Japan's greatest living Ace, Saburo Sakai fought for his country from the war in China in 1938 to the last day of WW II. Fighting in more than 200 engagements, he is credited with 64 aerial victories, and never lost a wingman! Born 26 August 1916 in the small farming village of Nishiyoka on the island of Kyushu, Japan, he enlisted in the Imperial Navy at age 16. After completing basic training, he served on the battleship Kirishima, attaining the rank of Petty Officer Third Class. In 1937, he became one of only 70 men of 1,500 applicants selected for flight training, of which only 25 graduated. Sakai was assigned to the Oita and Omura air groups in China, flying the Type 96 Claude fighter. On 5 October 1938, he achieved his first aerial victory against a Russian-built Polikarpov I-16 over Hankow.
Converting to the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero in 1940, Sakai was assigned to Tinian shortly before the outbreak of war with the US. He would later describe the Zero as "the most sensitive airplane I have ever flown, for even slight finger pressure brought instant response." On the opening day of the war and only 6 hours after Pearl Harbor, Sakai scored the first Japanese aerial victory over the Philippines when he shot down a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Two days later, he shot down the first American bomber lost in WW II, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress . Later many American historians identified this B-17 as the one flown by Colin Kelly. Over the next 8 months he became a leading Ace as he fought over the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.
On 7 August 1942, while attacking a flight of US Navy SBD Dauntless dive-bombers over Guadalcanal, Sakai was seriously wounded. Disoriented and battling unconsciousness, he flew his damaged plane for nearly 5 hours across the Pacific to Rabaul. Returned to Japan for immediate medical attention, he endured eye surgery without the benefit of anesthetic. Although left with only partial vision, Sakai returned to combat and fought additional battles over Iwo Jima and the home islands. Shortly before Japan's surrender aboard the USS Missouri, Sakai led the final aerial battle of WW II, his flight engaging two Convair B-32 Dominator reconnaissance bombers over Japan on 18 August 1945.
In recent years, Sakai has found friendship with many of the men against whom he fought in the air. Sakai has become an avid golfer and has played many rounds with his former adversaries, including another of this year's Eagles, Brigadier General Robert L. Scott, Jr. Despite Sakai's lack of vision in his right eye, he has scored two "holes in one" during his golfing career.
Saburo Sakai flew the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-sen when he achieved 60 of his 64 aerial victories. He was flying the fighter on 7 August 1942 when he was struck by devastating fire from a flight of US Navy Dauntless dive bombers over Guadalcanal. He was permanently blinded in his right eye, temporarily blinded in the left, and sustained paralyzing wounds in the left arm and leg. Disoriented and fighting bouts of unconsciousness, Sakai flew his damaged fighter more than 560 miles in 4 hours and 47 minutes across the Pacific in one of WW II's epic flights.