It’s been thirty years since I last read this book. I’d “acquired” the book from my father, and it had bounced around the world with me. The copy was tattered, kept together with tape, and didn’t make it back from Germany.
So when the kids gave me an Amazon gift card for my birthday, I decided to replace some of the books lost along the way. And I found a used copy of the very book I’d carted around the world. This is the one that has a very dramatic picture of a P-40 in Flying Tigers paint being shot down by a Japanese Zero.
I bought it, and I’m pretty sure I’m the first person to have read that copy.
Let me start by saying that this has always been one of my favorite books. Saburu Sakai is someone I’ve have gone out of my way to meet.
Thirty years makes a huge difference in reading a book. Part of it is I’m now looking at it through the eyes of a writer. Every sentence and word gets digested, and I’ve read things I didn’t recall before. An example was the Betty bomber pilot who told Sakai and other pilots he’d always wanted to try a loop. That’s a task that would almost be impossible in a large plane. But hit, and on fire, the pilot tried it and very nearly pulled it off (the airplane exploded before he could finish the loop). Or the P-39 Airacobra pilot who got into an a dogfight with Sakai. By his own admission, Sakai says the pilot was superb and if his airplane had been just a little better, it might have been Sakai who went down in flames.
Of course being wounded an Guadalcanal, and fighting his way home with a bullet in his head, and half blinded is gripping. It’s considered one of the greatest single feats in combat aviation. How it happened is dramatized in the History Channel’s, Battle 360. Many of those videos are on You-Tube and are worth a look at.
His recovery from his wounds is at once painful to read about, and heartbreaking.
And finally, here he is, a fighter pilot with one eye, some loss of mobility, being sent back to fight in the cockpit of a Zero. But in the time it took him to recover, the war had changed. When it started, the Zero was the plane to beat. It could out fly anything tossed at it. Even the much vaunted Spitfire, the plane that had helped beat the Germans at the Battle of Britain, was child’s play against the Zero.
But things had changed and not for the better.
Many of the high quality pilots Japan had started the war with were now dead. Second string pilots were tasked with flying an airplane that is now outclassed by most everything in the sky.
And Sakai is a damaged war machine in a war he might not live through.
Sakai relates a great example of this. He got in a dogfight, got a little separated from his squadron, and when he finally saw them, went to join up. Only with one eye, it wasn’t until he was almost on top of them, did he realize they were American Hellcats. What he relates is a wild dog fight with over a dozen fighters after him. Sakai was one heck of a fighter pilot, but he said the only thing that saved him was the Americans wanted him too badly. If one of them would have slowed down and thought things through just a little, they’d have got him.
The book is an incredible read, but it’s far from perfect. It seems that first, the book was never printed in Japan. The other is that Martin Caidan, the man who took Sakai’s memories and put them on paper, has been accused of fictionalizing some of it, or taken events that happened to others and put them in the book. Even the cover, dramatic as it is, might be incorrect. I don’t recall Sakai mentioning flying against the Tigers.
One thing that is clear is he flew the last combat mission against Americans by Japan. He and several others went up against a couple of recon bombers which he misidentified as B-29s (they were B-32s). I’ve included a link here because it’s a fascinating read.
According to his account, they shot one of the planes down. Records disagree, stating that both planes returned to base.
A little side note here, but one of the Zero fighters he flew still exists in the Australian War Museum.
Despite the stones you can toss at the book, it’s an amazing read. It gives a perspective on World War II from the other side. It’s also thrilling and gives a great windows into the heart and soul of a great fighter pilot.