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Saburo Sakai: Samurai!


(Saburo Sakai with Martin Caidin & Fred Saito)

First off, let me say that this is one of the grand combat memoirs of World War II--but you knew that, right? If you haven't already done so, go ahead and buy it. It's definitely worth owning.

Now let me mention some of its flaws. They begin with the true author, who was not Sakai but the late sci-fi and aviation writer Martin Caidin. It's a shame that this unique story fell into Caidin's dream factory, in which speed generally trumped accuracy. (By some accounts, he wrote 150 books.) In his foreword, for example, Caidin pounces on the fact that the American pilot Colin Kelly didn't sink the battleship Haruna, as we were told at the time--while propagating the myth that it was Sakai who shot down Kelly's bomber. Nor does he question Sakai's 64 "confirmed" victories, when a bit of messing about in the records shows that the Japanese routinely claimed five or ten victories for each Allied plane shot down.

Here are three instances:

  • The furball of 19 Feb 1942 over Surabaya, Dutch Indies. Sakai (or anyhow Martin Caidin) takes American historians to task for ignoring this great air battle which, he believes, decided the campaign for Java. The Dutch pilots (in reality, they were Americans) swarmed up to meet the Zeros--as many as 50 P-36s and P-40s. In great detail, the book describes how Sakai shot down 3 of them, and with equal detail describes 7 others he saw fall before the guns of his mates. Altogether, he says, the Zeros accounted for 40 of the Curtiss fighters. In fact, American losses amounted to 7 planes. And there were no P-36s among them!

  • Similarly, we can reconstruct a furball at Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Eighteen Zero pilots made the journey from Rabaul. They claimed no less than 36 Wildcats and 7 Douglas SBD dive bombers "certain," plus 7 probables. In fact, only 18 Wildcats were in the air that day, and actual American losses were 9 fighters and an SBD, with most of the pilots surviving. Sakai himself claimed 1 Wildcat--the Grumman flown by Lt James Southerland, shot down in one of the best-documented encounters of the war. (Though he doesn't mention the fact, Sakai had to share the credit with his two wingmen.) He also shot down the SBD flown by Lt Dudley Adams and went on to claim two TBF torpedo bombers. The latter were actually SBDs, and none was lost, while Sakai was blinded in his right eye. Sakai therefore overclaimed by 100 percent--two for one--and his squadron mates by better than five for one. (Japanese bomber crews were credited with 15 Wildcats, all of them apparently mistaken.)

  • In the last pages of the book, Sakai (or rather, Caidin) describes in great detail how he shot down a Superfortress on the last night of the war: "In less than a minute the B-29 disappeared beneath the water." It didn't happen. This was Hap Arnold's infamous "thousand-plane" raid of August 14-15, and no B-29s were lost to any cause that night. In this case, we have Sakai's testimony that the story is a fiction. See Rethinking the Sakai myths, reviewed on this website.

Such easily provable errors ought to have been footnoted in what purports to be a new edition, and the publisher should also have noted some of the other small inaccuracies that pepper Sakai's manuscript. He's not just another pilot, after all--he's an icon of World War II.

I found it amusing to read of Sakai's frustration when (as Caidin states on his behalf) the Zeros succeeded in shooting down American aircraft by the tens and twenties, only to have them miraculously appear again next day: "The Allies seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of aircraft. A week never went by without the enemy suffering losses, yet his planes came, by two and threes and by the dozens." The AVG Flying Tigers in Burma were similarly mystified by the ability of the Japanese squadrons to regenerate themselves.

Of great interest is Sakai's description of his training. First, the brutality of it, which goes far to explain why Japanese military men were so bestial to their captives. Sakai phone card Then there was the wrong-headed emphasis on selectivity. The math was extraordinary: 1,500 seamen applied for a place in the 1937 Non-Commissioned Officer Class with Sakai; 70 were admitted; and 25 graduated to become pilots in the Japanese Navy Air Force. Of this number, 10 were fighter pilots, who were joined by 6 navy officers and 10 aviation cadets graduating that year. So in the year that Japan went to war, it added a grand total of 26 fighter pilots to its navy, whose air force was larger and more important than the army's. (Sakai is shown at left as a young pilot in China. He was the only member of his class to survive the war.) How vastly different, and in the end more successful, was the American policy of training huge numbers of pilots, and taking them out of combat after roughly a year, so that they could pass on their skills to the next generation of fighter pilots.

Finally, I must confess to a bit of irritation when I read of Sakai's merry massacres of "the enemy." Those air crews he supposedly shot down were, after all, my countrymen. Not only that, but they were fighting against the aggressor, and a particularly cruel one at that. Sakai, by contrast, was flying and fighting on behalf of the evil unleashed by Japanese militarism in the 1930s. He may have been a great pilot and a masterful shooter, but his cause was vile.

Also on this website: an interview with Saburo Sakai and Rethinking the Sakai myths.