An afternoon with Saburo Sakai

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Tech Sergeant
Nov 5, 2005
Saburo Sakai suffered a heart attack at Atsugi Naval Air Station on Thursday, September 21, 2002, while reaching across the table to shake hands with an American navy officer. He died at the hospital a few hours later. He was 84. Atsugi of course was a major training and operational base for the Japanese navy air force during WWII, and afterward an American base. That's his ceremonial shrine at his memorial service, kindness of Andrew Wilson in Tokyo. The interview below was posted on rec.aviation.military several years ago by Scott T. Hards, who works in Japan and speaks the language.

By Scott Hards

On Sunday, August 11th [1998], I had the unique pleasure of being invited to the Tokyo home of Mr. Saburo Sakai, the great Japanese WWII Zero ace. Over the course of three hours, he and I discussed a number of topics, almost all related to his exploits in the war, but to some broader issues as well. What follows are some of the more interesting things he had to say....

Sakai-san turns 80 this month, but is in excellent health, physically and mentally. He speaks very energetically, gesturing broadly all the time. He's the type of senior citizen that everybody hopes they can one day be.

I will point out that I did not take notes nor use a tape recorder during our conversation, and these "quotes" are paraphrased by myself to the best of my memory. Please do not repeat them or attribute them to Sakai-san in any published forum. The conversation was entirely in Japanese, and in my translations, I've attempted to choose language that best represents the atmosphere of how Sakai-san himself was saying it. The order is roughly the order that we discussed these topics in.....

On the Zero

During the war, I was convinced the Zero Model 21 was the best fighter plane anywhere. It was always number one with me. Then a few years ago, at Champlin, I had the chance to fly in a Mustang and take the controls for a while. What an incredible plane! It could do anything the Zero could, and many things the Zero can't, like a high-speed, spiraling dive. In the Zero, the stick would be too heavy to control the plane at those speeds. The Mustang's number one with me now, and I'm afraid the Zero's number two!

On the Type 96 Carrier Fighter "Claude"

That was the most incredible fighter of its day, by far. When the Zero was rolled out, we put two equal pilots in a Type 96 and a Zero and had them dogfight. The Type 96 won quite quickly. Then we had them switch planes. The Type 96 won again. Everybody thought the Zero was a failure at that point. But they liked the Zero's range. If the Type 96 had had the range of the Zero, we might have kept using that even up to Pearl Harbor and beyond.
[The photo shows Sakai as a sergeant-pilot in China and is reproduced is from a telephone card given out as a favor at his memorial service.

On the key to a good fighter plane

By far the most important thing for a good fighter plane is its range. I can't tell you how much that affects you when you're in the cockpit. When you know you've got plenty of gas, it really lets you relax. Those poor Germans in their Me109s! They could barely get to altitude and fight for a couple of minutes before they had to start worrying about their fuel supply. When you are worried about your gas, it really affects what you do with your plane, even how you fight. Think of how many German fighters ended up at the bottom of the English Channel because they didn't have the gas to get home. A plane that doesn't have the gas to fly is just junk. If the Germans had had 1000 Zeros in 1940, I don't think England would still exist today. Think about it: With Zeros, they could have operated from airfields near Paris and still hit any target anywhere in the British Isles, or escorted bombers, and still have plenty of gas to get home. I once flew a Zero for 12 hours continuous once in an experiment to see just how far it could go. That plane's range was incredible. That's part of what made the Mustang great, too.

On the Zero's maneuverability

Oh yes, the Zero was incredibly maneuverable, but not over about 250 mph. Above that speed, the stick just gets too heavy because the plane's control surfaces are so huge. You've seen those films of kamikaze plunging straight down into the water far from any U.S. ships, right? The kids in those planes probably put their planes into a dive way too early, and before they realized their mistake, they had too much speed built up to pull out of their dive. They probably died pulling desperately on the stick with all their strength. When I coached those kids [kamikaze pilots], I'd tell them, "If you've gotta die, you at least want to hit your target, right? If so, then go in low, skimming the water. Don't dive on your target. You lose control in a dive. You risk getting picked off by a fighter, but you've got better chance of hitting your target."

On Kamikaze tactics and pilots

A lot of Westerners looked at the kamikaze strategy with complete shock, the idea of putting a kid in a plane and telling him to kill himself by crashing into the enemy. But even if you don't tell him to crash into something, putting a kid with only about 20 hours flight time into a plane and telling him to take on U.S. pilots in Hellcats and Corsairs is just as much a suicidal tactic as being a kamikaze. We figured that if they're going to die anyway, the kamikaze attack will probably cause more damage to the enemy for the same price in lives.

But let me tell you, all that stuff you read about "dying for the emperor...Banzai!" that's all crap. There wasn't one kamikaze pilot or soldier out there who was thinking anything about the emperor when they were facing death. They were thinking about their mother and their family, just like anybody else. The reason those final letters home that they wrote are so filled with emperor glorification stuff is because they knew the censors would read them, and because they simply wanted to try to make their parents proud.

On seeing the enemy

Great vision is absolutely essential for a fighter pilot. Finding your enemy even a half-second sooner than he finds you gives you a great advantage. I'd teach my pilots not to tighten their lap belts too tight, because it prevents you from swiveling your hips so that you can quickly look directly behind yourself. The field of view in the Zero was great. I don't know why those Grumman planes had those high backs that prevented pilots from seeing behind them. [Didn't losing the vision in one eye really hurt you in this respect?] Not really. By that time, I had learned to know where the enemy was going to appear from, based on conditions. I never had to sweep the sky, 360 degrees or anything to find them. You just gain a sense of where they're going to come from, and search that area most intensely. An instinct I guess. And you don't really need depth perception, because you can gauge distance by the apparent size of the enemy plane.
On just missing Lyndon Johnson

One day I jumped two B-26s and shot one down. I got a few shots off at the other before I lost it in a cloud bank. After the war, I learned from U.S. records of the incident that the plane that got away had been carrying Lyndon Johnson! Can you imagine how I might have changed history if I'd hit the other plane first instead? A lot of Americans who know that story have come up to me and said "Saburo, why didn't you shoot the other plane down first? Then we could have stayed out of the Vietnam War!"

On the IJN leadership

Promotions in the Navy were based on what school you graduated from and who you knew, it had nothing to do with merit. Some guy could smash up 20 planes trying to learn how to fly, and then not shoot down a damn thing and he'd be promoted faster than me or any other successful pilot simply because he came from the right school. Those were the kinds of idiots we had leading us. How were we supposed to win the war with leadership like that? Take that idiot [Minoru] Genda. He could barely fly, but he jumped up and down about the Shiden-kai ["George"], so everybody else pretended to like it, too. That plane was a piece of crap, put together by a third-rate firm [Kawanishi].

On the atomic bomb

Once, I was on a discussion panel with [Enola Gay pilot] Col. Paul Tibbets in the U.S. and somebody asked me what I thought about the A-bomb. I said "If Japan had had the bomb, and they told me to fly the plane that carried it and bomb San Francisco or something, I would have done it gladly. That's a soldier's job. To follow orders and fight for his country." I think Tibbets was a great hero for the U.S. To fly out there with just two B-29s and no fighter escort, that takes a lot of guts. At the time, nobody knew about the A-bomb; there was no international treaty against its use, like there was for chemical weapons. The U.S. even dropped leaflets warning people in Hiroshima that a new weapon was going to be used. That's just war.

On the Rape of Nanjing

There's no question that Japanese soldiers probably killed a few thousand people there, but stories of 100,000 to 300,000 dead are complete fiction, made up by the Chinese for propaganda purposes. And most of the "civilians" that got killed were probably Chinese soldiers masquerading as non-combatants by not wearing their uniforms. That IS against international law. Why don't I think the stories are true? First of all, there weren't even 300,000 people in Nanjing at the time. Most of the city's population had fled when they heard the Japanese were coming. Secondly, there were over 200 foreign journalists in the area, and you can't find any mention of an atrocity like that in the papers of the day. There's no way you could hide something that big, but the stories about it didn't emerge until AFTER the war. And the only photos from the supposed event that ever get published are taken from a documentary about it and are fakes, staged for the film.

On "comfort women's" demands for compensation

Demanding compensation from a foreign government 50 years after something happened? Come on. The statute of limitations for murder is only 15 years. After the war, the Japanese government signed agreements with Korea and other nations settling war liability claims. These are binding, international agreements made by the legal governments of their nations. If certain victim's groups have a claim, they have to address it to their own government, not to some foreign government. You don't see A-bomb victims groups going to Washington demanding that the U.S. government pay for their suffering, do you? No, instead, the Japanese government pays them an allowance. If the comfort women have a claim, it should be with their own Korean or Philippine government. They're just looking for cash now that Japan is a rich nation.

On protests of U.S. bases in Japan

Those people are so stupid. Do they think that soldiers actually want to start a war or something, even though they would be the first ones killed? Do they think that if we get rid of armies, that we can rid the world of war? Do they also think that if we banish doctors, that we can rid the world of disease? Why don't they understand that armed forces are like an insurance policy for use in case of emergency. Who do they think is going to protect them if someone were to actually invade Japan? Article 9 of the Constitution [the part of the Japanese Constitution that renounces war as a sovereign right]? Do they think that if they staple copies of Article 9 onto boards and post them all around Japan's shores that a foreign invader is going to turn around and go home if they read it?

And another memory of Sakai-san

The Sakai post, plus the news of his death, brought back some memories of my discussions with him in Tokyo circa 1985. At that time I had commissioned noted aviation artist Segio Koike to paint a very specific air combat scene for a limited edition print. I had done some preliminary research on the piece, which was inspired by a particular event described in Martin Caidin's "Ragged, Rugged Warriors"--a B-26 mission against the Japanese airdrome at Lae, and had located the gentleman who was at the controls of the B-26 that day. After developing a reasonably accurate account of what happen on that day and with this mission from the U.S. side (to include a very detailed account of the non-combat mission of old LBJ) we sat down with Sakai and the artist to discuss the painting. Sakai was most generous with his time and his account very closely paralleled that provided from the left seat of the B-26 ("Kansas Komet") - so the painting was completed. I wrote the narrative which accompanied the print (a limited edition that was signed by Sakai and the artist) and was very pleased with the outcome, to include the incredible detail achieved by the artist. Some months later I received a phone call from the tail gunner - retired and disabled in Florida- who noted that he had collected a copy of the print at his unit's reunion the past month in Vegas, plus was able to discussed that action with the pilot. He noted that the painting was "absolutely how it was that day, right down to the angle of approach by Sakai and the cloud formations over the target"- to include the fear that he experienced in the tail of the aircraft as the (a) Zero bore in on him. I explained that Sakai appeared to have a great memory and was not above correcting the Caidin account, in either book, when it got a bit out of hand.

Although we went on, in the context of this personal mission-historical project, to do three additional paintings with Koike (the Yamamoto shoot down, the Wake Island defense and U-2 mission over Lop Nor) none of these involved the quality of detail and the combination of personalities recreated in "Zero Scramble Over Lae".
Saburo Sakai: a bit of his scarf

I have a Saburo Sakai story that may be of interest to you and the Warbird's Forum. I have been interested in military aviation for many years and one of my most memorable experiences was meeting Saburo Sakai at his home in Tokyo. Prior to that meeting, I grew up in Vancouver, B.C. where each year there was a large Battle of Britain service held each September. Over a number of years, I had the opportunity to meet men such as Douglas Bader, Bob Stanford-Tuck, Ginger Lacey, Raymond Collingshaw (WW I) and one year Adolf Galland made an appearance. There was always a closed reception held at a military mess after the service (which I was always able to get wiggle into) and I made a point of going up and introducing myself to these gentleman, getting them to sign my program (and photos I brought with me). Witout exception, they were gracious, very attentive to my questions, and very humourous.

In 1970, I spent two months doing the Youth Hostel thing and visiting Expo 70 in Osaka. Prior to leaving [Canada] I enquired at the Japanese Embassy as to whether or not it would be possible to get Sakai's address or telephone number with the intent of meeting him. Much to my surprize, the Embassy forwarded his address and told me that Sakai had indicated that he would be happy to meet me and to call him when I got to Tokyo.

On a very hot and humid day in August 1970, I and a Japanese friend (Sakai didn't speak English as such) arrived at his home where we spent hours sipping tea, talking about his exploits, and about Canada, of which Sakai seemed to be very interested.

I showed him my photos and signatures of many of the pilots I had met and he talked at great length about the merits (as he perceived them) of these different pilots and their theatre of operations. Sakai struck me as very much the same in the traditions and fighting creed of these pilots, except with a much less sense of importance or his place in military history. That was 1970, however, just twenty-five years after the war. There was a different mind-set in public opinion regarding in Japan regarding its war record then. It was a sense of guilt, not in what Japan did, but rather guilt in that they lost the war. Saburo Sakai outlived Japan's shame/lack of interest in the war and eventually became quite the icon. I am writing this to illustrate how humble Sakai was about his war service when I met him. It was like pulling teeth, to get him to talk about the war and I think he was somewhat flattered (at the time) that some kid from Canada was so interested in him. ;

I had read Sakai's story by Martin Caiden entitled "Samurai", made notes, had what I thought were informed questions that I wanted to ask him about, and sensed that Sakai was somewhat surprized as to their depth. I recently read Dan Ford's review of Samurai and with hindsight agree that Sakai's kills were inflated. Sakai as much [as] told me that. I am not so sure that years later when Sakai enjoyed immense prestige and international fame, he would have been quite so forthright as once again, there is a different mindset now compared to 1970. (Please don't think that I am in any way questioning Sakai's unique courage and talent or place in military history.)

Sakai's scarf Just before I left his home, Sakai left me, rummaged around in a little room off his main living area and emerged with some truly remarkable items. For those that are familiar with Caiden's narrative describing how Sakai was wounded, managed to fly his aircraft back, etc. these items take on real significance. Sakai first handed me the flying helmet he was wearing that day. You could see the hole in it where he was hit. Then the smashed pair of goggles he had been wearing. The most interesting item was his silk muffler (scarf). It was the same scarf that he used to slip under his flying helmet and stuff in his head wound. I must have left a favourable impression on Sakai as he then produced a pair of scissors and cut a piece of the scarf off. He then proceeded to sign it in Japanese and English and gave it to me.

It was truly an act of kindness (and respect I suppose) which I have framed, have treasured for years and I guess it's a pretty good memento of my visit.... I am glad that Sakai lived long enough to enjoy the respect and prestige of our present time, including that of his adversaries. The fact that he fought for a brutal and wicked force does not diminish his place in aviation history nor his worth as a man.

Regards, Doug Ware in Ottawa, Canada.
A P.S. from Andy Wilson
Sakai did not show me the scarf. He did tell me that the helmet and goggles were going to the Nimitz Museum, as mentioned elsewhere in this thread. He also showed me a piece of his aircraft (tail # V-103) that had been shot down when a young, inexperienced pilot was flying it after Sakai had gone back to Japan after being wounded. The aircraft wreckage was found by a salvage group on a Pacific island some time in the early 90's, as I recall. The piece he had was from the wing and it contained a large bullet hole. A member of the salvage group gave him the piece.

The helmet and goggles were placed in front of his portrait at his funeral . If I can find my photo of it I will post it here, though the lighting was poor, as was my photographic skills, so the helmet doesn't show up well in the photo, if I recall correctly.

Sakai was an enlisted flyer and disliked the Academy officers. He especially disliked Genda, who was one of those who never fought in a single battle and spend his entire career on his butt. Sakai seemed to reserve special disdain for those who talked without doing; especially if they talked plans that led to the death of simple soldiers and sailors who didn't want to have any part in the officers' war, but willingly left their homes and loved ones to do their duty to country. Sakai told me that he and many of his fellow flyers knew in their hearts from the beginning that Japan could not beat America. They knew it was a lost cause from the start, but were willing to die for their beloved Nippon (not for the Emperor--who was too distant and mostly an abstraction for them, though they'd never admit such to their superiors). If you haven't read Ivan Morris' Nobility of Failure , you should. It explains this type of thinking among Japanese better than anything else I've seen.

Andy Wilson, Hong Kong
Very cool - I briefly met him in the late 70s. I didn't get an autograph and of course no camera :cry: - what a hell of a guy, very polite and interesting to talk to, a true gentleman...
Very cool - I briefly met him in the late 70s. I didn't get an autograph and of course no camera :cry: - what a hell of a guy, very polite and interesting to talk to, a true gentleman...

That is very cool that you met him.

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