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Saburo Sakai; Hero Was Critical of His Country’s War Role

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He fully expected to die.

That was Aug. 7, 1942, over Guadalcanal, when a bullet blinded his right eye, paralyzed his left side and drenched him in blood.

There were other close encounters in his 200 air battles over the Pacific, but he had foreseen his death months before any of them.

“I knew when we went to war with the United States it was a lost cause,” he said in 1954. “I expected to be killed.”

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Saburo Sakai--the ace Japanese pilot who shot down 64 American, Australian and Dutch fighter planes during World War II to become a legend and the subject of books and a movie--did finally die. But death came more than half a century after the war ended and as he pursued a personal campaign to repair relations with his former enemies and prod his countrymen into confronting Japan’s past.

Sakai died Sept. 22 in Tokyo after suffering a heart attack while dining with American military officers at the Atsugi U.S. naval base in Japan. He was 84.

Weary of the Japanese citizenry’s blaming the war solely on its military, former Imperial Japanese Navy Aviation Pilot 1st Class Sakai spoke strongly last month at a Tokyo news conference on the eve of the anniversary of Japan’s Aug. 15, 1945, surrender:

“We were ordered to go die for victory. . . . Who gave the orders for that stupid war? The closer you get to the emperor, the fuzzier everything gets.”

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Japan, he felt, had for decades whitewashed the war-related decisions made by the late Emperor Hirohito and the politicians who surrounded him.

“We were following his orders,” Sakai told The Times in 1995. “After the war, the emperor should have quit, shaved his head and retired to a temple to take responsibility.”

Sakai, who sent a daughter to college in Texas to “learn about democracy,” made more than two dozen trips to the U.S. over the years, meeting many of the pilots he formerly tried to kill. He made similar trips to Australia, where his captured Japanese Zero fighter plane sits in the National War Memorial in Canberra.

Unlike American aces, Sakai had no medals or trophies. Except a small one he won by downing U.S. pilots in a 1971 golf tournament at the American Fighter Aces Assn. reunion in San Diego.

Most touching of Sakai’s peaceful encounters with Americans perhaps was his meeting in San Gabriel in 1983 with the U.S. Navy tailgunner who nearly killed him over Guadalcanal.

Brought together by aerial warfare buff Henry Sakaida of Mission Viejo, Sakai chatted through an interpreter with Harold L. Jones, then owner of a bed and breakfast in Unionville, Nev. Sakai rated the visit one of the great events of his life.

“His cockpit exploded in orange flames, and his head went back against the headrest,” Jones told reporters at that meeting. “I thought he was gone.”

But Sakai’s Zero plummeted 7,000 feet, apparently extinguishing the flames in the dive. Struggling for consciousness, he used his silk aviator’s scarf--a piece of which he later gave to Jones--to wipe the blood from his good eye, and, with his left arm useless, flew the plane 560 nautical miles over the next five hours, back to his base on New Guinea.

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The legendary survival flight is memorialized in a painting in Sakai’s hometown of Kyushu showing his bullet-riddled Zero carrying him away from Guadalcanal--upside down.

Never mustered out of the Imperial Navy despite the loss of his eye, Sakai taught combat pilots until he was ordered back into combat over Iwo Jima near the end of the war. He was wounded four times and was one of only three survivors of the 150 pilots in his prewar outfit.

A gifted pilot, but never a strong student, Sakai learned to fly at the Navy Fliers School in Tsuchiura, one of 70 men selected from 1,500 applicants. He first went into combat over southeastern China in 1938.

Sakai kept meticulous notes on his combat years and later turned them into 10 books, including “Samurai of the Sky,” which was made into a 1976 Japanese movie.

Within those notes, eventually confirmed by American records and pilots, was Sakai’s near-miss that could have altered history. On June 9, 1942, he shot at an American Army bomber called the Heckling Hare over his New Guinea base. He crippled the B-26 Marauder’s right engine, but was unable to down the plane because it dived into a cloud.

Aboard on a fact-finding mission for President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a Texas congressman, Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1964, when Johnson was president, Sakai said he had only fulfilled a routine duty by firing on the aircraft and that he considered Johnson “a real patriot deserving the highest esteem.”

“I cannot but feel that President Johnson is a man of great courage and responsibility,” he said then, “in view of the fact that he voluntarily took part in the hazardous aerial mission over Lae, one of the strongholds of the Japanese aerial front line in the South Pacific at that time.”

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In addition to his daughter, Michiko Smart, who studied in San Antonio and married a former U.S. Army captain, Sakai is survived by his wife, Haru, another daughter and a son, and two grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned in Tokyo on Oct. 14.


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