Wars have a strange way of bringing out the best and worst in all of us. In every recorded war in human history, you can find great feats of heroism and sacrifice and extreme brutality and cruelty. Wars also have a way of bringing some truly interesting individuals to the forefront, people who would probably never be heard of otherwise.
World War II produced plenty of heroes, villains, and interesting individuals, one of the most interesting being a Japanese pilot named Saburō Sakai. Flying a Mitsubishi Zero, Sakai claimed between thirty and sixty aerial victories. He became well-known among American pilots, who respected the Japanese ace’s skills, earning the nickname the “Sky Samurai.”
But Sakai’s story goes far beyond just being a war hero. Though he was a man who was never supposed to amount to much, the war gave him a chance to shine. The war also nearly took his life and left him questioning his role in the universe. Eventually, Sakai made peace with his former enemies and found his own meaning of life.
Sakai was born in Saga, Imperial Japan in 1916 to a distinguished family with samurai ancestry, which influenced him to pursue a career in the military. But things were never easy for him. The name he was given literally means “third son” in Japanese, which served as a constant reminder to him of where he rated in his family. His father died when he was just eleven, so he was sent to live with some relatives. His situation, however, didn’t get much better.
Sakai did poorly in school and got into trouble. Then it was suggested to him that he should join the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Saburō Sakai found his place in the navy!
He became a pilot and quickly proved himself worthy by shooting down American plane after American plane. His fellow Japanese pilots respected him; the Americans both respected and feared him. Then came the Battle of Guadalcanal.
The Japanese knew that they had to stop the American advance at Guadalcanal, so it was all hands on deck. On August 8, 1942, Sakai and two other Japanese pilots came upon a group of American bombers over Guadalcanal and they decided to go in for an attack. After taking out two Grumman TBF Avengers, one of the tail gunners of another Avenger managed to shoot Sakai in the head. Somehow, Sakai was able to land his Zero on a Japanese airstrip and walk away from the plane.
Though he spent several months in a hospital, he was flying again in 1943. And he returned to active service in time for the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1944. Sakai was a hero in Japan. But, once Japan lost the war his fame quickly faded.
In the years immediately after the war, the Sky Samurai experienced another cycle of rough times. His first wife died, he had difficulty finding work, and he no doubt suffered from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Eventually, he found solace in the religion of his youth—Buddhism.
Sakai began to view the world in a Zen-like way and things began to slowly turn around. He held no ill will toward his former enemies. Nor did he feel anger or shame over the outcome of the war as some Japanese did, saying once in an interview, “Had I been ordered to bomb Seattle or Los Angeles in order to end the war, I wouldn’t have hesitated. So I perfectly understand why the Americans bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima.”
One of the Sky Samurai’s daughters eventually moved to the United States and he went there to visit, even meeting the man who had wounded him during the war, Harold Lew.
Sakai died in 2000 at the age of eighty-four, revered by some, admired by many, and respected by all.