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Lieutenant Saburo Sakai

Saburo Sakai, was Japan's greatest living WWII ace. He's credited with 64 kills of U.S. and Allied planes during the war, the highest score of any Japanese pilot to survive it. U.S. loss records corroborate his claims. He knocked down at least one of every type of plane the U.S. flew, including being credited with the first downing of a U.S. bomber in WWII, a B-17E, three days after the war started. He narrowly missed shooting down a B-26 that was carrying the future president, Lyndon Johnson. Sakai also claims to have shot down the last allied aircraft before WWII ended.

Born in Saga, Japan in 1916, Saburo Sakai came from a family descended from Samurai, Japan's ancient warrior class. He was taught to live by the code of Bushido, which he defined in his book, "Samurai!" published in 1957 by E. P. Dutton, as living so as to always be prepared to die. He enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1933, at the age of sixteen. Basic training was brutally harsh with constant corporal punishment being administered. In spite of minimal education and little aptitude for formal study, he managed to finish at the top of his enlisted pilot training class in 1937.

During World War II Sakai flew the legendary Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft, which for the first years of the war was considered the best fighter anywhere in terms of maneuverability and range. He soon became a living legend in World War II Japan. Japanese pilots invariably spoke in awe of his incredible exploits in the air. In 1943, Sakai was seriously wounded while attacking a formation of Dauntlesses, taking a .50 cal. round to the head. The bullet split the upper frame of the right eye of his flight goggles -- he still has those goggles -- and bounced off his skull, crushing the bone underneath. Covered with blood, blind in one eye and barely conscious, he somehow managed to fly his now canopy-less Zero 4-1/2 hours back to base and land, to then endure surgery without anesthesia. He never regained the vision of his right eye, but was back in the cockpit a year later, and shot down four more planes before the war ended.

Among fighter pilots, he stood out, being the only Japanese ace never to lose a wingman, overshoot a landing--no matter how shot up his aircraft--or crash-land. By 1945, Sakai had logged some 3,700 flight hours, 1,700 of those in the Zero. Indeed, there are few aviators of the Pacific War who can claim such vast combat experience. Of the 150 pilots who began in his unit, only 3 survived the war. Of the five leading Japanese aces during the war--all of whom were friends--only Sakai remained at war's end, all the rest were dead.

After retiring with the rank of lieutenant, Mr. Sakai became a lay Buddhist acolyte as an act of atonement. He had not killed any creature, "not even a mosquito," since last stepping from the cockpit of his Zero on a hot August day in 1945.

Saburo Sakai suffered a heart attack at Atsugi naval base in September 2000, while reaching across the table to shake hands with an American navy officer. He died at the hospital a few hours later, he was 84.