Profiles in Toxic Masculinity, Part 13 – Saburo Sakai
With last week’s presentation being an American hero of the Pacific War, it seemed appropriate this week to present a figure from the other side.
The gentleman to the right looks, by any standard, to be a respectable, middle-aged businessman. He was that, more or less, at the time this photo was taken; a conservative, respectable sort of man that Japan produces in great quantities. He was, however, much more than that; this is Imperial Japanese Navy Lieutenant Saburo Sakai (or, as in the traditional Japanese form, Sakai Saburo), one of Japan’s highest-scoring fighter pilots of the Second World War, a man of steadfast courage and today’s Profile in Toxic Masculinity.
His Maculate Origin
Born on August 25, 1906 in Kyushu’s Saga Prefecture, Sakai was the third son of four sons. His name, in fact, translates more or less into “third son.” History notes that Sakai also had three sisters, but little is known about them.
The Sakai family, like many Japanese families of that time, claimed descent from samurai stock, and they did have some evidence that ancestors of their had taken part in the invasion of Korea in 1592. Nevertheless, by 1906 the family was farming in the hills of Saga Prefecture.
Sakai’s father died when the boy was only eleven, and the family’s reduced circumstances resulted in Saburo being sent to Tokyo to stay with an uncle; there, he attended Aoyama Gakuin High School for two years before his lackluster grades resulted in him being sent back to Kyushu.
With few other prospects besides farming, on May 31, 1933, the sixteen-year-old Sakai volunteered for the Japanese Imperial Navy and entered that service as a Sailor Fourth Class. This decision was to have far-reaching consequences for the young Saburo.
His Adventurous Career
Initial entry training in the Imperial Navy in 1933 was nothing short of brutal. Japan was, at the time, rushing to catch up to Western military standards, and did so ruthlessly. Sakai described the disciplinary tactics: “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. ‘Stand tall to the wall! Bend down, Recruit Sakai!’ he would roar. ‘I am not doing this because I hate you, but because I like you and want you to make a good seaman. Bend down!’ And with that 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.”
Sakai persisted, and eventually graduated, was promoted to Sailor Third Class, and assigned to the battleship Kirishima. In 1935, he was accepted to and completed the Naval Gunnery School, after which he was assigned to the battleship Haruna as a turret gunner. After being promoted through the ranks to Petty Officer, Third Class, he was accepted into pilot training in 1937. Graduating at the top of his class, Sakai was personally presented with a silver watch by Emperor Hirohito, promoted to Petty Officer Second Class and assigned to a group of A5M fighters in Formosa. His unit, the 12th Kokutai (Air Group), was providing support for Japanese forces in China.
Sakai’s first air-to-air victory came in October of 1938, when his flight was ambushed by Chinese pilots in Russian-built Polikarpov I-16s. Sakai broke formation and shot down an I-16, but in the process allowed another to get on his tail and was almost shot down himself, earning Sakai a public dressing-down from his flight leader. In 1939, Sakai was wounded in a Chinese bombing raid and returned to Japan for treatment, not returning to flight duty until 1941, when he was sent back to Formosa and assigned to a Kokutai flying the new A6M “Zero.”
His One-Man War
On December 8th, 1941, Sakai’s group was ordered to depart Formosa to escort a flight of G4M “Betty” bombers to Clark Field in the Philippines. At the time, this was the longest flight ever attempted by single-seat fighters. Sakai himself described how this was accomplished: “I personally established the record low consumption of less than 17 gallons per hour; on average our pilots reduced their consumption from 35 gallons per hour to only 18. To conserve fuel, we cruised at only 115 knots at 12,000 feet. We lowered propeller revolutions to only 1,700 to 1,850 rpm and throttled the air control valve to its leanest mixture. This furnished the absolute minimum of power and speed, and we hung on the fringe of losing engine power at any time and stalling.” On his arrival in the Philippines, Sakai shot down an American P-40 fighter and strafed two B-17 bombers on the ground, destroying both.
After that, Sakai flew missions in Burma, the East Indies, and New Guinea, against not only American but also Dutch and Australian pilots. His toll of air-to-air victories climbed to fifty.
On June 9th, 1942, Sakai had an indirect encounter with another, perhaps less honorable person from today’s history books. On that day Sakai’s flight encountered a two-pronged assault on the air base at Lae, New Guinea, by American B-26 bombers. The Kotukai downed two of the fast, tough B-26s in return for one Zero downed. But history’s footnote on that action was notable for what didn’t happen.
One of those bombers was supposed to contain an “observer” in the form of Representative Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), who had been given a “commission” as a Navy Reserve officer to allow him to tour the theater of operations. Johnson’s B-26 turned back early in the flight due to a “generator failure” and, while Johnson was awarded a Silver Star by General MacArthur for his “coolness under fire,” other members of the flight crew insisted that the craft never came within eighty miles of the action. That didn’t stop Johnson from extensively using the medal to further his political career.
Consider for a moment the differences in those two men: One was a courageous, dedicated serviceman devoted to his country while the other one was Lyndon Johnson.
Later that year, Sakai’s group was assigned to the airfield on Rabaul. While attacking a large flight of American Wildcat fighters and Dauntless dive bombers, Sakai’s Zero was caught in a crossfire. A .30 caliber machine-gun bullet from one of the dive bombers shattered Sakai’s canopy and tore a gash across his head.
Blind in one eye and with blood running down his face, Sakai left the melee and flew almost five hours back to his base. There he was lifted from the cockpit, and found to have fragments in his left arm, leg, and chest in addition to his head wound. Nevertheless, he demanded to be presented to his flight leader and delivered his report before being taken to the hospital for treatment.
Following his recovery, Sakai spent most of 1943 and early 1944 training new pilots. On his return to combat duty, still blind in one eye, Sakai was assigned to Iwo Jima and was horrified at the capabilities of the new American F6F Hellcat fighters. The Hellcat was faster and even more maneuverable than the Zero, while being bigger, tougher, and more heavily armed; if the Zero was a rapier, the Hellcat was a war-hammer. New pilots fared poorly against the new American fighter, and in two days, Iwo Jima’s fighter squadron was eliminated.
In August 1944 Sakai was recalled to Japan to aid in building the island’s defenses against invasion. He continued flying, eventually being promoted to Ensign and then to Lieutenant (Junior Grade) and assigned to fly the new N1K2 “George” fighter, which was supposed to be a match for the American Hellcat.
Sakai in fact flew the last aerial mission of the Imperial Japanese Navy. On August 17th, 1945, two days after the Emperor agreed to the terms of surrender, Sakai was flying a patrol with several other craft when a Consolidated B-32 reconnaissance plane appeared. Sakai fired on the bomber, damaging it but inflicting no casualties.
His Golden Years
With the war over, Sakai converted to a strict Buddhist worldview, vowing that henceforth he would harm “not even a mosquito.” He did, however, speak plainly on the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying that “Had I been ordered to bomb Seattle or Los Angeles in order to end the war, I wouldn’t have hesitated. So, I perfectly understand why the Americans bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima.”
Peacetime proved difficult. His service with the Imperial Navy and his resulting assignment as a “militarist” precluded him from many civilian occupations, and his partial blindness precluded any further military service. Sakai’s wife died in 1947. He opened a print shop after he remarried in 1952 and managed a modest living from that.
His career was documented in the book Samurai! American author Martin Caidin copyrighted the English translation in his name, and embellished the original version a great deal; about one action involving the shoot-down of an American B-29 described in the English version, Sakai angrily replied that “…what was written in Samurai! was totally false. I never flew at night and there was no Ensign Jiro Kawachi!”
He was remembered, however, by fellow veterans from both sides of the Pacific Theater. His daughter attended college in the United States, and Sakai traveled to the land of his former enemies several times. On Memorial Day, 1982, he even met, face to face, Harold Jones, the SBD “Dauntless” gunner who had so gravely injured him years before. The two discussed the event and, by all accounts, parted as friends. Sakai had also met and befriended American ace Joe Foss, who Sakai described as “his most valued American friend.”
On September 22, 2000, Sakai was an honored guest at a formal dinner held by the U.S. Navy at Atsugi Naval Air Station in Kanagawa Prefecture. Later that night, after the dinner, he succumbed to a heart attack. He was 84.
Having served on the losing side in a war does not preclude one from laudable character traits such as courage, determination, and steadfastness. Sakai Saburo had these and to spare.