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Rethinking the Sakai myths

Henry Sakaida is a Californian of Japanese ancestry who set out to study the Zero pilots with the help of his Japanese-speaking father, Tadashi. Winged Samurai: Saburo Sakai and the Zero Fighter Pilots was published by Barrett Tillman and the Champlin Fighter Museum Press in 1985. It's now out of print and very expensive. (There are sometimes used copies on Amazon.com. I got mine through inter-library loan, which has saved my bacon and pocketbook on many an occasion.

Here, by the way, is a bit of calligraphy by Saburo Sakai, scanned from Henry's book. It can be pronounced futo fukutsu and means "Never give up!"

Sakai: never give up

Henry is pretty rough on the American edition of Samurai!, which purports to be Sakai's autobiography. As he writes in the preface (page 6):

"My subsequent indepth research into Sakai's records confirmed the inaccuracy of Samurai, which was written by Martin Caidin through notes via Fred Saito, who had interviewed Sakai. A case in point: According to Samurai, Sakai took up a Zero on the eve of the surrender and shot down a B-29 at night. When I first queried him about this, I was surprised to hear from Sakai that this episode never took place! He was just as surprised about this myth as I was!

"It might surprise the reader to learn that, despite the millions of copies of Samurai being sold since its publication in 1957, Sakai has never received a penny in royalties due to him."

I was mightily pleased to read this, since I'd already declared in my review of Samurai! that the anedote was impossible, since no B-29s were lost on the night of August 14/15, 1945. Similarly, I'd raised a question about the so-called Curtiss P-36 fighters that Sakia shot down on February 19, 1942—there were no 36s in the theater! Henry comes to the same conclusion: "[I]t was impossible to confuse the P-36's radial-engine nose with the P-40's liquid-cooled Allison nose. The manueverable Zero pilot generally saw his target from higher altitude and from all sorts of angles, and the Caidin story indicates that this was true on the February 19th engagement. I would bet that Sakai did not report any P-36s." (page 28)

Saburo Sakai and hinomaru
This charming photo of Sakai posing in front of the hinomaru on his A5M "Claude" fighter was taken in Hankow in 1939. It was published in Life magazine's commemorative edition on the 50th anniversary of World War II, and it no doubt did much to enhance his reputation in the English-speaking world. (Other photos of Sakai show him as much more formidable—not the sort of Japanese soldier you'd want to meet soon after your capture!)

Less clear is another egregious error in Samurai: that Sakai was blinded by the defensive gunfire of several Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo planes on August 7, 1942 (page 219 in the 2001 paperback edition of the Caidin book). In fact, they were Douglas SBDs. In Henry's account (page 76), Sakai first believes the enemy planes to be Wildcats, but then cries: "Damn, dive-bombers!" when he discovers that he has entered the killing zone of the rear-firing machineguns on the American planes. Henry's interview took place in the 1980s, by which time Sakai probably knew that the planes could not have been TBFs; he might have changed his story since he first related this experience 30 years earlier.

While he's at it, Henry goes on to demolish another myth largely created by Martin Caidin's carelessness with the facts: that the future president and former Texas congressman Lyndon Johnson was an observer in a B-26 that was attacked by Zeros on a mission to Lae on June 9, 1942. Johnson received the Silver Star for this mission. Caidin told the story with great gusto in The Mission, published in 1964 and repeated, among other places, in a scholarly biography of Johnson by Robert Caro (Means of Ascent, 1990). It never happened: Johnson's plane turned back short of the target because of engine trouble, and it didn't see combat that day. Johnson's medal was a bone tossed to a man with political power who wanted to burnish his war record.

Also on this website: an interview with Saburo Sakai and A review of Samurai!.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford