Saturday, April 20, 2024

Avenue of Heroes: Lieutenant Colonel Arthur F. O’Keefe

Location: Fourth & E Avenue, Coronado, CA
Lieutenant Colonel Arthur F. O’Keefe, UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS, Banner Location: Fourth & E Avenue, Coronado, CA

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur F. O’Keefe,
by Lieutenant Commander Michael O’Keefe, USN

My father, Arthur O’Keefe, was born in April of 1921 at Annapolis, Maryland.  He graduated from San Diego High School in 1939, and while attending San Diego State University he obtained his private pilot’s license.  His time in the air made him realize what career path he wanted.  He put college on hold, entered the Navy as a student Cadet in June 1941, and began his flight training in Florida.  In March of 1942 he was awarded his wings and chose to become a Marine Corps Aviator.  At age 21 he became one of the first Marine pilots called upon to face the Japanese forces in the Pacific theater of war.  He joined his first squadron in Hawaii, where his accelerated training found him flying an exhausting 66 flights in only 23 days as they rushed to ready him for battle.  During one of these 66 flights, Art crashed his plane landing upside down in the ocean.

Then, only five months after earning his wings, Art’s WWII service began in the South Pacific as a 21 year old Scout Bomb Diver (SBD) pilot partnered with a 19 year old gunner. His plane was one of the first to land on Guadalcanal, August 20, 1942.  Here the Marines encountered some of the fiercest island campaigns of the war.  Of the 12 original pilots in his squadron half were killed and the other half, including Art, were medically evacuated in less than two months.  Art flew 29 missions at Guadalcanal and earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for flying his SBD unescorted more than 250 miles over enemy territory and successfully bombing a Zero float plane base at Giza Harbor in the Soloman’s.  Paraphrasing his citation: “A skilled and daring airman, penetrating enemy-controlled territory in 29 hazardous flights, Second Lieutenant O’Keefe carried out bold scouting, search and reconnaissance missions, attacks upon enemy service vessels and ground installations, and flights in support of our troops, rendering valiant service throughout each vital assignment despite the enemy’s repeated antiaircraft opposition.  On 6 September, O’Keefe was one of eleven SBDs and six fighter escort planes leaving for a bombing mission to Giza Harbor.  O’Keefe’s plane became inoperative just prior to his takeoff and the other aircraft were forced to leave without him.  O’Keefe obtained another aircraft and completed the four and a half hour mission, completely on his own, successfully bombing the Giza Harbor.”

Art was promoted to the rank of Major at 23 before being assigned to the 4th Marine Division staff at Iwo Jima as Assistant Division Air and Operations Officer responsible for coordination and direction of all aircraft operations. He volunteered in his off duty time to fly missions despite the fact that he was in a non-flying billet.  He flew the OY-1, a small observation plane normally flown to deliver supplies to the front line troops and evacuate wounded soldiers. However, Art flew this slow moving (100 knot maximum speed), 24 foot, fabric covered, unarmed airplane within 50 feet of the ground to spot Japanese activity and direct the carrier attack aircraft to the Japanese hideouts. Although his plane was damaged by enemy fire, he skillfully returned from each mission and earned his second Distinguished Flying Cross. His citation read in part, “ Major O’Keefe volunteered and successfully flew more than ten valuable missions over enemy lines at altitudes frequently below one hundred feet in an unarmed aircraft, carrying an aerial observer or photographer as passenger.  He was subjected to intense enemy antiaircraft and small arms fire, and in constant hazard from our own supporting arms fire. Initial missions flown by Major O’Keefe were in the first aircraft to arrive on Motoyama Airfield where his plane was operated under extremely hazardous field conditions which included observed enemy mortar and artillery fire, mines, booby traps, and wind blown volcanic sand.”

Art was temporarily promoted to Lt. Col. at 26, and received his permanent promotion at 31. He was assigned to Korea where he initially flew F4U Corsairs before assuming command of  VMJ-1 flying F2H-2P Banshees.  During his distinguished 22 year career, Art accumulated 3,180 hours in 36 different military aircraft and commanded 4 squadrons with his final command flying the F-8U Crusader. In addition to his 2 DFC’s, Art was awarded 11 other medals and received the Special Class Award, Chief of Naval Operations Annual Aviation Safety Award during his command of VMCJ-2.

After my father ended his 22 years of service to his country, he completely closed that chapter of his life, never to be reopened.  He was part of the Greatest Generation and I would add the Silent Generation—as he, like so many WWII veterans, never spoke of his war experiences.  I only learned of my father’s heroism after his death in August 2013, when I inherited volumes of war records and photographs he had kept hidden away.

Family and Mayor Tanaka at November 2015 Veterans Day Dedication ceremony
Family and Mayor Tanaka at November 2015 Veterans Day Dedication ceremony

The final chapter of Art O’Keefe’s life was lived in Coronado, his home of record from 1942-2013.  Art returned to San Diego State to complete his degree—started decades before—and spent more than fifteen years working as an assessor for San Diego County.  He spent his leisure time sailing, a love begun as a teenager at the San Diego Yacht Club.  Art was an active member of the Coronado Yacht Club for over 40-years serving as Commodore in 1969.  He raced his Pacific Class boat, “Even Odds,” and his Catalina 31, “Gray Eagle,” winning more than one hundred trophies.  In his day, my dad was easily recognized by his signature “bucket hat” and powder blue Kharman Ghia convertible.   What we never recognized was the Hero within.

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