Samurai of the Skies – Half Blind Japanese Pilot Flies His Damaged Zero For 5 Hours

Patriotism means some men are willing to fight and die for their country. Taken to the extreme, that impulse means that some are willing to get injured and yet keep fighting, in spite of the wounds inflicted on their bodies that others would gladly use as reason to step back from the fray. Some view this kind of action as pure bravery; others view it as flat out crazy.

Either way, World War II Japanese pilot Saburō Sakai was the very definition of extreme patriotism. He kept fighting and flying as a naval lieutenant even after losing the vision in one eye and half his body became paralyzed during a battle.

Furthermore, when he finally descended and was helped from his A5M Type 95 fighter plane, he refused to let medics assist him until he filed his formal report with his superiors. That’s dedication, many insist. Others argue that it is machismo gone awry.

Saburō Sakai in the cockpit of his Mitsubishi A5M “Claude”. Hankow airfield, China in 1939
Saburō Sakai in the cockpit of his Mitsubishi A5M “Claude”. Hankow airfield, China in 1939

Sakai was from a long line of samurai warriors. He signed up in 1937 and graduated first in his class from the Imperial Navy.  But he longed to be a pilot, and joined Japan’s Air Force in 1938, receiving a silver watch medal from Emperor Hirohito. By the end of that year he was a petty officer second class.

He was one of the pilots involved in the attack on Pearl Harbour, an assault that finally prompted the United States to join the battle against Adolph Hitler and his allies. Sakai shot down three American war planes over the Clark Air Force Base, and by 1942 was on his way to fight in the Dutch East Indies.

At one point, Sakai came upon a plane carrying civilians. Japanese pilots were under strict orders to shoot down any plane they encountered, whether civilian aircraft or fighter planes.

As he later recalled in his memoirs, this warrior could not bring himself to attack the aircraft because he saw, in one window, a blond woman holding a child. She reminded him very much of a teacher he had had in school, and so he signalled the pilot to carry on, assuring him he would not fire. Naturally he did not report the encounter to his superiors.

On August 8th, 1942, Sakai was badly wounded during combat. His skull was severely damaged by a .30 caliber bullet, was blinded in his left eye, and temporarily in his right eye. Disoriented, his Zero rolled over into a dive, only pulling out in time when the blood in Sakai’s right eye cleared enough to see his circumstances.

In this condition, Sakai managed to fly a four-hour, 47-minute flight over 560 nmi (1,040 km; 640 mi) flight back to Rabaul.

He was discharged from active duty as a pilot in 1943, but continued in the air force in a teaching position to young pilots. But this position didn’t satisfy him, and he persisted in his goal of flying and fighting again.

His superiors badly needed pilots, and so they finally relented and let him go to battle once again. But Japan was losing the war, and the country’s pilots were not faring well in the skies.

Rabaul, 8 August 1942: A seriously wounded Sakai returns to Rabaul with his damaged Zero after an almost 5 hour flight.
Rabaul, 8 August 1942: A seriously wounded Sakai returns to Rabaul with his damaged Zero after an almost 5 hour flight.

Although surgeons later restored some of his movement, they were never able to repair the damage to his vision.

Curiously, Sakai left the armed forces in Japan and became a Buddhist. Perhaps all the death and carnage of the war finally affected his psyche.

He settled in Tokyo, and vowed he would never again kill a living being, not even something as small as a fly or mosquito.

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In spite of the injuries he sustained during World War II, Sakai lived until September, 2000. He died peacefully of old age, and is remembered in Japan as one of the heroes of its fighting forces in a conflict that put his country on the wrong side. The wrong side of the war, the wrong side of political wisdom, and most assuredly on the wrong side of history.