Saburo Sakai Meets the SBD Gunner Who Wounded Him at Guadalcanal

By Henry Sakaida

It’s not everyday that two men, who tried to kill one another in World War II, would meet and shake hands like old friends. But on a beautiful Memorial Day in 1982 in San Gabriel, California, that’s what happened. The meeting was covered by all the local TV news stations.

Saburo Sakai

Saburo Sakai and Harold “Lew” Jones met on Memorial Day 1982. Sakai holds his tattered and damaged flight helmet from his near fatal mission to Guadalcanal. Jones presented Sakai with a Western cowboy hat

On 7 August 1942 during the Battle of Guadalcanal, Harold Jones flew as a rear gunner in an SBD piloted by Ens Robert C. Shaw. The 8 dive bombers were led by Lt Carl H. Horenburger. They were circling Tulagi, waiting for orders to bomb, when two Zeroes streaked in from behind. One of them was PO1/c Saburo Sakai.

Sakai was the first to spot the enemy and in his eagerness, he charged in. At about 300 yards, he realized that they were not F4F Wildcats, but SBD dive bombers! Each plane had twin machine guns in the rear seat.

saburo sakai

Harold L. Jones in 1942

Alerted to the Zeroes, all 8 gunners were waiting for him. It was a death trap.

Sakai had no choice but to hurl himself into the gauntlet of enemy fire. He momentarily closed his eyes, hunkered down into the cockpit, and opened up with all of his guns.

“As the Zero coming directly in from astern was about 500 feet away, he started shooting,” recalled Jones. “Some of our gunners answered with their twin .30 caliber machine guns. Some gunners, including myself, could not bring our guns to bear on him without damaging our tails, but as the Zero turned to the right and pulled up to miss us, every gunner was shooting at him…he could have been only 100 feet away!”

“His cockpit exploded, the canopy tore, and something flew out,” continued Jones. “I could see his face clearly, his body and head forced back against the headrest of the cockpit. The plane went almost vertically upwards and then fell smoking. That was the last I saw of him.”

saburo sakai

Harold Jones looks at the damage to Sakai’s flying helmet

saburo sakai

Saburo Sakai during WWII

Sakai put 232 holes in Jones’ SBD and when they finally landed on the carrier, medical corpsmen brought a stretcher, thinking that he was either dead or seriously wounded. The belly armor saved his life.

saburo sakai

Sakai used his silk scarf to stem blood loss. He had just touched down

As for Sakai, he struggled to return to base, and this story is graphically told in his memoir, as well as a 1976 movie. Disoriented and crazed with pain, he wanted to die. He recounted that he saw a vision of his mother, scolding him, and telling him to point his plane in a certain direction. It took him 4 hours and 47 minutes to cover 560 nautical miles back to base. Sakai had returned from the dead. He lost the sight in one eye and served the remainder of the war as a test pilot and instructor until the desperate war situation allowed him to return to combat duty briefly in June 1944.

Saburo Sakai became famous due to the publication of his memoir (Ozora No Samurai, Samurai of the Big Sky) in postwar Japan. Attributed with 64 victories (marketing hype created to sell books), Sakai actually scored at least 7 and possibly around 10 victories in his career. Recent historians have arrived at these figures through analyzing Allied and Japanese mission reports. While the figure may appear exceeding low to our readers, it was a tremendous accomplishment for any Japanese pilot during that stage of the war.

saburo sakai

Sakai being escorted by Lt(jg) Junichi Sasai to make a report at headquarters

Although popular in the West, many of Sakai’s comrades shunned him for his role as a self-appointed spokesman for the Zero pilots, and making a living off the Zero. This was unfair to him as many veterans simply did not want to talk to the press about the war, but he would. Saburo Sakai died of a heart attack while attending a party at Atsugi Airbase in 2000.

Jones was born in Valley Wells, Texas on 1 January 1921 and joined the Navy in 1939. He was stationed in Pearl Harbor on the carrier USS Enterprise and took part in the Battle of Midway and Guadalcanal.

“Lew” Jones stayed in the Navy after the war. He married his sweetheart Mitzi while training pilots at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  He was on duty when five TBM Avenger dive bombers disappeared over the infamous Bermuda Triangle. He told me that there was nothing supernatural about their disappearance; they simply became lost and ditched at sea.

saburo sakai

Harold Jones and author Henry Sakaida, surrounded by local TV cameramen and reporters. The reunion of former WWII enemy flyers caused a sensation. I engineered the reunion on a lark and we were surprised at the result!

Jones retired from the Navy and went to Europe where he worked as a stockbroker.  He retired to the ghost town of Unionville, Nevada in 1971 where he bought an old farmhouse and some acreage. Unionville was a silver mining town in the 1860s and Mark Twain once lived there. The Jones Family fixed up some buildings and started a bed & breakfast business. It is called Old Pioneer Gardens. You can find them on the Internet. Hollywood movie celebrities have booked their retreats there.

There were two former American F6F Hellcat pilots at this reunion: Harold Newell and Robert Weatherup. Both had connections to Sakai.  Sakai was overwhelmed to shake hands with two others whom he had never dreamed of ever meeting: Harold Newell, the Hellcat pilot who shot down Sakai’s comrade Hiroyoshi Nishizawa; and Bob Weatherup, whom Sakai saw shoot down one of his best friends in April 1945.

saburo sakai

Sakai in cowboy hat, chats with Harold Jones as Sakai’s daughter Michiko acts as translator. In the foreground, Henry is interviewed by CBS reporter Pam Moore

Harold P. Newell, a CPA from Northern California, shot down the bomber carrying Warrant Officer Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, Sakai’s comrade from the Tainan Kokutai. Sakai believed that his friend was Japan’s top ace. It took me several years of research to make this connection. I located Newell 2 weeks before this reunion and was happy when he accepted my invitation to come and meet Sakai.

saburo sakai

Sakai is flanked by Bob Weatherup (left) and Harold Jones (right). Harold Newell and his wife far right. The painting depicted Sakai’s encounter with Harold Jones.

Bob Weatherup, from San Jose, CA, shot down CPO Shoichi Sugita on 15 April 1945 over Kanoya Airfield. Sugita was also a friend of Sakai’s. Sakai watched Sugita’s takeoff attempt from a shelter during an air raid and saw Weatherup shoot him down. Sugita was a veteran pilot who almost seemed invincible; he claimed over 120 victories in his short career. During an air raid, Sugita disobeyed orders to abort takeoff; Bob Weatherup caught him defenseless at about 400 feet altitude and shot him down.

saburo sakai

A movie still from the movie OZORA NO SAMURAI, based on Sakai’s memoir. It was produced by Japan’s top movie studio TOHO in 1976. Actor Hiroshi Fujioka played Sakai, who is struggling to reach home. (Toho).

Jones died at his home in Unionville, Nevada on 21 October 2009.  Lew Jones is survived by his wife Mitzi, 3 daughters, and a son Dave. Mitzi Jones and their 3 daughters are all registered nurses. I was proud to have brought the two enemy combatants together on that Memorial Day!

saburo sakai

Sakai’s torn helmet. A tracer bullet melted the plastic rim of his goggles. The tiger belt buckle was given to Sakai by Lt(jg) Junichi Sasai as a good luck piece to guarantee his survival in war as he was being sent back to Japan; Sasai was MIA on 26 August 1942 and fell to Wildcats of VMF-223, led by Capt. Marion Carl

saburo sakai

Harold “Lew” and Mitzi Jones in 2006

saburo sakai

After Action Report from Bombing Squadron 6 detailing the encounter with Sakai’s Zero (click to enlarge)

saburo sakai

Page 2 (click to enlarge)

saburo sakai

Page 3 (click to enlarge)

saburo sakai

2013 photo of Unionville Cemetery, the final resting place of Harold “Lew” Jones. It is an extremely old pioneer cemetery

saburo sakai

Harold L. Jones’ headstone

Photos Courtesy of Henry Sakaida

For More About Saburo Sakai Check Out:

Samurai!: The Autobiography of Japan’s World War Two Flying Ace

For Related Articles See:

2 thoughts on “Saburo Sakai Meets the SBD Gunner Who Wounded Him at Guadalcanal

  • Lt. Commander Robert A. Weatherup (mentioned in this article shooting down Shochi Sugita) was in VF-46 flying off USS Independence CVL-22. Bob Shot down two aircraft taking off, downing another after Sugita (in a stern pass – 400′) at 800′ altitude, from a wingover while climbing. (pages 595-596)

  • Mike Brickman says:

    As one of the people involved with getting Bob Weather up in touch with Henry Sakaida, I know that Bob told me that VF-46 flew from the USS Cowpens, not the Independence. He claimed that he only had one air-to-air kill (Sugita), and two strafing kills, but one of the two was from a different mission.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Past and Present WWII History Posts