Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Saburo Sakai: a bit of his scarf

[The following was posted on the now-defunct Warbird's Message Board by Doug Ware of Ottawa, and is posted here with his permission -- Daniel Ford]

by Doug Ware

I have a Saburo Sakai story that may be of interest to you and the Warbird's Forum. I have been interested in military aviation for many years and one of my most memorable experiences was meeting Saburo Sakai at his home in Tokyo. Prior to that meeting, I grew up in Vancouver, B.C. where each year there was a large Battle of Britain service held each September. Over a number of years, I had the opportunity to meet men such as Douglas Bader, Bob Stanford-Tuck, Ginger Lacey, Raymond Collingshaw (WW I) and one year Adolf Galland made an appearance. There was always a closed reception held at a military mess after the service (which I was always able to get wiggle into) and I made a point of going up and introducing myself to these gentleman, getting them to sign my program (and photos I brought with me). Witout exception, they were gracious, very attentive to my questions, and very humourous.

In 1970, I spent two months doing the Youth Hostel thing and visiting Expo 70 in Osaka. Prior to leaving [Canada] I enquired at the Japanese Embassy as to whether or not it would be possible to get Sakai's address or telephone number with the intent of meeting him. Much to my surprize, the Embassy forwarded his address and told me that Sakai had indicated that he would be happy to meet me and to call him when I got to Tokyo.

On a very hot and humid day in August 1970, I and a Japanese friend (Sakai didn't speak English as such) arrived at his home where we spent hours sipping tea, talking about his exploits, and about Canada, of which Sakai seemed to be very interested.

I showed him my photos and signatures of many of the pilots I had met and he talked at great length about the merits (as he perceived them) of these different pilots and their theatre of operations. Sakai struck me as very much the same in the traditions and fighting creed of these pilots, except with a much less sense of importance or his place in military history. That was 1970, however, just twenty-five years after the war. There was a different mind-set in public opinion regarding in Japan regarding its war record then. It was a sense of guilt, not in what Japan did, but rather guilt in that they lost the war. Saburo Sakai outlived Japan's shame/lack of interest in the war and eventually became quite the icon. I am writing this to illustrate how humble Sakai was about his war service when I met him. It was like pulling teeth, to get him to talk about the war and I think he was somewhat flattered (at the time) that some kid from Canada was so interested in him. ;

I had read Sakai's story by Martin Caiden entitled "Samurai", made notes, had what I thought were informed questions that I wanted to ask him about, and sensed that Sakai was somewhat surprized as to their depth. I recently read Dan Ford's review of Samurai and with hindsight agree that Sakai's kills were inflated. Sakai as much [as] told me that. I am not so sure that years later when Sakai enjoyed immense prestige and international fame, he would have been quite so forthright as once again, there is a different mindset now compared to 1970. (Please don't think that I am in any way questioning Sakai's unique courage and talent or place in military history.)

Sakai's scarf Just before I left his home, Sakai left me, rummaged around in a little room off his main living area and emerged with some truly remarkable items. For those that are familiar with Caiden's narrative describing how Sakai was wounded, managed to fly his aircraft back, etc. these items take on real significance. Sakai first handed me the flying helmet he was wearing that day. You could see the hole in it where he was hit. Then the smashed pair of goggles he had been wearing. The most interesting item was his silk muffler (scarf). It was the same scarf that he used to slip under his flying helmet and stuff in his head wound. I must have left a favourable impression on Sakai as he then produced a pair of scissors and cut a piece of the scarf off. He then proceeded to sign it in Japanese and English and gave it to me.

It was truly an act of kindness (and respect I suppose) which I have framed, have treasured for years and I guess it's a pretty good memento of my visit.... I am glad that Sakai lived long enough to enjoy the respect and prestige of our present time, including that of his adversaries. The fact that he fought for a brutal and wicked force does not diminish his place in aviation history nor his worth as a man.

Regards, Doug Ware in Ottawa, Canada.

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