REMARKS: Formed part of the elite
Tainan Ku's world famous "Ace Trio" along with Hiroyoshi Nishizawa
and Toshio Ohta. Sakai remains the top surviving ace of the Pacific Airwar.
The Kamikaze Who Survived
By Paul Basar
Warrant Officer Saburo Sakai is the most famous Japanese pilot and was one
of the few high scorers to survive the war. His total of 64 victories puts him
in fourth place (after Warrant Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, 113 victories, Lt.
Tetsuzo Iwamoto, 80, and Petty Officer 1st Class Shoichi Sugita, 70). He first
flew in China with the Imperial Japanese Navy, where he gained two victories,
and joined the land-based naval wing at Tainan. On December 8, 1941, he flew
with the rest of the Tainan Wing to attack an American air base in the
The 45 A6M2 Zeros escorted 53 G4M Bettys until they found the air base, Clark
Field. At 15,000 feet, Sakai saw five dots take off from the field, Curtiss
P-40s. They made no agressive action, so Sakai left them alone and brought his
fighters down to strafe. As the Zeros climbed away, the P-40s attacked. Sakai
led his three plane flight to meet the American fighters and the P-40s broke
off. Four flew into the smoke covering the airfield, but one turned left. Sakai
fired his two machine guns and pair of cannon at it and it crashed . It was the
first American plane shot down in the Philipines. Soon the Tainan Wing started
to have scraps with B-17Es of the 5th Air Force. On the 25th of January, Sakai
and another pilot ran into eight of the huge bombers. Knowing that many
Japanese pilots had had their fighters shot to pieces by the bombers tail
turret, he attacked from above. The 20mm. cannon carried on the Zero did the
most damage and soon one of the behemoths started to smoke. The two Japanese
turned on the damaged B-17, but they couldnt shoot it down. Finally Sakai
ran out of ammunition and watched as the bomber disappeared into the clouds, a
By February Sakai had claimed 13 Allied planes. During the spring he pushed his
score. By July 22, he had reached 47 victories and on that day he claimed two
more. He was flying over the beach at Buna, guarding the men landing there,
when a pile of bombs exploded in the men and equipment. He soon saw a Lockheed
Hudson coming through the clouds. As he attacked, the pilot of the Hudson used
his bomber/transport as a fighter, chasing the Zeros. The tail gunner fired
until he was killed by a lucky burst and the Hudsons doom was sealed.
Sakai jumped behind it and flamed the left engine. The Hudson crashed into the
jungle, a burning mess.
As the three Zeros formed up to head home, they saw five P-39 Aircobras. The
Zeros had a performance margin over the Americans, but the P-39 carried a huge
37mm. cannon in the propeller hub, which could take a Zero out with one shot.
The six .50 caliber machine guns were allso deadly. But the Zeros attacked,
lead by Sakai. He chased one toward a mountain, but before he could fire his
guns, the American pilot baled out. Lucky for him since Sakai was ready to fill
his fighter with tracers! The pilot had baled out at only 150 feet, to low for
it to be safe, but he miraculously survived. With 49 victories, Sakai was in
the top standings but in August the Americans invaded Guadalcanal. Covered by
carriers, the Marines captured an airbase being built by the Japanese. From
here the Marine and USAAC fighters attacked Japanese bombers. Meanwhile over
Buna, on August 2nd, Sakai lead nine Zeros against five B-17s. The Japanese
attacked and downed one right away. Sakai had forgotten to remove the safety
catch on the trigger and had missed a chance on a bomber. As he climbed away
from the defensive fire, he saw another B-17 go down. Before he could attack, a
third was taken out. Sakai attacked one of the two remaining planes and flamed
it on the first pass.
Climbing away from the burning wreck, Sakai saw three P-39s coming from the
east. The eight other Zeros hadnt noticed them, so he attacked. He got
behind the P-39s, got one in his gunsight, and blew its wing off. The other
Zeros turned to attack while Sakai went after the damaged B-17. Before he could
get the bomber though, the Zeros finished off the P-39s and came back to help.
Eventually the B-17 went down, but not before downing one of the Zeros in the
A few days later, the Tainan Wing escorted some bombers to Guadalcanal. Sakai
attacked some of the Grumman Wildcats sent up to repel the bombers. He downed
one after a long dogfight. He was then attacked by a Douglas Dauntless,
normally used as a dive bomber, the Dauntless pilot used his forward firing .50
calibers against Sakai. It didnt work and the Dauntless plunged
Sakai then noticed a formation of eight Wildcats off in the
distance. As he approached them, the back guns of the Grumman Avenger torpedo
bombers shot his Zero to bits. Sakai took a bullet across the right side of his
face and his left side was paralyzed, but he managed to get back to Lae, his
home base. He was blinded in the right eye by that bullet.
As a result of that injury, Sakai was in the hospital until January of 1943.
During March he rejoined the Tainan Wing in Japan, but when the group was
stationed to Rabaul, he was left behind because his eyesight hadnt
improved. When the Wing did reach Rabaul on April 3rd , they were slaughtered
by the American forces that attacked soon after: 49 Zeros in four missions.
Sakai meanwhile spent a year as an instructor before being tranferred to the
Yokosuka Wing, based at Iwo Jima. In one mission forty Zeros took off and only
20 came back. Sakai was among the group and but managed to escape by flying so
close to the ocean that his wings dipped in the water several times. Then a few
days later Sakai and the eight other remaining Zeros escorted eight G4M Bettys
sent to attack the US aircraft carriers. The Bettys were armed with torpedos,
while Zeros were supposed to crash into the American ships. The Bettys would do
As the 17 Japanese planes neared the fleet, they were attacked by mobs of
Grumman Hellcats. Only four Zeros survived along with one Betty. The bomber
pilot had released his torpedos and head for home, ignoring the kamikaze order.
Sakai was one of the Zero pilots to come home. He had shot down a Hellcat but
had escaped in a storm cloud. He too ingnored the kamikaze order.
When he arrived in Japan after escaping from Iwo, he joined the Matsuyama Wing
flying the deadly Kawanishi N1K George (the Allied name for it), armed with
four 20mm. cannon. It had been designed to fight the Hellcat and in some cases
it was superior, but it had short range so it was worthless as a carrier
fighter. Before Sakai could fly these into combat, he was transfered back to
the Yokosuka Wing flying Mitsubishi J3M Jacks. Heavily armed and fast, Sakai
flew them with some success against the B-29s raiding Japan. Soon though, the
bombers were escorted by the best American fighter, the P-51 Mustang. The Jack
was unmaneuverable and it was often shot down by the Mustang in a dogfight.
On his last mission, Sakai and nine other pilots took off to intercept the
B-29s during the night of August 13, 1945. They all attacked one B-29 and shot
it down over the ocean. Then a few days later Japan surrendered. Sakai had
achieved 64 victories. He wrote a book after the war called
"Samuria", based on his wartime experiences.
A6M2-21 Zero V-103 - Tainan NAC, IJNAF