The Last Samurai
Saburo Sakai was born August 16th 1916 in the farming
village of Nishiyoka in the Saga prefecture on Kyushu island, Japan.
He came from a family descended from a long line of Samurai, Japan's
ancient warrior class. Taught to live by the code of Bushido (Hagakure
- the code of the Samurai), which meant serving the lords of Saga
and living your life prepared to die. Sakai, the third born of four
sons, had 3 sisters. His father died when he was eleven leaving his
mother alone to raise seven children on a one acre farm. He had an
uncle that worked for the Ministry of Communications who offered to
adopt him and provide for a better education. Sakai was not prepared
for the change however because although he was always at the top of
his class back home, his new school proved to be out of his league.
As education was always taken very seriously in Japan, he quickly
became the "black sheep" of his new class. This brought
shame to the family and his uncle was very disappointed. Saburo spent
that whole summer studying trying to catch up but it was futile. He
began hanging around with kids his uncle did not approve of and picking
fights with larger boys.
Yes, young Saburo Sakai was beginning to
make his mark as a fighter. Unfortunately, his school was not as impressed
as I am and they sent a note to his uncle who quickly sent him home
in disgrace. This brought great shame not only to Saburo and his family
but also to the entire village. "I knew that I had to leave my
village. I could not stay there any longer so I enlisted in the navy
when I was sixteen. This was in May 1933. I reported to Sasebo Naval
Base for training, which was about ninety kilometers from my village,
but far enough away for me."
As hard as life was growing up a fatherless boy under the code of
Hagakure, it was not hard enough to prepare him for the brutality
of his basic training. Recruits were severely beaten with rattan sticks
for the slightest perceived infractions. "I remember sometimes
passing out from the blows. The body and mind can take only so much
punishment". When a recruit passed out they'd throw cold water
on him to revive him. It was not uncommon for the petty officers to
drag a man from his bunk in the middle of the night and throw the
beats on him. If any man cried out he was given more "discipline".
Said Sakai - "We were to suffer in silence. Period". Peer
pressure was considered the best medicine for correcting "mistakes"
so when one recruit screwed up they all paid. "Although there
were some who were sadistic, there was a method in all of this madness.
It made us tough as nails, and in battle this is often the decisive
factor. After the first six months we were completely automated in
our manner. We dared not, or even thought about questioning orders
or authority, no matter how ridiculous the order". Saburo soon
(but probably not soon enough) graduated from basic training and was
assigned to the battleship Kirishima as a turret gunner. The treatment
there was no better. Wanting to raise his status in life, Saburo studied
long and hard and in 1935 he passed the Naval Gunnery School entrance
exam. After which he was assigned to the battleship Haruna as petty
officer 3rd class."This ship had sixteen-inch guns, the largest
in the world at that time; this class of battleship would only be
surpassed by the Yamato and Musashi, and all the world knew we had
the best great ships."
Sakai speaks of the flight school recruiting process: "there
were three ways to enter flight school in the early days. Remember
that the recruiting method in the time before 1941 was very different
than after we were at war with your country. The need for pilots caused
the quality to drop steeply as the war went on. However, in 1937 when
I was selected, there were three ways to get in: Officers graduating
from the Naval Academy at Eta Jima, petty officers from the fleet,
and young men recruited from the schools who would start their careers
as pilots, similar to your ROTC program today. Pilot selection was
very strict; the men chosen in 1937 when I was selected were a different
breed. The men selected to fly in 1944-45 would not have been qualified
to even pump fuel into my aircraft at this time, if that shows you
how select the program was. I remember that 1,500 men had applied
for training, and seventy had been selected that year. I was one of
them, and all were non-commissioned officers from the fleet. This
does not include the ensigns coming from the academy; they had their
own selection process. That year I do not believe any civilian recruits
were chosen, but that would change as the war with America continued.
I was twenty years old; I knew that my acceptance into flight school
dismissed my previous dishonor, and my uncle and family were so proud
of me. The entire village was proud of me. I knew this was my greatest
and last chance, and when I reported to Tsuchiura, I knew this was
a completely different world."
In 1936 he began flight training. After graduation, "We had additional
training in land and aircraft carrier landings at the Naval bases
of Oita and Omura in Kyushu, and instrument flying was stressed heavily.
This cannot be underestimated, for it saved my life in 1942 I can
tell you. This training lasted three months, although I never flew
from a carrier during the war. Then I was sent to Formosa (Taiwan)
where we had a base at Kaohsiung. Then I was sent to southeastern
China and in May 1938 I had my first combat."
Rising Sun by Robert Taylor |
On December 8, 1941, only hours after Pearl Harbor,
Sakai flew one of 45 Zero’s from Tainan Squadron that attacked
Clark airfield in the Philippines. "We started our day at 0200
hours. Our take off was ordered by the commander Saito, but a fog
came in and we were delayed. We stayed with our planes waiting, and
had breakfast. We received the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor
and the Aleutians, and we wondered if the Americans would be expecting
us during our attack. Finally at 1000 we were ordered to take off.
The mission started badly when a bomber crashed on take-off killing
all of the crew. We took off and reached 19,000 feet when I saw a
formation of American bombers coming towards our airfield. The Americans
always had great reconnaissance and knew where we were. Our orders
as the top fighter cover were to attack any aircraft coming towards
the base, so we attacked and allowed the others to continue on. Then
we saw that these planes were Japanese Army bombers on a routing flight,
and no one had informed the navy that they were coming or even in
the area. This was almost tragic. We reformed and continued on. When
we arrived over Clark Field we were amazed that we had not been intercepted,
although there were five American fighters below us who did not attack,
and we could not; our orders were to not engage until all of our bombers
were in the area.
I was also amazed that all of the American planes
were in perfect alignment for an attack, and we strafed and bombed,
and thoroughly destroyed everything.
After the bombers destroyed the
base I saw two B- 17s and went into a strafing attack.
We had already
dropped our empty external fuel tanks, and we swept in with guns blazing.
My two wing men and I shot them up, and as we pulled out the five
P-40s we had seen jumped us. This was my first combat against Americans,
and I shot down one. We had destroyed four in the air and thirty-five
on the ground. This was my third air victory, and the first American,
but not the last. I flew missions the next day, and the weather was
terrible, a rainstorm that blinded us. The third day was 10 December
and we had twenty-seven fighters on this sweep, and this was when
I caught a B-17 that was flown by Captain Colin P. Kelly. This was
the first B-17 shot down during the war."
Japan destroyed most of the
Allied Air Force in the Pacific in just a few months and Sakai’s
Tainan Squadron became known for destroying the most Allied
planes in the history of Japanese military aviation.
The Legend of Colin Kelly by Robert Taylor
7, 1942, 18 Zeroes received the order to attack Guadalcanal
(see bottom of page). The range from Rabaul was 560 miles,
barely within the range of the Zero fighters.Sakai shot down
3 F4F's in this battle and then found 8 enemy planes in the
distance, which he presumed to be F4F’s as well ...
he was wrong.
They were SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, with eager rear machine
gunners. Sakai's Zero became a target for 16 guns. Never the
less, Sakai shot down 3 SBD’s before being hit in the
forehead by a bullet which almost blinded his right eye and
left him somewhat paralyzed. He survived, flying 4 hours and
almost 600 miles back to Rabaul. He barely had eyesight but
was able to land his plane. By the time he landed, his gas
tank was empty.
Saburo's Surprise by Marii Chernev
Sakai resumed flying air combat, but his bad eye sight got him into
trouble. On June 24 1944, he approached 15 planes that he thought
were Zeros, but were U.S. Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters. In
a high-flying chase that has become legendary, Sakai eluded every
single attack from 15 Hellcats for over 20 minutes, returning to
Now that's something to smile about !
Here's an interesting story ...
Several years ago, a former Dutch military nurse contacted the Japanese
Military, attempting to locate a Japanese fighter pilot that spared
her life over New Guinea in 1942. She was flying in a Dutch military
C-47 at low altitude over dense jungle. On board were 11 wounded soldiers
and 6 children being evacuated from a combat area. Suddenly, a Japanese
Zero appeared alongside the plane. It is not hard to imagine their
panic as she and the children began frantically waving, hoping to
ward off an attack. After a few moments of terror, the Zero pilot
waved back, gave a quick wing wobble and flew away. The C-47 erupted
For over fifty years, this Dutch nurse wanted to meet the pilot who
had spared their lives. The Japanese Military located that pilot and
it was none other than Saburo Sakai, who had been flying combat air
patrol on that day. Sakai had thought about downing the C-47 for a
moment as was the order of the day, but seeing the waving hands and
terrified faces, he was moved to mercy.
Here's how Saburo tells it in one of his last interviews conducted for Microsoft's "Combat Flight Simulator 2" video game:
"It was me. That was in the Dutch East Indies. This
was during the bombing of Java. The order was to shoot down
any aircraft over Java. I was over Java and had just shot down
an enemy aircraft when I saw a big black aircraft coming towards
me. I saw that it was a civilian aircraft - a DC-4. As I flew
closer I saw that it was full of passengers. Some were even
having to stand. I thought that these might be important people
fleeing, so I signaled to the pilot to follow me. The pilot
of the aircraft was courageous enough not to follow me so I
came down and got much closer. Through one of the round windows
I saw a blonde woman, a mother with a child about three years
old. So I thought I shouldn't kill them. As a child I went to
a middle school for two years, a school I was later expelled
from. While I was there I was taught by an American, Mr. Martin, and his wife came to the class to teach us while her husband
or the other teachers were away. She was good to me. And that
woman in the airplane looked like Mrs. Martin. So I thought
that I shouldn't kill them. So I flew ahead of the pilot
and signaled him to go ahead. Then the people in the plane saluted.
The pilot saluted me and the passengers. I didn't know where
it went: either to the United States or Australia. I couldn't
find out. But a few years ago I came to find out where that
plane went - back to Holland. Newspapermen from Holland came to
visit me to find out if it was true. Well, anyway, I didn't
respect my orders that day but I still think I did the right
thing. I was ordered to shoot down any aircraft, but I couldn't
live with myself doing that. I believed that we should fight
a war against soldiers; not civilians."
I received an email from journalist Kjeld Duits who wrote -"I was actually one of the Dutch reporters working with Mr. Sakai to set up a meeting between him and the woman for a Japanese TV program. As I recall it was not a nurse, but a woman claiming to be the daughter of the woman Mr. Sakai had seen in the plane. At the time he told me he had seen a woman with a child. My newspaper researched the background of the woman and discovered the whole thing was a fraud.
I had regular and intensive contact with Mr. Sakai at the time, and visited him at his home. He told me the story about the woman and the child he had seen several times, so that part of the story appears to be correct.
Incidentally, he was a real gentleman and I came to greatly like and admire him."
Thanks for the info Kjeld !
Saburo Sakai's A6M2 Zero by Benjamin Freudenthal *
On 7 August 1942, Sakaï leaves Rabaul (background)
for a long mission to Guadalcanal
After 7 years and some 200 combat missions resulting in an estimated
64 (some sources go as low as 20) kills, Saburo Sakai flew his last
one on August 17, 1945. (Japan surrendered August 14, 1945, announced publicly on the 15th) "I
had a chance to combat the B-29 formations, and I must say that their
speed and altitude were incredible, and their defensive fire was very
accurate and heavy. I assisted in the destruction of one bomber that
crashed in the ocean. This mission was launched after we were ordered
to stand down and surrender, so it never went into the official records,
but the USAF records recorded the loss over Tokyo Bay.
Saburo Sakai was indeed an Ace, downing 64 Allied aircraft, and
most of all, never losing a wingman in over 200 missions. He experienced
injuries, but always brought his aircraft home. After WWII, Sakai’s
writings described the cruel reality of war and combat. Starting from
his book "Samurai", he kept writing and lecturing on leadership
based on his experience.
On September 22nd, 2000, he attended a party at the American Atsugi
Military base. He had dinner, but felt sick and was taken to the Hospital.
During various examinations, Sakai asked the Doctor "May I sleep
now?" and his Doctor responded "Yes, you can sleep while
we proceed". Saburo Sakai closed his eyes and never opened them
again. Japan’s legendary Ace had died at the age of 84.
Saburo, not too amused
To the right is Saburo's autograph (left side of image) and Motto (on the right) as painted by him. The Motto reads roughly - "Never give up"
Saburo Sakai - August 16, 1916 - September 22, 2000
Victories Include :
Roughly 64 Victories - Details to come
Thanks go out to
Cy Stapleton of the House
of Gutenberg for providing me with the Sakai interview
Article by Glenn T. Heyler & joe
On these pages I use Hugh Halliday's extensive research which includes info from numerous sources; newspaper articles via the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation (CMCC); the Google News Archives; the London Gazette Archives and other sources both published and private.
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