Aviation History

Saburo Sakai Zero-sen ace recalls his most memorable and harrowing combat where he was wounded by US Navy SBD Dauntless dive bombers (not by Avengers)

Victory at Midway

The victory at Midway had allowed the US Navy to take a more offensive stance. In order to press the initiative, the Americans quickly set their sights on the Japanese airfield being constructed on Guadalcanal. On Aug. 7, the 1st Marine Division landed nearby, encountering only minimal resistance. In support were the carriers Enterprise, Saratoga, and USS Wasp.

As told by Donald Nijboer in his book SBD Dauntless Vs A6M Zero-sen, Pacific Theater 1941-44, reacting quickly, Rabaul based bombers and fighters of the IJNAF’s 11th Koku Kantai attacked the invasion fleet. Damage was minimal, but it did result in the war’s most famous air to air battle 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. After scoring hits on the lead fighter, Adams quickly broke off and headed for cloud cover.

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Saburo Sakai Zero sen struck

Unfortunately for Adams, the Zero sen he struck was flown by Tainan Kokutai ace FPO1c Saburo Sakai, who recounted the experience in his memoir Samurai!;

‘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

Hit by SBDs not by Avengers

A few minutes later, while flying at 13,000ft over the coast of Guadalcanal, Sakai spotted a formation of what he believed were eight F4Fs. They were in fact 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.’

Saburo Sakai survives

Severely wounded after his cockpit had been struck by multiple 0.30 cal. hits, Sakai dropped from 8,000ft to almost sea level, before pulling out. In one of the epic flights of the war, he nursed his crippled fighter back more than 550 miles to Rabaul. 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 credit: Jim Laurier, Gareth Hector via Osprey and PD-JAPAN

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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