After World War II he was a respected man in Japan and the US

Saburō Sakai: the story of a Japanese samurai pilot whose honor made him a hero

During World War II, the Japanese Empire committed serious crimes, but there were also Japanese who fought honorably.

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Saburō Sakai was born in 1916 in Saga, in southwestern Japan, into a large family. He was educated in the traditional Sumurai code of honor. At just 16 he enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Navy, serving as a naval gunner until in 1937 he gained access to the Naval Aviator course of Tsuchiura. In 1938 he was assigned a Mitsubishi A5M fighter, with which he fought in the Sino-Japanese War, being wounded in combat.

He put his honor above the orders received

During World War II, Sakai fought in a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter in the Philippines in 1941. The following year he was assigned to Borneo, which was part of the Dutch East Indies invaded by Japan. In that mission, the Japanese pilots had orders to shoot down any enemy plane, whether military or civilian, even if it was unarmed. Such an order would test Sakai's sense of honor.

During a patrol over the island of Java, Sakai came across a Dutch Douglas DC-3 flying low over the jungle. When approaching the plane, the Japanese pilot could see through the windows of the DC-3 that it was carrying women and children, so Sakai, disobeying the order received but obeying his sense of honor, gave him he signaled to the Dutch pilot to continue. Seeing the gesture of the Japanese aviator, the pilot and passengers of the Dutch plane greeted Sakai as a sign of gratitude. Sakai did not reveal anything that happened at his command upon returning to his base.

Saburō Sakai in his Mitsubishi A5M fighter at Hankow airfield in China in 1939 (Photo: Aces of WW2 / Wikimedia).

His fight with 'Pug' Southerland and the action in which he was left for dead

On August 7, 1942, Sakai had an airborne encounter with an American F4F Wildcat fighter manned by James "Pug" Southerland. The latter's machine guns jammed and he was unable to shoot down his enemy, but he chased him in an impressive "dog fight" in which both Southerland and Sakai demonstrated their great skill as pilots. The Japanese aviator would end up shooting down his rival, who was nevertheless able to jump out of his plane and survived.

A few days later, Sakai engaged in combat with American naval Douglas SBD Dauntless bombers. Sakai's plane was damaged when he attacked his six (i.e. from the rear, where the machine guns were pointing). of the Dauntless gunners). Sakai was hit in the head by a .30 caliber bullet, and the Americans presumed him dead, counting him as a casualty. But Sakai didn't crash. With one of his eyes blinded by the remains of the cockpit that fell off with the bullet impacts, he thought about dying like a kamimaze, but there was no enemy ship near him.

A print of the A6M5 Zero fighter flown by Sakai over Iwo Jima in June 1944. It bore the number E-137 (Source: War Thunder).

An incredible flight of more than 1,000 kilometers while being seriously injured

Despite his serious injuries, Sakai managed to fly for almost 5 hours and travel more than 1,000 kilometers to the Japanese base in Rabaul, in Papua New Guinea. Dazed, he nearly collided with other planes upon landing, landing on the runway on the second try. Despite his sorry state, he insisted and informed his superior officer, before falling unconscious. Sakai was hospitalized until January 1943, managing to return to active duty as an instructor of aviators. Given the shortage of pilots in Japan, in April 1944 Sakai was allowed to fly again, being sent to Iwo Jima.

He participated in the last mission of Japanese naval aviation in the war

The protagonist of this story participated in the last Japanese naval aviation mission on August 18, 1945. He met two four-engined American Consolidated B-32 Dominators that were on a high-altitude reconnaissance and verification mission. Japanese fire on the Izu Islands. Sakai's unit mistook them for Boeing B-29 Superfortresses bombers and, perhaps thinking they were on a strike mission, fired on them. The two B-32s managed to return to their base, but one of their crew died and two were injured. Sergeant Anthony Marchione, who died in that combat, was the last American killed in World War II.

Saburō Sakai as an old man, next to a Japanese fighter (Source: Desca97).

The postwar years

After the war, Sakai retired from the Japanese Navy with 64 victories, having become a Japanese flying ace. In civilian life, he had trouble finding work. His wife died in 1947, and he ended up founding a printing company. In the postwar period, the gesture of honor he had with that Dutch DC-3 became known, and that made him a respected character in Japan and the US. Sakai converted to Buddhism, vowing never again to take a life, not even a mosquito.

Sakai ended up sending his daughter to study in the US "to learn English and democracy", and he went on to meet his former adversaries, including Harold "Lew" Jones, the gunner for the Douglas SBD Dauntless who seriously wounded in combat. Sakai died of a heart attack at the age of 84 on September 22, 2000, after attending a banquet dedicated to him by the US Navy at the Atsugi naval base in Japan. He today remains a respected figure in the two once rival countries. His honor made him go down in history as a hero.

The Youtube channel Yarnhub has published an excellent video telling the story of this Japanese aviator:

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