Japan's greatest living ace, Saburo Sakai, fought for his Emperor from the China War in 1938 to the last day of World War II. He flew more than 200 engagements, gained 64 aerial victories, and never lost a wingman! Born on a small farm in 1916, he enlisted in the Imperial Navy at age 16, achieved the rank of third class petty officer, and then entered flight training. In 1938, he achieved his first aerial victory against a Russian-built Polikarpov I-16 over China. Later, on the opening day of the war with America and 6 hours after Pearl Harbor, Sakai engaged a P-40 near Clark Field, thus scoring the first Japanese aerial victory of the Philippine Campaign. Two days later, he also shot down the first American bomber lost in combat--a B-17 flown by Captain Colin Kelly. Over the next 8 months, Sakai swiftly became a leading ace of the Pacific war as he fought over the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.
But his flying days almost ended in August 1942 when he was severely wounded and blinded in his right eye while attacking a flight of US Navy dive-bombers over Guadalcanal. Despite his partial vision, he returned to combat and fought additional battles over Iwo Jima and the home islands. On 18 August 1945, shortly before Japan's surrender aboard the USS Missouri, Sakai led the final aerial battle of World War II when his flight intercepted two B-32 reconnaissance bombers over the home islands. Following the war, Sakai endured poverty, hunger, illness, and even the death of his wife. In his own words, this was ".a bitter struggle--far worse than any I had known in combat." Today, however, Sakai operates a successful printing business he began with the brothers and widows of his comrades who died in the war. In a strange twist of fate, Sakai has found friendship with many of the men he fought in the air.
The Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-Sen was the fighter flown by Saburo Sakai in achieving 60 of his 64 aerial victories. He described the Zero as ".the most sensitive airplane I have ever flown, for even slight finger pressure brought instant response." The fighter depicted in the painting was flown by Sakai on 7 August 1942, the date he was struck by devastating fire from air flight of US Navy Dauntless dive-bombers. Permanently blinded in his right eye, partially blinded in his left eye, and suffering from paralyzing wounds in his left arm and leg, Sakai successfully flew his damaged fighter more than 500 miles across the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Rabaul.