Home » Zero-sen ace Saburo Sakai describes the combat in which he was injured by US Navy SBD Dauntless dive bombers

Zero-sen ace Saburo Sakai describes the combat in which he was injured by US Navy SBD Dauntless dive bombers

by Till Daisd
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The SBD rear gunners fired as Saburo Sakai and his wingman closed the range. It was the high-scoring ace’s most harrowing and memorable combat of the war

The US Navy was able to adopt a more offensive stance as a result of their victory at Midway. The Americans swiftly turned their attention to the Japanese airfield being built on Guadalcanal to take the lead. The 1st Marine Division touched down nearby on August 7, encountering little resistance. The carriers Enterprise, Saratoga, and USS Wasp provided support.

According to Donald Nijboer’s description in his book SBD Dauntless Vs. A6M Zero-sen, Pacific Theater 1941–44, the invasion fleet was assaulted by IJNAF fighters and bombers based in Rabaul, who reacted swiftly. Although there was little damage, it did lead to the most well-known air-to-air combat of the war between SBDs and Zero sens. As F4Fs tore into the Japanese formations, a single SBD from Wasp, flown by Lt. Dudley Adams of VS 71, managed to surprise four Zero sens from above and behind. Adams broke off and headed for cloud cover as soon as he scored hits on the lead fighter.

Sadly for Adams, Tainan Kokutai ace FPO1c Saburo Sakai, who wrote about the experience in his memoir Samurai!, flew the Zero sen he struck;

‘We flew through broken clouds, unable to find any hostile planes. No sooner had we emerged from one cloud than, for the first time in all my years of combat, an enemy plane caught me unawares. I felt a heavy thud, the scream of a bullet, and a hole two inches across appeared through the cockpit glass to my left, only inches away from my face.

‘I still had not seen any other planes in the air. It might have been ground fire which hit me. Then I caught a glimpse of an enemy bomber – not a fighter! – which had caught me napping. The Dauntless hung on its wing, racing for cloud cover. The audacity of the enemy pilot was amazing; he had deliberately jumped four Zero fighters in a slow and lightly armed dive bomber.

‘In a moment I was on his tail. The Dauntless jerked up and down several times, then dove suddenly into a cloud. I wasn’t giving up that easily; I went right after him. For a few seconds I saw only white as we raced through the billowing mass. Then we were through, in the clear. I closed in rapidly and fired. The rear gunner flung up his hands and collapsed over his gun. I pulled back easily on the stick and the shells walked up to the engine. The SBD rolled repeatedly to the left, then dropped into a wild dive. [FPO2c Masayoshi] Yonekawa saw the pilot bail out. It was my 60th victory.’

Japanese fighter ace Saburo Sakai

A few minutes later, Sakai spotted a formation of what he thought to be eight F4Fs when he was flying at 13,000 feet over the Guadalcanal coast. They were SBDs from VB 6 and VS 5 led by Lt Carl Horenburger, the aircraft circling over Tulagi awaiting orders to attack a target. As Sakai and his wingman closed the range, the SBD rear gunners opened fire. For the high-scoring ace, it was his most memorable and harrowing combat of the war:

‘I was in a trap! The enemy planes were not fighters, but bombers, the Avenger [they were SBDs] torpedo planes, types I had never seen before. From the rear, they looked exactly like Wildcats, but now their extra size was visible.

‘There was no turning back now. If I turned or looped, the enemy gunners would have a clear shot at the exposed belly of the Zero. There was only one thing to do – keep going, and open up with everything I had. I jammed down on the firing button. Almost at the same moment every gun in the Avenger formation opened up. The planes were only 20 yards in front of me when flames spurted from two bombers. That was all I saw. A violent explosion smashed at my body. I felt as though knives had been thrust savagely into my ears; the world burst into flaming red and I went blind.’

After receiving many 0.30 cal. hits to his cockpit, Sakai was severely injured. He descended from 8,000 feet to nearly sea level before pulling out. He nursed his wounded fighter back more than 550 miles to Rabaul in one of the war’s epic flights. Sakai would spend 18 months in hospital recovering from his clash with the SBDs.

SBD Dauntless Vs A6M Zero-sen, Pacific Theater 1941-44 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo by Jim Laurier, Gareth Hector via Osprey and PD-JAPAN


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