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An afternoon with Saburo Sakai

By Scott Hards, © 1998

On Sunday, August 11th [1998], 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 will point out that 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, spiraling dive. 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]

Sakai phone card 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 Me109s! 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 great, too.

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. [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 Vietnam War!"

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]

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?