Saburo Sakai Is Dead at 84; War Pilot Embraced Foes

 

By Douglas Martin, , October 8, 2000

Saburo Sakai, a Japanese fighter pilot in World War II who said he shot down 64 Allied planes, including one of each type the United States flew, but who later befriended the Americans he once fought, died in Tokyo on Sept. 22. He was 84.

Mr. Sakai was dining with American military officers at the Atsugi Naval Air Station west of Tokyo and suffered a heart attack as he leaned across the table to shake hands with an American; he died later in a hospital.

Mr. Sakai had visited the United States a dozen times, sometimes meeting convivially with American pilots he had confronted in dogfights.

His antagonism came to be directed toward Japan's leaders, particularly Emperor Hirohito.

"Whose name was on the battle orders?" he said in an interview in 1994 with The Daily Telegraph of London. "Over three million died fighting for the emperor, but when the war was over he pretended it was not his responsibility. What kind of man does that?"

Mr. Sakai came from a family descended from Samurai, Japan's ancient warrior class. He was taught to live by the code of Bushido, which he defined in his book, "Samurai!" published in 1957 by E. P. Dutton, as living so as to always be prepared to die.

Flying the legendary Zero fighter plane, which for the first years of the war was considered the best fighter anywhere in terms of maneuverability and range, he was wounded four times. Of the 150 pilots who began in his unit, only 3 survived the war.

His score of 64 planes downed is based on his own reports, and in some of his accounts it was one or two lower. Two Japanese pilots had higher scores, also based on their own counts. (Lieut. Tetsu Iwamoto shot down more than 100 Allied planes.) The Japanese Navy policy was not to credit personal victories officially, but to subordinate the individual to the group.

Still, the records of Japanese aces in World War II outpaced those by Americans, with Richard Bong's 40 the highest. Mr. Sakai suggested in an interview with the Associated Press in 1945 that the reason was a shortage of trained pilots in Japan.

"There were only a few Japanese experts," he said. "The American aces were sent home as instructors, but the top Japanese pilots, because of our shortage of manpower, were left in combat to die."

Yvonne Kinkaid, a historian with the United States Air Force History Support Office, pointed out that the records vary greatly with circumstances. German pilots flying against ill-equipped Russians downed hundreds of aircraft.

Moreover, record-keeping is inherently difficult. "It's hard for us to know who shot us down," she said.

Saburo Sakai was born in Saga, on the island of Kyushu, in 1916 to a family that had turned to farming as changing economic and social conditions led to the passing of the warrior class. The family was poor, but intensely proud of their Samurai heritage, according to Mr. Sakai's book. And as Japanese militarism surged in the 30's, so did the popularity of the old Bushido ideology.

A poor student, Mr. Sakai joined the Imperial Japanese Navy at 16. He endured the brutality of the petty officers and advanced in the service until he at last passed the competitive examination for the navy fliers' school. He was one of 70 to be accepted from 1,500 applicants. Twenty-five of these graduated as pilots, and Mr. Sakai was first in his class.

He was sent as a combat pilot to China, where he was wounded. After recovering, he flew the new A6M1 Zero over Indochina in support of Japanese troops on the ground. He was one of the first to test the Zero in combat against the Chinese Air Force.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he flew with his group to attack an American air base in the Philippines. He shot down an American P-40, in what was said to be the Japan's first aerial kill there. On Jan. 25, he downed an American B-17, the first Allied bomber to fall in the Pacific.

In August 1942, he was hit in the face by a bullet from a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber. He was blinded in the right eye and his left side was paralyzed. He was prepared to die.

"I swore I would not go out like a coward, merely diving the plane into the ocean for one bright flash of pain, and then nothing" he said in his book, which was written with Martin Caidin and Fred Saito. "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."

But somehow he made it back 560 nautical miles to his base in New Guinea. In 1983, he met the tailgunner who hit him, Harry L. Jones of Unionville, Nev. "I thought he was gone," Mr. Jones said. The two enjoyed conversing, the Los Angles Times reported.

Mr. Sakai spent five months in the hospital, instructed other fliers and returned to combat. He believed a bomber he shot down around the time of Japan's surrender may have been the last American plane downed in World War II. Mr. Sakai was one of the few Japanese servicemen to rise from the ranks of enlisted men to officer. He retired with the rank of lieutenant.

He is survived by his wife, Haru; two daughters and a son, and two grandchildren. According to an article by Bucky Sheftall on a Web site called "WW II Ace Stories" (www.elknet.pl/acestory/sakai/sakai.htm), Mr. Sakai became a lay Buddhist acolyte as an act of atonement.

He told Mr. Sheftall that he had not killed any creature, "not even a mosquito," since last stepping from the cockpit of his Zero on a hot August day in 1945.

 


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov