When I was a boy growing up on Staten Island in the sixties, I voraciously read Ballantine War Books, pulp paperbacks with lurid covers detailing combat by World War II veterans, a conflict that wasn't all that far in the past then. I recently re-read one of those paperbacks plucked off an adolescent boy's bookshelf from 45 years ago, its coarse pages yellowing and brittle but its slick cover just as vivid and vibrant as it was when I saw it on a book display case in a drug store and bought it for seventy-five cents.
Samurai! by Saburo Sakai (copyright 1957) is the memoir of Japan's leading surviving World War II ace, with 64 kills. Mostly it is a paean to the superiority of the most outstanding fighter plane of the early Pacific War, the Mitsubishi Zero, a plane that easily outclassed all Allied fighter planes (except for perhaps the British Spitfire, but there weren't many of those in the theatre at the time) until the ominous arrival (for the Japanese) of the American Hellcat, a plane specifically designed to counter and better all of the Zero's superior traits. Practically overnight the Japanese went from practically never losing an even dogfight to almost never winning any and they inexorably lost the war, so dependant was the Pacific conflict upon naval airpower. The book details Sakai's many triumphant ariel battles early in the war, and his two love interests, and his later struggles in combat and grievous wounding when superior American fighter planes arrived. Its cover, designed to attract the attention of a hero-worshipping boy, shows a painting of an American P-40 Warhawk (the famous "Flying Tiger" plane with the shark teeth painted on the cowling) engaging a Zero in combat.
Of my three sons, my middle child is (was?) most like me in that he loves (loved?) to read war books. During the bitter divorce last decade, before his will was overborne and he stopped seeing me when he was 15, one of my proudest moments came when he called me to ask if he could come over to my house and take some war histories off my bookshelf to have and to read. I dropped him off that night at his Mother's house with a large stack of World War II memoirs that he had picked out.
Those happy moments are but soft whispers way back in the furthest recesses of my mind now ten years later. But today is his birthday and as is my custom on such days, I'm going to have lunch at noon at the Lost Dog Cafe in Westover in Arlington, Virginia, and maybe the birthday boy will show up. In any case, I'm bringing his present along, a dog-eared paperback book entitled "Samurai!" by Saburo Sakai, bought by a 15-year old boy oh so long ago.