My Father and I and Saburo Sakai


Although he had made many trips to the States and had sent his daughter to school here in America, eventually giving her hand in marriage to an officer in the United States Army, Saburo Sakai speaks practically no English. Fortunately he was accompanied by an interpreter, Jim Crossley, who spent the next twenty minutes or so translating for us, as first Sakai-san apologized for killing my father and I in turn assured him that I bore him no malice whatsoever; his act had been the duty of a soldier, as my father’s death had been his duty and his fate as a soldier.

The next year, Sakai-san accepted our invitation to spend the night in our home on the last day of the annual Yakima Air Show. He arrived late in the afternoon, accompanied by the young Japanese-American woman who would serve as translator. He proved to be a gracious, witty, and engaging guest.

He began by asking me if I had any article of clothing that had belonged to my father. When I retrieved my dad’s old West Point sweater, which I had been carrying with me since I first left home to attend the Military Academy myself, he set it on a coffee table in the middle of the living room and said a very brief Shinto prayer over it. He then explained that this prayer, from one warrior to another whom he had slain, would assure my father an elevation to several levels in heaven above wherever it was that he had been originally relegated on his own merits. While I am not a very religious person, I was both moved by this gesture and reassured that, somehow, my father would in fact benefit from this simple yet sincere and powerful ceremony.

Sakai-san next brought out the leather pilot’s helmet and white silk scarf that he had worn the day he shot my father down. While this had a strong impact on me, my wife, and our three sons, who were with us on this most fascinating of evenings, what he related to us next was even more intriguing. For these were the helmet and scarf that he had also worn several months later, on the day he took two bullets in the head in combat over Guadalcanal, after which he flew the four hours it took to return to his home base in Rabaul. It was clear where the bullets had struck, one of them having ricocheted off the metal rim of his goggles, the second having torn through the leather of the helmet near the temple. The idea that he could have survived these wounds, much less continued to fly for hours after that, was all but inconceivable.

Sakai brought out the pilot’s helmet and the white silk scarf that he had worn the day he shot down my father.

The scarf was tattered, but in a relatively symmetrical way. The damage, rather than being the result of the ravages of time, had occurred in one brief and traumatic encounter. The explanation was simple. His canopy had been blown away in the attack that had caused his wounds, but this proved a blessing of sorts in that it kept a steady rush of air blowing into the cockpit, helping him maintain consciousness. He was so severely hurt, however, that more than once, in order to shock himself into fuller consciousness, he had to aggravate the pain by striking his open wounds. In spite of this, he passed out several times, only to be awakened by the reinforced strength of the wind rushing into his cockpit as his plane nosed down toward the sea below.

When we later told Sakai-san that our eldest daughter was not there because she was attending flight training in Arizona to become a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, he was greatly moved. He saw this as a continuation of the warrior line, and it seemed especially gratifying to him that it was in the field of aviation. What was most interesting to us, given Japan’s singular lack of progress in the feminist movement of recent years, was that he was delighted to find that it was a girl who was to carry this tradition into the next generation.

With that he took the tattered scarf and tore from it a piece, which he handed to me. Give it to my daughter, he said, and tell her to carry it with her whenever she flies; if she does, whatever gods there be will surely protect her from the perils of the air.

My daughter still carries this talisman, and while I am still not much of a believer in things supernatural, I rest easier when she is flying, knowing that she has that scrap of silk with her.

And so ended my quest, with a newfound friend, the man who killed my father.