Japanese Zero Pilots

Originally printed in Clear Lake Courier — 29 July 1998

Lieutenant Yoshio Shiga of the Japanese Imperial Navy commanded one of the Zero fighter squadrons that attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He is now 84 years old and the owner of a Tokyo company that makes security systems for military and law enforcement organizations.

When my boss and I visited him, Shiga told us the aircrews had trained for the Pearl Harbor mission without knowing their destination. His reaction at learning they would attack the United States was, “This is impossible. This is crazy.” When he flew over Hawaii, it was so pretty he hated to drop any bombs.

Although Shiga appeared to be telling interesting stories, my boss and I couldn’t understand what was being said. Our translator briefly and infrequently summarized his comments. The “conversation” was very frustrating.

Six months after Pearl Harbor, LT Shiga commanded a fighter squadron on an aircraft carrier in the Aleutians campaign. I have a friend in Jacksonville, Florida, whose U.S. Navy PBY patrol plane was shot down by those Zeros. It was quite a coincidence for me to meet the commanding officer of the unit that caused my friend to spend time in a Japanese prison camp 56 years ago.

Shiga has not written a book or publicized his experiences because his wife doesn’t want him to talk about the war. He offered to answer any questions we asked, however. He admires and respects the U.S. Navy and thinks we have something to be proud of. He said we made good decisions and his navy made poor ones. His pride lies in knowing he never sent unqualified pilots into battle.

After Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaign, LT Shiga left combat to become a test pilot in 1943. One of the test pilots who worked for him was Saburo Sakai–the highest-ranking Japanese ace to survive the war.

I met Saburo Sakai earlier this year at a Tokyo dinner given in his honor by a group known as “the Zero committee.” The event began by introducing all 38 people in the room. Those introductions must have been humorous, judging by the laughter, but nothing that evening was translated into English. To occupy my mind, I looked at those men (ages 25 to 70) in business suits and tried to picture them in World War II uniforms; it didn’t work.

We four Americans were introduced last and presented with Zero tie tacks and calendars containing photos of Zeros. I don’t know what was said about us. After the introductions, waiters delivered bottles of Sapporo beer to the tables, and all glasses were charged for a toast. I don’t know what the toast was, but everyone responded with “Kampai!”

Although the meal was a buffet, I never left the table. Waiters and my tablemates kept me supplied with food and whiskey/water. I would have loved to join in the conversation and understand the stories being told. The man sitting next to me occasionally translated.

One of the men was a Zero pilot who trained under Sakai. The war ended before he went into battle. He said navy pilots thought they were special, and carrier pilots thought they were better than land pilots. I said it’s the same in my navy today.

He had visited the USS Independence and was surprised the ladders and passageways were no bigger than those on Japanese ships, even though Americans are bigger than Japanese.

After the meal, speakers took turns at the microphone. One kept pointing to his leg and lifting his foot. My tablemate translated his message as saying he was a killer during the war, but now he heals people. He is an acupuncturist and was describing his treatments.

The main speaker was 83-year-old Sakai, who answered questions from the audience. He said a nation is destroyed in war and those who started WWII destroyed Japan. He explained today’s U.S.-Japan security agreement and the reason it is important to allow the U.S. to use Japan’s military ports.

The government and the emperor started WWII, not the army and navy as is erroneously believed. Sakai said to tell people to go to war and die is stupid. There is nothing glorious about it.

Based on the questions that were translated for me, it seemed Japanese people are interested in their history and the reasons for our security agreement, but they don’t hear much about those issues.

Someone asked what it was like to be in an actual engagement with an enemy fighter plane. Sakai described his first dogfight, which occurred in China against a Grumman fighter. Watching the body language that went with the story, I really wished I could understand what he was saying.

Sakai-DianeI later read his book Samurai!, an excellent story that proves wars are fought by real human beings on both sides. Sakai was in combat from 1938 in China until he lost an eye over Guadalcanal in 1942. Surrounded by eight American planes that August day, he shot down two of them before machine gun fire destroyed his cockpit. Blinded in his right eye and paralyzed on his left side, he fainted many times and almost crashed into the sea. Lost and without instruments, he flew his crippled Zero for five hours and made it back to his base at Rabaul, 560 miles to the north.

After his injuries healed, the one-eyed pilot served as a test pilot and an instructor. He returned to the front lines at Iwo Jima in 1944. When the war ended, he had shot down 64 planes in 200 aerial attacks and 2000 hours aloft.

Sakai has written eleven books and he gives speeches throughout Japan and the United States. He wants to ensure mistakes of the past are not repeated.

Both Sakai and Shiga did what their nation told them to do, even knowing they could not win. They were “good soldiers.”

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