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Saburō Sakai (1916-2000) in the open cockpit of a Mitsubishi A5M "Claude" (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Japanese were known for their unmatched and undying patriotism, which proved to be true when their country joined the war. For instance, during World War II, the Japanese troops showed their willingness to give their lives for the war effort through suicide attacks. There were kamikaze attacks when pilots would intentionally crash their planes into target enemies as human-guided missiles. There were also banzai charges when ground troops would swarm into enemy positions when defeat was apparent. Along with these were suicide-specific weapons, like the lunge mine with explosions that would surely kill its user and, hopefully, inflict some damage to the target tank.
When Japanese pilot Saburō Sakai lost his vision in one eye and half of his body became paralyzed in a dogfight, his injuries did not end his military service. Instead, he chose to keep fighting as a naval lieutenant, with only one eye.
Born a Samurai
Saburō Sakai was born in Saga, Japan, in August 1916 to a family with immediate affiliation to the samurai whose ancestors were part of the Japanese invasions of Korea back in 1592 and 1598 before they were forced to take farming for their livelihood after the abolition of the Han system. Sakai, whose name also literally meant his order in the family, was the third among his parents’ four sons and three daughters. He was 11 when their father died, and his mother struggled to raise all the seven children left under her care, so his maternal uncle adopted Sakai. He was sent to a Tokyo high school but was immediately sent back to Saga after failing his studies after his second year.
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.
But Sakai did not back down and finished his training as a Sailor Third Class. But he really wanted to be a pilot, so by 1938, he joined Japan’s Naval Air Force whose pilots were considered the elite in the Japanese military. Every year, as many as 100,000 people applied to be pilots in the Imperial Navy and undergo two years of training. The course was so grueling physically and academically that in Japan less than 200 a year would make the cut and earn their wings. Sakai, the failed high school student graduated first in his class and was awarded a silver watch from Emperor Hirohito himself. He was promoted to petty officer second class.
Sakai was a qualified carrier pilot but was never assigned to a carrier. He flew in China in the old A5M fighter scoring his first aerial victory against a Soviet-built bomber in the Chinese air force. Moving up to the famous A6M Zero fighter Sakai was assigned to the Tinian(Taiwan) air group and participated in the first attacks on the Philippine Islands at the start of the war in the Pacific. During those air battles, Sakai would down a P-40 Warhawk and be the first to shoot down a B-17 bomber, flown by Lt Colin Kelly.
August 8 Incident
On August 8, 1942, Sakai and his group were based in Rabaul in the Solomon islands flew to Guadalcanal the day after the initial American landings, and engaged navy and marine corps fighters and bombers over the islands. Soon, he found himself severely wounded after approaching what he thought was another group of Wildcats but turned out to be carrier-based Dauntless dive bombers. Approaching from below and behind and thinking they were fighters he did not realize that these planes had rearward-facing twin .30 machine guns. As he pulled up slightly to swing his guns across the entire formation at least 8 machine guns from the dive bombers opened up on him. Sakai’s lightly built fighter shook from the impact of the rounds, his cockpit canopy was shot away and a bullet hit him in the head. His left eye was blinded, while his right was covered in blood blinding him completely. His Zero basically did a free dive, and he almost crashed, only to pull out just in time when the blood in his right eye cleared from tears, and he was able to reorient himself.
He checked his instruments and found his aircraft was still flying normally. Despite his injuries, he figured he could make it back to Rabaul by reducing his speed and leaning out his fuel mixture. He found the hole in his head left by the bullet and tried to plug it with his scarf. Sakai flew his aircraft for another 4 hours and 47 minutes and 640 miles back to Rabaul, fighting off blood loss and an overwhelming desire to sleep. Several times he would nod off, feel the plane going into a dive and jerk awake again. He took to slapping himself in the face and using the pain to keep himself awake. Arriving over the field at Rabaul, he circled the field twice to get his bearings and managed to land the plane, almost running into a line of parked aircraft in the process. His cockpit was a gory mess of blood and bits of metal and shattered glass. He was helped from the plane but refused any medical attention until he could give his mission report first to the squadron commander and was only driven to a surgeon after he collapsed. He was evacuated to Japan on August 12, where he had his long, painful surgery without anesthesia. The surgeon managed to repair some of the damage to his skull and restore the function of his limbs, but he was not able to restore full vision to his right eye.
Sakia would spend the next year as an instructor, but as the war moved closer and closer to Japan, he begged to return to combat and the fighting. His wish was finally granted and he flew out of Iwo Jima as the US invasion approached the island late in the war. He continued to take down American aircraft with only one eye while lacking the stereoscopic vision and depth perception that flying requires. On one occasion he mistook 15 American Hellcat fighters for a formation of Japanese planes and found himself in a furious dogfight evading the six .50 cal machine guns on each Hellcat for 20 minutes before escaping unscathed.
In 1945, Saburo Sakai was discharged from active duty as a sub-Lieutenant after 11 years in the Navy, which was considered a fast promotion rate in that service. With more than 60 confirmed air victories(and perhaps as many as ten unconfirmed) he was Japan’s greatest ace to survive the war. Because of Japan’s critical shortage of pilots, the very best flyers in Japan were not withdrawn from combat as instructors but remained in the cockpit until the law of averages caught up with them at some point. Of the 60 pilots in Sakai’s original Tainan Kotutai air group, only three would survive the war. Besides the watch he won in flight school, he was never awarded any medals for his actions by the Japanese government.
After the war, he became a Buddhist acolyte and an avowed pacifist. Finding work was difficult because of post-war restrictions on hiring former service members to work for the government. He opened a successful printing shop and later in life became a sought-after public speaker and even a consultant on video games like Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator. In 2000, Sakai was the guest of honor at a formal dinner held by the US Navy at Atsugi airbase in Japan. While at the table he suffered a fatal heart attack as he reached across the table to shake the hand of a naval aviator. He was 84.
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