I am sure that most of us have seen the movie, ‘The Last Samurai,’ in which we are led to believe that Japan’s last heroic figure was in fact Tom Cruise, who hails from Hollywood. Well, let us forget about Tom Cruise and rather look into the life of Japan’s real ‘last samurai.’
‘Samurai’ is a term that described the military nobility of Japan, which saw combat for hundreds of years up to the late nineteenth century. Samurai families lived their lives according to ‘Bushido’, a code of conduct better known as ‘the way of the warrior.’ Bushido emphasised philosophy, prudence, martial arts, duty, self-sacrifice, loyalty and honour unto death. In 1873, the Samurai system was replaced with a conscripted military force. Members of the former military nobility blended in with the rest of the population, but it was not uncommon for Samurai families to continue teaching their children the ways of Bushido. Saburo Sakai was born on 16 August 1916 in a Japanese fishing village. The Sakai family descended from a long line of Samurai, so Saburo was naturally taught to live in accordance to the Bushido code, living his life prepared to die. When Saburo was eleven years old, his father died, which meant his mother had to single-handedly raise seven children. Saburo’s uncle noticed that Saburo was a top student at the local school, so he adopted him in order to provide a better education at a more prestigious school. In spite of his best attempts, Saburo was unable to cope at the new school and his academic marks plummeted. His disappointed uncle sent the young Saburo back home, where his academic failure brought shame upon his family and the entire village. Saburo could not handle the embarrassment and joined the navy at the age of sixteen, just to be able to escape the situation in his hometown.
Life as an Imperial Navy recruit was not easy, especially when compared with military life in our current politically correct world. Saburo Sakai described how the Imperial Navy dealt with indiscipline: “The petty officers would not hesitate to administer the severest beatings to recruits they felt deserving of punishment. Whenever I committed a breach of discipline or an error in training, I was dragged physically from my cot by a petty officer. He would swing a large stick of wood and with every ounce of strength he possessed would slam it against my upturned bottom. The pain was terrible, the force of the blows unremitting. There was no choice, but to grit my teeth and struggle desperately not to cry out. At times I counted up to forty crashing impacts into my buttocks. Often I fainted from the pain. A lapse of consciousness constituted no escape however. The petty officer simply hurled a bucket of cold water over my prostrate form and bellowed for me to resume position, whereupon he continued his discipline until satisfied that I would mend the errors of my ways.”
After completing basic training, Saburo served as a gunner on one of the largest battle ships in the world. In 1937, he was one of 1 500 men that applied for training as fighter pilots. Only 70 of those men were selected as recruits, with 25 of them graduating as pilots. Saburo was one of the fortunate 25. His selection as a pilot dismissed the shame he had brought upon his family and yes, the entire village was proud of him. During flight training, the emphasis was placed on instrument flying and carrier operations, even though Saburo would never fly operationally from aircraft carriers.
Saburo Sakai first saw combat over China in 1938 and flew his first World War II mission over the Philippines in 1941, one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. On that mission, Sakai shot down an American P-40 Warhawk and destroyed two B-17 heavy bombers on the ground. A few days later, Sakai claimed the first B-17 air-to-air ‘kill’ of World War II. Sakai soon became an ace and his squadron was known as the top scoring unit in the Japanese Navy.
Sakai loved the Zero fighters which he flew, in particular because of the aircraft’s good climb rate, reliable machine guns and the responsive control stick. According to Sakai, Japanese fighter units’ strength was the ability of the individual pilots. A lack of teamwork was the biggest challenge, especially when considering that Japanese pilots flew without radios. Nevertheless, Sakai never lost a wingman in combat.
Sakai and two other Japanese aces, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Toshio Ohta, became known as the ‘Cleanup Trio.’ The three aces were seen as indestructible and gained even more notoriety after performing low-level formation aerobatics over an enemy base. In spite of becoming a ruthless hunter in the sky, Sakai was still able to display acts of mercy. On one occasion, he was ordered to shoot down every aircraft flying over the Dutch East Indies. He intercepted a civilian DC-3 and in spite of his orders, allowed it to fly to safety. When describing the incident, Sakai said, “I didn't respect my orders that day, but I still think I did the right thing. I was ordered to shoot down any aircraft, but I could not live with myself doing that. I believed that we should fight a war against soldiers, not civilians.”
During one particular mission in August 1942, Sakai shot down three Douglas Dauntless dive bombers. The fourth Dauntless proved more than a match when its tail gunner fired a round into Sakai’s face, blinding him in one eye and partially paralysing him. Nevertheless, the wounded Sakai managed to nurse his aircraft home, even though the return flight lasted several hours. Eventually Sakai returned to flying status, but the reduced sight in his one ‘seeing’ eye would cause Sakai trouble during the rest of his flying career.
It is important to note that Japanese units functioned very differently to their Western counterparts. Pilots were expected to perform at their limits and in complete dedication to the emperor. Anything less was considered shameful and a disgrace. For that reason, acts of bravery were only acknowledged after the individual’s death and awards were only made posthumously. Kills were attributed to units, rather than individual pilots and promotion was mostly based on the prestige of the school one attended, rather than one’s flying performance.
Having sustained major injuries, Sakai was removed from frontline combat and tasked to train Kamikaze pilots. The Japanese reasoned that the poorly trained, inexperienced pilots were going to be killed in combat anyway, so they might as well destroy or damage a ship in the process. In the words of Sakai, “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.” Later during the war, Japan experienced a dire shortage of pilots so that even ones with poor eyesight, such as Sakai, were required to return to combat. Sakai saw combat right up to the last day of the war in the Pacific Theatre, possibly scoring the last Japanese air-to-air victory of the war. It is estimated that Sakai shot down about 65 enemy aircraft.
After the war, Sakai promised he would never again kill any living thing and became a Buddhist acolyte. He also opened and successfully managed a printing shop. Many years later, Microsoft used Sakai as a consultant in developing a combat flight simulator. In spite of serving the Japanese Empire, Sakai disagreed with the emperor’s principles and believed that Japan should never have entered the war. Ten years ago, Saburo Sakai died of a heart attack at a U.S. Navy formal dinner. He was one of the top scoring aces in the Pacific Theatre.
This article was written by Divan Muller and first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2010 - www.africanpilot.co.za
More articles on exceptional pilots will be loaded on a regular basis.