The Tale of Saburō Sakai

By Bryan Johnson on Wednesday, July 17, 2013
“When the war of the giants is over the wars of the pygmies will begin.” —Sir Winston Churchill

In a Nutshell

One of the most famous pilots from World War II is a Japanese man named Saburō Sakai. He was one of the highest ranking Japanese pilots to survive the war and underwent an incredible battle for survival during the conflict. In August of 1942, Sakai was shot in the face by a 7.62 mm (0.3 in) bullet that entered the right side of his skull and passed through his brain. He survived, continued flying, and survived the war.

The Whole Bushel

After Japan and the United States entered into war, Sakai and the Tainan Air Group were given the task of defending Japanese airspace over the Pacific. Sakai is credited with shooting down the first American B-17 during the Pacific War, an aircraft flown by Captain Colin P. Kelly.

On August 7, 1942, Allied forces landed on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida in an attempt to disrupt Japanese supply routes. During this time, Sakai was given the task of flying offensive missions over the islands. On his first mission, Sakai was shot in the head by a large bullet. The wound left him blind in the right eye and temporarily paralyzed on the left side of his body. After being shot, Sakai’s plane started to fall toward the sea, but he was able to gain control and fly back to his base on Rabaul, a flight that took four-hours, 47-minutes and covered 1,040 km (640 mi). After landing safely on his second attempt, Sakai insisted on giving his mission report before being treated at the hospital.

Sakai eventually recovered from his injuries, but lost vision in his right eye. Despite the damage, Sakai convinced his superiors to let him return to combat. He is one of only three pilots from his Japanese pre-war unit to survive the war. Sakai is credited with destroying or damaging more than 60 Allied planes.

After the war, Sakai became a Buddhist and vowed to never kill anything again, not even an insect. He harbored no animosity toward the Allies and criticized Emperor Hirohito’s role in World War II saying: “The closer you get to the emperor, the fuzzier everything gets.” In September of 2000, Saburō Sakai died of a heart attack following a U.S. Navy dinner in which he was an honored guest.

Show Me The Proof

New York Times: Saburō Sakai Obituary
Warbird Forum: Saburō Sakai
Military Images: Sakai’s Plane