Saburō Sakai: The Japanese ace who flew 600 miles to return to base half-blinded by a bullet to the brain
The Japanese were known for their unparalleled and undying patriotism, which proved true when their country entered the war. For example, during World War II, Japanese troops showed their willingness to give their lives for the war effort through suicide bombings. There were kamikaze attacks when pilots intentionally crashed their planes into enemy targets in the form of human-guided missiles. There were also banzai charges as ground troops overran enemy positions when defeat was evident. Along with that, there were suicide-specific weapons, like the slot mine with explosions that would surely kill its user and hopefully inflict damage on the target tank.
When Japanese pilot Saburō Sakai lost sight in one eye and half his body became paralyzed in dogfight, his injuries did not end his military service. Instead, he chose to continue fighting as a Marine Lieutenant, with only one eye.
Saburō Sakai was born in Saga, Japan in August 1916 into a family directly affiliated with the samurai whose ancestors were part of the Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1598 before being forced to cultivate their livelihood after 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 her seven remaining children, so his maternal uncle adopted Sakai. He was sent to a high school in Tokyo but was immediately sent back to Saga after failing his studies after his second year.
At age 16, Sakai decided to enlist in the Japanese Navy as a sailor fourth class at Sasebo Naval Base. In the book Naval Air: Celebrating a Century of Naval Flight by Philip Kaplan, Sakai shared his rookie experience,
NCOs would not hesitate to administer the harshest blows to recruits they deemed worthy of punishment. Every time I committed a breach of discipline or a training error, I was physically dragged out of my bed by a non-commissioned officer. ‘Stand straight to the wall! Bend down, recruit Sakai!’ he would roar. “I’m not doing this because I hate you, but because I like you and want you to be a good sailor. To bend down!’ And with that, he was swinging a big wooden stick and with every ounce of strength he had, he was slamming it against my upturned behind. The pain was terrible, the force of the blows relentless.
But Sakai didn’t back down and completed his third-class sailor training. But he really wanted to be a pilot, so in 1938 he joined the Japanese Naval Air Force whose pilots were considered the elite of the Japanese military. Each year, up to 100,000 people applied to become pilots in the Imperial Navy and underwent a two-year training. The course was so physically and academically exhausting that in Japan less than 200 a year would pass and earn their wings. Sakai, the failed high school student, graduated first in his class and received a silver watch from Emperor Hirohito himself. He was promoted to non-commissioned officer second class.
Sakai was a qualified carrier pilot but was never assigned to a carrier. He flew to China in the old A5M fighter earning his first aerial victory against a Soviet-built bomber in the Chinese Air Force. Moving on to the famous A6M Zero fighter Sakai was assigned to the Tinian Air Group (Taiwan) and took part in the first attacks on the Philippine Islands at the start of the Pacific War. During these aerial battles, Sakai shot down a P-40 Warhawk and was the first to shoot down a B-17 bomber, piloted by Lieutenant Colin Kelly.
On August 8, 1942, Sakai and his group based at Rabaul in the Solomon Islands flew to Guadalcanal the day after the first American landings and engaged Navy and Marine Corps fighters and bombers over the islands. Soon he found himself seriously injured 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 rear-pointing twin .30 machine guns. As he straightened up slightly to swing his guns across the formation, at least 8 dive bomber machine guns opened on him. Sakai’s lightly built fighter shuddered from the impact of the shells, its cockpit canopy was knocked down and a bullet hit it in the head. His left eye was blinded, while his right eye was covered in blood blinding him completely. His Zero basically did a free dive, and he nearly 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 that his plane was still flying normally. Despite his injuries, he figured he could get back to Rabaul by reducing his speed and lightening 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 plane another 4 hours and 47 minutes and 640 miles to Rabaul, battling blood loss and an overwhelming desire to sleep. Several times he fell asleep, felt the plane dive and woke up again with a start. He started slapping himself and using the pain to stay awake. Arriving above 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 planes in the process. Her cockpit was a bloody mess of bits of metal and broken glass. He was helped off the plane but refused any medical help until he could first deliver his mission report to the squadron commander and was only taken to a surgeon afterwards. to have collapsed. He was evacuated to Japan on August 12, where he underwent his long and painful surgery without anesthesia. The surgeon was able to repair some of the damage to his skull and restore function to his limbs, but he was unable to restore full vision to his right eye.
Sakia will spend the next year as an instructor, but as the war draws ever closer to Japan, he begs to return to combat and fighting. His wish was finally granted and he flew from Iwo Jima when the American invasion approached the island at the end of the war. He continued to shoot down American aircraft with one eye while lacking the stereoscopic vision and depth perception that flight requires. On one occasion, he mistook 15 American Hellcat fighters for a formation of Japanese aircraft and got into a furious dogfight dodging the six .50 caliber machine guns on each Hellcat for 20 minutes before getting away unscathed. .
In 1945, Saburo Sakai was discharged as a second lieutenant after 11 years in the navy, which was considered a rapid rate of promotion in that service. With over 60 confirmed aerial victories (and possibly as many as ten unconfirmed), he was Japan’s greatest ace to survive the war. Due to the critical shortage of pilots in Japan, the best Japanese pilots were not pulled out of combat as instructors, but remained in the cockpit until the law of averages caught up with them at some point. . Of the 60 pilots of Sakai’s first Tainan Kotutai Air Group, only three survived the war. Besides the watch he earned 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 avowed pacifist. Finding work was difficult due to post-war restrictions on hiring ex-servicemen to work for the government. He opened a successful printing business and later became a sought-after speaker and even a consultant on video games like Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator. In 2000, Sakai was the guest of honor at an official dinner hosted by the United States Navy at Atsugi Air Base in Japan. While at the table, he suffered a fatal heart attack as he leaned over the table to shake hands with a naval aviator. He was 84 years old.
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