On August 7, 1942 Petty Officer 1 st Class Saburo Sakai was piloting his A6M2 Type 21 Zero fighter in the skies over Sealark Channel in the Solomon Islands. He had flown down with a group of other Zeros from the Japanese airfield at Rabaul, New Britain that morning for the express purpose of attacking the ships supporting the first American opposed amphibious invasion of the Second World War: the Operation WATCHTOWER landings at Gavutu, Tanambogo, Tulagi and Guadalcanal. -by Martin K A Morgan

As Sakai and his wingman approached the skies above Tulagi, he spotted a group of eight American aircraft beneath him at an altitude of 7,800 feet. Assuming that they were US Navy F4F Wildcat fighters, Sakai nosed his Zero over to begin an attack his wingman obediently following. Closing in on the American aircraft from behind at full throttle, he assumed that the element of surprise was his. But at a range of just 100 yards Sakai gazed at his targets through his gunsight and reached a sober realization: these were not fighters he was approaching. By the time it was too late to break off the attack, Sakai realized that he was attempting to pounce on a group of dive-bombers. These aircraft were from the USS Enterprise (CV-6) and were circling above Tulagi awaiting orders to drop their bombs on Japanese targets on the island below. Unlike the F4F Wildcat fighter, US Navy dive-bombers were protected from rear attack by a tail gunner’s position.

Saburo Sakai

In the back seat of the bomber piloted by Ensign Eldor E. Rodenburg, Aviation Radioman 3rd Class James W. Patterson, Jr. opened fire. “He came in fast! I fired at him, but I just don’t know if I hit him or not,” he remembered. Sakai attempted to turn sharply to the right, pull up and use the Zero’s horsepower to climb away from the Americans, but he was too close. In the rear seat of one of the other bombers, Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Harold L. Jones opened fire with Sakai only 100 feet directly astern his aircraft. What Jones saw next was a testament to the firepower that was available to the tail gunners: His cockpit exploded, the canopy tore, and something flew out. I could see his face clearly, his body and head forced back against the headrest of the cockpit. The plane went almost vertically upwards and then fell smoking. That was the last I saw of him. As the eight tailgunners followed the Zero with their machine guns, slugs shattered the canopy glass and hit Sakai. Fragments from the bullets struck him in the chest, the left leg, the elbow and the face. One tracer round missed his right eye by less than an inch and melted the rim of his goggles. In the brief encounter, the eight tailgunners expended over 1,000 rounds of ammunition and seriously injured one of the best Japanese fighter pilots of the war. Although Saburo Sakai would ultimately recover  from his wounds and live to fight another day, he had been stung by one of the most lethal aircraft in the US military’s arsenal: the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber.

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