DID ZERO ACE SABURO SAKAI FORCE HIS FOE TO PARACHUTE NEAR PORT MORESBY?

By Henry Sakaida

Thanks to the Internet and access to old WWII records which were not available decades ago, dedicated historians can now go back and reanalyze a combat incident to seek the truth.When I was a teenager, I read the book Samurai! by Saburo Sakai with Martin Caidin and Fred Saito. First published here in the US in 1958, it is now a World War II combat history classic.



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Sakai’s memoir in both English and Japanese. Samurai! (1958) has become a classic amongst WWII combat aviation enthusiasts, but is inaccurate because it was translated from Ozora No Samurai (right), with Caidin’s writing flourish, and lack of military records at the time

Sakai wrote about an encounter with an enemy pilot which occurred on 22 July 1942 near Port Moresby, New Guinea. I’ve investigated this combat for over 30+ years. A person’s eyewitness account can’t be trusted because he is only seeing it from one side – his side.

Sakai’s Samurai! differs from his Japanese memoir, but many of the facts are similar. After his squadron mates ganged up on a lone Lockheed Hudson and shot it down, they encountered five P-39s (three P-40s in the Japanese edition). A short skirmish ensued and the enemy planes scattered; Sakai latched onto one and the chase began.



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Petty Officer 1/c Saburo Sakai, April 1942 with the Tainan Kokutai at Lae

“I was the first to sight the enemy group,” wrote Sakai. “I went into a steep turn and dove for the Airacobras, heading directly at the lead plane. Abruptly the P-39s scattered in all directions, turned, and raced away…With the speed from my dive, I was soon among the enemy group. Two fighters zoomed wildly and disappeared into low hanging clouds.”

“It was a new model Airacobra which, at sea level, was equal in speed to my own fighter.  But the pilot had made a fatal error – he was flying in the wrong direction! Instead of flying to Moresby, he was headed in exactly the opposite direction. I still had plenty of fuel, and was content to maintain the distance between our planes – all the way to Rabaul, if necessary. Several minutes later the American pilot came to his senses, and realized his error. He had no choice but to reverse his course, and the fighter winged over in a sharp left turn.”

Sakai cut inside his opponent’s turn to close the distance, but it wasn’t enough to gain the advantage. He fired short bursts in front of the enemy to prevent him from flying back towards the coast.

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Bell P-39 Airacobra

“Instead of staying over the sea, he headed directly for the Owen Stanley Mountains, which forced him to climb. And no P-39 could out-climb a Zero. Slowly but steadily I closed the distance between us…Fifty yards. Then it shrank to forty, then thirty. I gripped the gun trigger, aiming carefully.”

“I had not fired a single shot when the pilot bailed out of the fighter! The Airacobra was less than 150 feet above the ground when his form tumbled into the air, in a drop which seemed to be certain death. I knew of no instance where a pilot had survived a bailout from less than 300 feet.”

“Miraculously, the chute snapped open a split second before the pilot struck the ground. He dropped into a small clearing while his fighter exploded a few scant yards in front of him. I still could not believe that the enemy pilot had lived through his incredible descent. I turned steeply and flew back over the jungle clearing. Only the parachute was visible. The pilot had lived, and was in good enough condition to flee from sight.”



In another written account, Sakai penned: “There was a small river about ten meters wide and a small clearing in the jungle. Seemingly, he jumped out and landed in the open space, but he must have been killed. I did not know an example of a pilot surviving after parachuting from an altitude of less than a hundred meters. His parachute extended like a roll of paper. The pilotless plane crashed into the river.”

Sakai continued: “I made a left turn to come back to the site. But I only found the white parachute on the ground and the pilot was not seen. He must have been injured as the parachute was half opened. He probably hid himself from view. I wondered how he could do it. I circled twice or thrice, but I could not see him.”

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A Curtis P-40 Kittyhawk flown by the Royal Australian Air Force. The US Army Air Force version was known as the “Warhawk”

Here are the basic facts: Sakai’s group encountered 7 P-40 Kittyhawks of 76 Squadron RAAF, not American P-39 Airacobras. Squadron Leader P. B. Turnbull was leading his group when ambushed. He and Sgt Carroll were the only ones to return fire. The Kittyhawk formation broke apart and it was everyman for himself. Their mission was aborted; the Aussies dropped their bombs and fled at low level, pursued by the Zeroes. Sakai latched onto F/Lt Vernon Sullivan and chased him doggedly. Sakai’s description of the chase rings true.

An Aussie historian who was familiar with the terrain in those parts, wrote: “There are trees as well and a few very light forested areas but not jungle. The area is likened to North Australia – even to having gum trees…Jungle starts inland at the base of the mountains. A Zero moving at 5 miles a minute would quickly come into these areas.”

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F/Lt Vernon Sullivan of 72 Squadron RAAF

The combat mission report of 76 Squadron RAAF for 22 July 1942 reports no losses in this engagement. Turnbull’s aircraft received minor damages from two 7.7mm rounds. “F/Lt Sullivan force landed 5 miles from Port Moresby in dry creek bed owing to petrol shortage.” He managed to hike back to base, and later, his plane was intact enough to refuel and fly out! There was no mention of him being chased by a Zero.

As Sakai’s American biographer, I questioned him many times about this incident. In an interview on 26 August 1987, he said: “I chased a P-39 and the pilot bailed out. Parachute opened at 70 meters. I saw the plane crash and the pilot landed in the lake. He must have been OK because I saw him swimming to shore. I don’t know if he survived; it was near Buna shoreline and he might have been captured.”

Sakai wrote the account from memory long after it happened (Sakai Saburo Kusen Kiroku, Saburo Sakai’s Combat Record, 1953). Due to combat confusion and stress, and writing without the benefit of records, it was easy to have misremembered the event. On 22 July 1942, Sakai chased F/Lt Vernon Sullivan within 5 miles of Port Moresby before the Aussie pilot ran out of fuel and crash-landed.

The reader must wonder why Sakai did not strafe the Kittyhawk and destroy it. Sullivan never mentioned the chase. Could it be that the Aussie pilot got away from his pursuer?  Sakai’s remark about the P-39 pilot parachuting into a lake resembles an incident on 16 June 1942. It was a vicious aerial slugfest, with the Americans losing 5 Airacobras (3 pilots survived) around Port Moresby. Sakai noted 4 victories in his logbook. 



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I interviewed Mr. Sakai at his home in Tokyo in November 1982 regarding the parachuting enemy pilot. He has told me several versions over the years. Did he disremember due to combat stress and get the event confused with another? Or did he embellish the story for his memoir? 

According to Australian records, two Americans were known to have parachuted: 2/Lt Harvey Rehrer, 2/Lt. and 1/Lt William Hutcheson.2/Lt Rehrer was the tail end guy in a group of 6 Airacobras. He was experiencing engine trouble when the Zeroes pounced. His drop tank exploded and his plane begin to spin down. He kicked open the starboard door and exited his flaming plane. He touched down in the Brown River area and was close enough to hear ammunition from his crashed fighter popping.

1/Lt William Hutcheson was hit from behind and exited his plane, landing in a swamp where the Zeroes started to strafe him. They managed to put holes in his parachute while he sought cover. He eventually made it back to his unit.

Sakai’s recollection of forcing his opponent to abandon his aircraft is a mixture of the 16 June and 22 July 1942 incidents blended together. Note that in the 16 June dogfight, 1/Lt William Hutcheson landed in swamp and was near his parachute when he was strafed. Sakai told me that his opponent landed in a lake (perhaps he meant swamp). 

Sakai never mentioned strafing his opponent. It was a fairly common practice by Japanese pilots to do so. They had no rules of engagement and there were no civilities in hand-to-hand combat and aerial dogfights. It was kill or be killed, don’t give the enemy a break, take no prisoners, and fight to the death. Sparing your opponent may allow him to return to kill you or your comrades.

If Sakai shot down Hutcheson, was the strafing incident omitted from his book? American readers would not have embraced Samurai! if he had. In American culture, heroes do not engage in reprehensible and cowardly acts.

Long touted as “Japan’s greatest living ace,” Saburo Sakai passed away in 2000. Widely accepted as having shot down 64 planes, this topic will be covered later on this website.



For More on Saburo Sakai Check Out:

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


For More on Japanese Aces of WWII Check Out:

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai


Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945


B-29 Hunters of the JAAF




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One thought on “DID ZERO ACE SABURO SAKAI FORCE HIS FOE TO PARACHUTE NEAR PORT MORESBY?

  • I know firsthand the confusion combat can cause years after the war. I wrote a well-received memoir about my time as a combat Marine in Vietnam during 1967-68. I wrote things as I remembered them. Some I doubted, but they “seemed” accurate so I wrote them accordingly. Some years later I learned (from fellow Marines I served with & from official reports) that most of my remembrances were accurate. A few, others said, happened out of sequence, but no one could say for certain. Still, it was gratifying to know my memories were close if not always spot-on.
    Thanks for another interesting feature!
    Michael Helms
    (0311)
    E/2/4 — 1967-68

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