Born on 25 August 1916 – Sakai Saburo, Japanese aviator and flying ace for the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. On the first day that I entered seventh grade, my teacher gave everyone a copy of “The Weekly Reader” and told us that we could purchase any book listed in it for just ten cents. I ordered a copy of Sakai’s autobiography “Samurai,” and when it arrived, I took it home and read it cover to cover in just one sitting. The action was naturally of compelling interest to a twelve-year-old boy, but I had never before encountered anyone with such nobility of spirit, and Sakai instantly became one of my heroes.
He is my hero still.
Sakai lost an eye in combat over Guadalcanal, and yet, despite being half-blind, faint from loss of blood, and in incredible pain, he managed to fly his damaged plane back to base – a distance of hundreds of miles. After the war, he befriended the American airman who had wounded him.
Late in life Sakai, who shot down more than sixty allied planes and was Japan’s leading ace to survive the war, revealed that he still prayed for the souls of the airmen (Chinese, American, Australian, and Dutch) whom he had killed in action: “I pray every day for the souls of my enemies as well as my comrades.”
Sakai sent his daughter to a college in the United States “to learn English and democracy.” While there, she met and married an American, to the immense delight of her father.
Sakai Saburo died in 2000, just after a formal dinner at which he had been an honored guest of the United States Navy.
Throughout his life, Sakai often agreed to be a motivational speaker for all sorts of groups, especially schools, but regardless of the venue, his message was always the same: “Never give up.” Today, when disasters both natural and man-made can often discourage people who are hoping for meaningful change in the world, that’s an especially heartening admonition, coming as it does from a man whose life so singularly demonstrates its efficacy.