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 in 1916 on a 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 Captain 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, 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 SBD Dauntless dive-bombers over Guadalcanal. 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.
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.” Sakai later went on to operate 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 found friendship with many of the men against whom he fought in the air.