Wednesday, August 29, 2018


The aviation history firmament lost a star this month: Henry Sakaida, a valued friend and colleague of nearly fifty years.  He died after an extremely short illness of seizures caused by glioblastoma.

Henry's grandparents emigrated from Japan and his parents began a prosperous nursery near LA.  He took over the business on behalf of the family and ran with it.  But Henry was one of the most American of all Americans I've known.  He said that if his son wanted to learn Japanese, he'd have to do it on his own because only English was spoken in the House of Sakaida.  He liked to drive fast (his Toyota had a Mitsubishi Zero gunsight) and twirl six-shooters.

I met Henry in the early 70s as a mutual friend of Marine Corps Medal of Honor ace Ken Walsh.  Henry had helped Ken locate the family inscribed on a Japanese flag captured on Okinawa, beginning a long friendship between them.  Their relationship extended to me during a visit with Ken in Santa Ana near Los Angeles.

(Sidebar: no sooner had I parked in Ken’s driveway than he emerged from the shop, wiping his hands and asking, “Do you need a tuneup?”  He’d entered Marine Corps aviation as a slick-sleeve private, combined mechanic and radioman.)

As a self-taught historian, Henry was a bulldog of a researcher.  He ferreted out the 22nd Bomb Group mission report of June 1942 showing that Lyndon Johnson lied about his reputed heroism in the self-serving 1964 book by Martin Caidin.  Titled The Mission, it capitalized on the reputed drama of the Democrat presidential incumbent in a desperate aerial battle with a leading enemy ace.  Almost none of it was true: Johnson’s aircraft aborted with engine trouble far short of the target.  

Henry found the relevant document in the Australian War Memorial when it was "unavailable" in the U.S.  Our Naval History article became the basis of a CNN special report.  

Mainly Henry reveled in putting former enemies in touch with one another, most notably Sakai with the Dauntless gunner who hosed him at Guadalcanal in ‘42, and the P-47 Thunderbolt pilot who ventilated General Adolf Galland's Me-262 in '45.

Henry's book count topped 15, frequently with Osprey in the UK.  His hardcover tomes on the I-400 class submarines and Captain Minoru Genda's fighter wing remain landmarks.  I published his Saburo Sakai volume at Champlin Press mid 80s, and it's become highly collectible.

Like many of us in the naval and/or aviation history fields, Henry succeeded without benefit of letters behind his name.  Several years ago when I spoke at the Naval War College, the PhD head of academics conceded that much, perhaps most, of the cutting-edge work was accomplished by outsiders.  He could have been talking about Henry, who by diligence and enthusiasm became one of our most accomplished insiders.

I enjoyed knowing Henry so much that I put him in two of my novels: Hiroyoshi Sakaida, a recon floatplane pilot in Dauntless and Rufe/Zeke aviator in Hellcats.  Actually, Henry’s middle name was Hiroshi, as many Japanese-American parents give children an ancestral middle name.  Unlike many novelists’ friends who appear as partial characters, my Sakaida was cut from whole cloth. Hiroyoshi was Henry, the Imperial Navy’s extroverted wild and crazy guy with no shades of gray.  He's still pending as a MiG driver in Sabrejet, if that ever gets finished.

Henry was one of the most generous people ever.  He spent more time, effort, and money than I could guess, tracking down families of foreign KIAs (often Russians) and returning their relatives' medals or artifacts.  Henry's travels took him as far afield as Mongolia.  He and a colleague went there at least twice seeking relics of the 1939 war, and became known to the border guards.  "Oh, those crazy Americans again."

My wife Sally got acquainted with Henry during two or three of his visits.  She summarized, "What a cool guy."  On the first trip he arrived at the door with three steaks for us to share for dinner.  Secondly he attended our 2016 post-election Deplorables Party (wearing a Soviet winter hat) and enjoyed conversing with Sergei Sikorsky--in Russian.

My bookshelf displays a color photo of Henry beaming from the cockpit of a Zero, wearing Imperial Navy helmet and goggles.  The 1981 inscription: “Anytime, anywhere but only on my terms!”

That was my friend Henry, who really did live life on his own terms.

1 comment:

  1. Thank-you, Mr. Tillman, for telling about your memories of Henry. We exchanged info re my Uncle, Lt. Robert Copeland, and the Japanese Pilot that rammed his B-29, Capt. Ogata.
    Henry's contacts and Mr. Takaki were most helpful in getting the story factually.
    A wonderful post on your part.
    Bill Copeland
    Whitney, Texas