An afternoon with Saburo Sakai
By Scott Hards, © 1998
On Sunday, August 11th , I had the unique pleasure of being invited to
the Tokyo home of Mr. Saburo Sakai, the great Japanese WWII Zero ace.
Over the course of three hours, he and I discussed a number of topics,
almost all related to his exploits in the war, but to some broader
issues as well. What follows are some of the more interesting things he
had to say.... I did not take notes nor use a tape recorder
during our conversation, and these "quotes" are paraphrased by myself to
the best of my memory. Please do not repeat them or attribute them to
Sakai-san in any published forum. The conversation was entirely in
Japanese, and in my translations, I've attempted to choose language that
best represents the atmosphere of how Sakai-san himself was saying it.
The order is roughly the order that we discussed these topics in.
On the Zero
During the war, I was convinced the Zero Model 21 was the best fighter
plane anywhere. It was always number one with me. Then a few years
ago, at Champlin, I had the chance to fly in a Mustang and take the
controls for a while. What an incredible plane! It could do anything
the Zero could, and many things the Zero can't, like a high-speed,
In the Zero, the stick would be too heavy to control
the plane at those speeds. The Mustang's number one with me now, and
I'm afraid the Zero's number two!
On the Type 96 Carrier Fighter "Claude" [A5M]
That was the most incredible fighter of its day, by far. When the Zero
was rolled out, we put two equal pilots in a Type 96 and a Zero and had
them dogfight. The Type 96 won quite quickly. Then we had them switch
planes. The Type 96 won again. Everybody thought the Zero was a
failure at that point. But they liked the Zero's range. If the Type 96
had had the range of the Zero, we might have kept using that even up to
Pearl Harbor and beyond.
[The photo shows Sakai as a sergeant-pilot in China and is reproduced is from a
telephone card given out as a favor at his memorial service in 2002. The
image is kindness of Andrew Wilson -- DF]
On the key to a good fighter plane
By far the most important thing for a good fighter
plane is its range.
I can't tell you how much that affects you when you're in the cockpit.
When you know you've got plenty of gas, it really lets you relax. Those
poor Germans in their [Bf-]109s! They could barely get to altitude and
fight for a couple of minutes before they had to start worrying about
their fuel supply. When you are worried about your gas, it really
affects what you do with your plane, even how you fight. Think of how
many German fighters ended up at the bottom of the English Channel
because they didn't have the gas to get home. A plane that doesn't have
the gas to fly is just junk. If the Germans had had 1000 Zeros in 1940,
I don't think England would still exist today. Think about it: With
Zeros, they could have operated from airfields near Paris and still hit
any target anywhere in the British Isles, or escorted bombers, and still
have plenty of gas to get home. I once flew a Zero for 12 hours
continuous once in an experiment to see just how far it could go. That
plane's range was incredible. That's part of what made the Mustang
On the Zero's maneuverability
Oh yes, the Zero was incredibly maneuverable, but not over about 250
mph. Above that speed, the stick just gets too heavy because the
plane's control surfaces are so huge.
You've seen those films of
kamikaze plunging straight down into the water far from any U.S. ships,
right? The kids in those planes probably put their planes into a dive
way too early, and before they realized their mistake, they had too much
speed built up to pull out of their dive. They probably died pulling
desperately on the stick with all their strength. When I coached those
kids [kamikaze pilots], I'd tell them, "If you've gotta die, you at
least want to hit your target, right? If so, then go in low, skimming
the water. Don't dive on your target. You lose control in a dive. You
risk getting picked off by a fighter, but you've got better chance of
hitting your target."
On Kamikaze tactics and pilots
A lot of Westerners looked at the kamikaze strategy with complete shock,
the idea of putting a kid in a plane and telling him to kill himself by
crashing into the enemy. But 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. We figured that if
they're going to die anyway, the kamikaze attack will probably cause
more damage to the enemy for the same price in lives.
But let me tell you, all that stuff you read about "dying for the
emperor ... Banzai!" that's all crap. There wasn't one kamikaze pilot or
soldier out there who was thinking anything about the emperor when they
were facing death. They were thinking about their mother and their
family, just like anybody else. The reason those final letters home
that they wrote are so filled with emperor glorification stuff is
because they knew the censors would read them, and because they simply
wanted to try to make their parents proud.
On seeing the enemy
Great vision is absolutely essential for a fighter pilot. Finding your
enemy even a half-second sooner than he finds you gives you a great
advantage. I'd teach my pilots not to tighten their lap belts too
tight, because it prevents you from swiveling your hips so that you can
quickly look directly behind yourself.
The field of view in the Zero
was great. I don't know why those Grumman planes had those high backs
that prevented pilots from seeing behind them.
Hards: Didn't losing the vision in one eye really hurt you in this respect?
Not really. By that time, I had learned to know where the enemy was
going to appear from, based on conditions. I never had to sweep the
sky, 360 degrees or anything to find them. You just gain a sense of
where they're going to come from, and search that area most intensely.
An instinct I guess. And you don't really need depth perception,
because you can gauge distance by the apparent size of the enemy plane.
On just missing Lyndon Johnson
One day I jumped two B-26s and shot one down. I got a few shots off at
the other before I lost it in a cloud bank. After the war, I learned
from U.S. records of the incident that the plane that got away had been
carrying Lyndon Johnson! Can you imagine how I might have changed
history if I'd hit the other plane first instead? A lot of Americans
who know that story have come up to me and said "Saburo, why didn't you
shoot the other plane down first? Then we could have stayed out of the
On the IJN leadership
Promotions in the Navy were based on what school you graduated from and
who you knew, it had nothing to do with merit.
Some guy could smash up
20 planes trying to learn how to fly, and then not shoot down a damn
thing and he'd be promoted faster than me or any other successful pilot
simply because he came from the right school. Those were the kinds of
idiots we had leading us. How were we supposed to win the war with
leadership like that? Take that idiot [Minoru] Genda. He could barely
fly, but he jumped up and down about the Shiden-kai ["George"], so
everybody else pretended to like it, too. That plane was a piece of
crap, put together by a third-rate firm [Kawanishi].
On the atomic bomb
Once, I was on a discussion panel with [Enola Gay pilot] Col. Paul
Tibbets in the U.S. and somebody asked me what I thought about the
A-bomb. I said "If Japan had had the bomb, and they told me to fly the
plane that carried it and bomb San Francisco or something, I would have
done it gladly.
That's a soldier's job. To follow orders and fight for
his country." I think Tibbets was a great hero for the U.S. To fly out
there with just two B-29s and no fighter escort, that takes a lot of
guts. At the time, nobody knew about the A-bomb; there was no
international treaty against its use, like there was for chemical
weapons. The U.S. even dropped leaflets warning people in Hiroshima
that a new weapon was going to be used. That's just war.
On the Rape of Nanjing
There's no question that Japanese soldiers probably killed a few
thousand people there, but stories of 100,000 to 300,000 dead are
complete fiction, made up by the Chinese for propaganda purposes. And
most of the "civilians" that got killed were probably Chinese soldiers
masquerading as non-combatants by not wearing their uniforms. That IS
against international law. Why don't I think the stories are true?
First of all, there weren't even 300,000 people in Nanjing at the time.
Most of the city's population had fled when they heard the Japanese were
coming. Secondly, there were over 200 foreign journalists in the area,
and you can't find any mention of an atrocity like that in the papers of
the day. There's no way you could hide something that big, but the
stories about it didn't emerge until AFTER the war. And the only photos
from the supposed event that ever get published are taken from a
documentary about it and are fakes, staged for the film.
[See the Rape of Nanjing -- DF]
On "comfort women's" demands for compensation
Demanding compensation from a foreign government 50 years after
something happened? Come on. The statute of limitations for murder is
only 15 years. After the war, the Japanese government signed agreements
with Korea and other nations settling war liability claims. These are
binding, international agreements made by the legal governments of their
nations. If certain victim's groups have a claim, they have to address
it to their own government, not to some foreign government. You don't
see A-bomb victims groups going to Washington demanding that the U.S.
government pay for their suffering, do you? No, instead, the Japanese
government pays them an allowance. If the comfort women have a claim,
it should be with their own Korean or Philippine government. They're
just looking for cash now that Japan is a rich nation.
[See the Comfort Women -- DF]
On protests of U.S. bases in Japan
Those people are so stupid. Do they think that soldiers actually want
to start a war or something, even though they would be the first ones
killed? Do they think that if we get rid of armies, that we can rid the
world of war? Do they also think that if we banish doctors, that we can
rid the world of disease? Why don't they understand that armed forces
are like an insurance policy for use in case of emergency. Who do they
think is going to protect them if someone were to actually invade
Japan? Article 9 of the Constitution [the part of the Japanese
Constitution that renounces war as a sovereign right]? Do they think
that if they staple copies of Article 9 onto boards and post them all
around Japan's shores that a foreign invader is going to turn around and
go home if they read it?
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