Saburo Horita grew up on a five acre plot of land his father farmed in Toyama prefecture on the west coast of Honshu. They were a poor family that included three sons (Saburo was the youngest). When Saburo was fourteen, his oldest brother died. Not long after, his mother died as well. He and remaining brother, who had been a porter in a Tokyo bath house until their mom’s death, worked the land together, raising vegetables and rice.
In June, 1939, Saburo joined the Imperial Japanese Navy, and after six months of training at Yokosuka, joined the complement of the heavy cruiser Tone. He served as a 25mm anti-aircraft gunner and part of the deck crew for the next year. In January 1941, he decided to try and become a naval aviator, hoping he’d be able to fly bombers someday. He passed his physical and all the necessary exams, and received orders sending him to flight school Kasumigaura. He learned to fly on the venerable Type 93 “Willow” biplane, and then later got stick time in a Type 95 “Dave” two-seat biplane.
After he graduated from flight training, the Imperial Navy sent Saburo to Takao, Formosa, where he joined the 3rd Air Group as a reserve pilot. He’d had no time in advanced fighters, so the group put him through an intensive, crash course on the Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” fighter they had been flying in combat against the USAAF units in the Philippines. Horita arrived in January 1942, just as air campaign over Luzon was drawing to a close.
After ground instruction, he and his fellow replacement pilots were strapped into Zeroes and sent aloft to get familiar with the aircraft. On those early training flights, the fledglings were told to leave the landing gear down, as none had ever flown a craft with a retractable undercarriage. Saburo and others found the Zero tricky to land, and often they would “kangaroo” across the strip at Takao, bouncing the Zero on and off the runway as they tried to execute a touch-and-go.
After they worked through getting his Zero back on the ground consistently, Saburo underwent formation flying and aerobatics instruction with more senior 3rd Air Group pilots. But all too soon, the pressing need for combat pilots forced this first contingent of replacement pilots into battle. Along with six other aviators, Horita boarded a Type 96 “Nell” bomber in February 1942 and flew down to Mindanao. From there, they made the jump to Kendari Airdrome on the Celebes Island in the Dutch East Indies. From there, the 3rd Attack Group had been operating against the Allied air units fighting in the Java campaign. Once Java fell to the Japanese, the 3rd Air Group, based now on Timor, escorted G4M “Betty” bomber raids against northern Australia.
It was during those attacks that Saburo Horita first flew in combat. He took part in at least one raid on Port Darwin in June 1942 before being transferred to Rabaul in November 1942. At Rabaul, he joined the freshly redesignated 582nd Kokutai, which had been the 2nd Air Group up until that time. Before he had a chance to fly in the Guadalcanal campaign, he was stricken with malaria and spent about six weeks recovering. While in the hospital, some of his comrades were posted at Lae and thrown into the fight against the 5th Air Force while others stayed at Rabaul to fly missions against the Allies in the Southern Solomons.
After returning to flight status, Horita had between 300-400 hours in Zeroes, Type 93’s and 95’s. He’d been promoted to lead a three-plane formation, known as a Shotai. It was as a Shotai leader that he flew his final combat mission on January 31, 1943.
On that day, the 582nd received orders to escort a squadron of bombers against Allied warships at Tulagi Harbor. The previous two days had been furious ones over the Southern Solomons. Japanese airstrikes had sunk a destroyer and the heavy cruiser Chicago in a debacle later known as the “Battle of Rennell Island.” On the 31st, IJN reconnaissance had detected three warships near Tulagi, and they would be the raid’s primary targets.
Over the target area, the Japanese strike failed to locate any Allied ships. Without radios in their Zero fighters, the 582nd could not converse with the bomber crews, so they simply stayed with them and followed wherever they went. In this case, they began searching to the south of Tulagi and Guadalcanal. The search yielded results: two destroyers were soon sighted, and the bombers dove to the attack.
A squadron of F4F Wildcats was overhead that day, protecting the Allied vessels. The 582nd locked horns with the American fighters, and a dogfight raged over the ships. At fifteen hundred feet, Saburo’s Zero was attacked by four Wildcats and shot up. He turned north and limped his crippled Zero for home, but over Russell Island, his engine seized. He ditched the Mitsubishi in shallow water right off the beach and waded ashore. Five foot four, one hundred and twenty pounds, Saburo Horita was now hundreds of miles from home, with no way to get back to Japanese lines.
He thought through his situation, and concluded his only hope lay in trying to steal a boat or canoe from the local natives. Exactly what he hoped to do with it is unknown, but perhaps he thought he could paddle the 30 miles to Guadalcanal where he could link up with the Japanese garrison there before it was evacuated.
Whatever his intent, he acquired a canoe from the natives at gunpoint, which earned him no friends. The natives eventually got the drop on him and took him prisoner. He was quickly delivered to Allied authorities, where he was interrogated by Colonel Sidney Mashbir’s Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, SWPA (ATIS/SWPA). The Japanese-American who conducted the interrogation found Saburo Horita to be intelligent but poorly educated. His answers were cautious, and unlike many other POW’s, he was security conscious and did not reveal a lot of information. However, what he did say generally was believed to be accurate.