged Samurai: Saburo Sakai and the Zero Fighter Pilots. Phoenix, Arizona: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1985, ISBN 0-912173-05-X.
  26. ^ Pike, Francis. Hirohitos War (The Pacific War, 1941-1945), p. 449
  27. ^ Taylan, Justin R. "Saburo Sakai and Harold 'Lew' Jones meet on Memorial Day 1982. Sakai holds his tattered and damaged flight helmet from his near fatal mission to Guadalcanal." Pacific Wrecks, 26 October 2012. Retrieved: 5 April 2015.
  28. ^ Kodachi 2010, pp. 315-325.
  29. ^


  • King, Dan. The Last Zero Fighter, Firsthand Accounts from WWII Japanese Fighter Pilots. Oakland, California: Pacific Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4681-7880-7.
  • Kodachi, Naoki. Fighters of Our Grandfathers (in Japanese). Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd., 2010. ISBN 978-4-0621-6302-6.
  • Leckie, Robert. Challenge for the Pacific: Guadalcanal: the Turning Point of the War. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968. ISBN 0-306-80911-7.
  • Sakaida, Henry. "Osprey Aircraft of the Aces No. 22 - Imperial Japanese Navy Aces 1937-45" London: Osprey Publishing, 1998. ISBN 978-1-8553-2727-6.
  • Sakaida, Henry. Winged Samurai: Saburo Sakai and the Zero Fighter Pilots. Phoenix, Arizona: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1985, ISBN 0-912173-05-X.
  • Sakai, Saburo, Martin Caidin and Fred Saito. Samurai!. New York: Bantam, 1978. ISBN 978-0-5531-1035-7.
  • Sakai, Saburo. Sakai saburo kusen kiroku, Volume 1 (in Japanese). Tokyo: Kodansha, 1995. ISBN 978-4-0625-6087-0.
  • Ruffato, Luca and Michael J Claringbould. Eagles of the Southern Sky: The Tainan Air Group in WWII, Volume One: New Guinea. Tainan City, Taiwan: Tainan Books, 2014. ISBN 978-0-473-21763-1.
  • Shores, Christopher, Brian Cull and Yasuho Izawa. Bloody Shambles: Volume One: The Drift to War to the Fall of Singapore. London: Grub Street, 1992. ISBN 0-948817-50-X.
  • Yositake, Kori. Saburo Sakai in Japanese). Tokyo: Kojinsha, 2009. ISBN 978-4-7698-1442-9.

External links[edit]