My Father And I And Saburo Sakai

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My wife and I arrived to find Caidin and a writer named Edward Hymoff, dressed in T-shirts and baggy pants, in a spacious suite, whose walls were covered with printed sheets, photographs, pieces of paper with notes scribbled on them, and other scraps of data. It turned out that the two of them were holed up here for the duration, not to emerge until they had completed the history of the brief military career of the first sitting congressman to serve in uniform in World War II and the only one to see combat, the man who had been with my father the day he died and who was now—with the murdered John F. Kennedy less than two months in his grave—the nation’s new President.

As soon as I had introduced myself and my wife, I told Caidin of our earlier correspondence and of my plan to contact him to ask that he find the photographs, he took me up to one of the paper-covered walls to show me:

• A series of pictures of my father’s plane being shot down (the very photos that had been the object of my quest).

• A picture of the man who had piloted the Japanese Zero that had fired the fatal burst, a famous air ace, Saburo Sakai.

• A group photo of Sakai and the other pilots in his fighter squadron, taken just seconds before the siren sounded announcing the impending arrival of the flight of B-26s that included the Wabash Cannonball , my dad’s airplane.

• A letter written by Sakai, recounting in considerable detail the events that unfolded in the short time between the taking of this last photo and my father’s plane crashing into the waters off Lae, in northern New Guinea, including a second-by-second description of how he had attacked the Wabash Cannonball .

It was, as you can imagine, quite an emotional moment for me.

I was able to add one anecdote of interest to Caidin and Hymoff, the story of how Dad had wound up on the plane that Lyndon Johnson was supposed to have ridden on that mission. Johnson had originally gotten aboard the Wabash Cannonball but had forgotten to take his camera with him. While he was retrieving it, Dad, unaware that Johnson had designs on sitting there, climbed into the seat that his friend had recently vacated. When Johnson returned to claim his place, Dad joked that he would just have to find himself another airplane to ride that day. As fate would have it, the plane that Johnson wound up on developed engine trouble and never made it to the target. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

For me, though, the story wasn’t over. Now that I knew who had shot down my father, I found I wanted to meet him. I didn’t make any strenuous efforts to bring this about but kept my eye open for any opportunity.

In July of 1987, three years after I had retired from a twenty-seven-year Army career, I was living with my family in Tacoma, Washington, where we had moved in pursuit of my new work in computer systems. One day my wife came upon an article in the local newspaper telling of how Saburo Sakai had been in nearby Yakima, Washington, the previous weekend as the guest of honor at a big air show. The article went on to say that this was an annual show and that Sakai was often invited to attend. The next year, Nancy was on the lookout for Sakai’s possible return, and her vigilance paid off. One Sunday morning she opened the paper to learn that Sakai was to be at the Yakima Air Show that very day.

I immediately called a neighbor who was involved in aviation in that part of the country and got from him the name and telephone number of the manager of the Yakima Airfield. Nobody was answering his office phone. Before I could become discouraged, however, Nancy put a jacket on me and said, “Let’s just go over there and see if we can’t manage to meet him.” It seemed to me that we were about to set out on a four-hour wild-goose chase, but I got into the car with her and set off for the other side of the Cascade Mountains.

When we arrived two hours later, I went up to the first police officer we saw and asked where we might find Saburo Sakai. He told me how to find the VIP pavilion but said that there had been a threat against Sakai’s life and it was unlikely I’d be allowed to see him. Although hardly encouraged by this news, we headed toward the pavilion, where we were met by another police officer who turned out to be Sakai’s bodyguard (and well chosen for the task he was, standing about six and a half feet tall and made out of at least 250 pounds of what appeared to be solid muscle). When I told him that I wanted to see Saburo Sakai, he naturally asked why. Unable to think of a less ominous reason, I came straight out with the fact that he had killed my father some fortyfive years earlier. The officer eyed me with considerable (and understandable) suspicion. After weighing it for several moments, he apparently decided that my story was too implausible to be anything but the truth. He said he’d see what he could do. With that, and after thoroughly searching both me and my wife, he left us standing behind the pavilion under the watchful eye of two other police officers.

Several minutes went by before he reappeared. He walked toward me and leaned over to whisper as he passed, “You owe me.” Behind him was a benevolent-looking Asian gentleman.