It’s been a few days since anything has come from this keyboard. For some odd reason, there’s a “topic gap” in the first week of August. I’m sure that historical things have happened during those days, but nothing that grabbed my attention. So either I need to read some more, or widen my circle of interests. Anyway, the spreadsheet has stuff on it for today, so let’s chat for a few minutes.
When the U.S. Navy began shelling Guadalcanal in the early-morning hours of August 7, 1942, it caught the Japanese garrison stationed there completely by surprise. The same held true for the small nearby island of Tulagi and the twins of Gavutu-Tanambogo (I call them “twins” because they were small islands joined by a man-made causeway). Frantic messages from the defenders (many of them in uncoded, plain-language text) were sent up the equally-surprised Japanese chain of command.
The Japanese had a bunch of planes at their main base at Rabaul that were being prepared for attacks on U.S. air bases in New Guinea, but were quickly retasked (and re-armed with torpedoes) to support their brothers-in-arms in the Solomon Islands. Among the attackers were 18 planes of the elite Tainan Air Group, and one of its premier aces was Petty Officer First Class Saburo Sakai. Boarding his Zero and taking off in the morning, he and his fellow pilots joined the fray over the Guadalcanal early that afternoon.
After downing a Wildcat and a Dauntless dive-bomber, he turned to attack another group of Wildcats, only to discover too late that they were also Dauntlesses. The SBD featured a rear tailgunner that could give an attacking pilot grief. But Sakai was attacking several of them with only a wingman, so nearly all the return fire was concentrated on him. The barrage of gunfire shattered his plane’s canopy and a bullet hit him in the head. Recovering a bit, he found himself blinded by blood, paralyzed on his left side, and hurtling toward the Pacific Ocean.
He pulled from the dive and got out of the action enough to take stock of his situation, which was grim to say the least. His left side was truly paralyzed (the bullet had punctured his brain), and his right eye was also blind, even after removing the blood. Saburo Sakai now faced a nearly-impossible 565-mile return flight to his base. Blood loss threatened a fall into unconciousness, but he kept himself semi-alert with the help of the searing pain caused by slapping his own head wound. And in one of the more remarkable flights of the entire War, Sakai (with only one eye, one arm, and one leg functioning) nursed his crippled plane (and his more crippled body) the entire way home…a five-hour flight.
The young pilot endured a long surgery (without any anesthesia) and made a partial recovery (the vision in his right eye never fully returned). He convinced his superiors to let him fly again, and survived a kamikaze mission late in the War (when he was unable to locate enemy ships). And in a testament to the Japanese military’s reluctance for advancement, this talented and tough pilot (a fighter ace a dozen times over) would not be promoted to Ensign (the next level above Petty Officer First Class) until two years later.
Sakai survived the War. And after being surrounded by death for years, and experiencing his own incredible escape from its clutches on that day over Guadalcanal, he vowed to not so much as kill an insect.
Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal