|Veterans Day: Korean-American defied the odds to become ace fighter pilot|
|Written by Margaret Downing/For the Stateline News|
|Thursday, 10 November 2011 14:30|
Fred Ohr relied on his own determination, along with a little bit of luck, to become one of the United States’ top fighter pilots in World War II. Terry Mayer/staff photo.
(Read the full story in the e-edition HERE.)
LOVES PARK — For the United States, war clouds loomed dark and heavy by the late 1930s. And like many young men of his generation, Fred Ohr was determined to serve his country.
As the son of Korean parents, however, the obstacles to realizing his dream at times seemed insurmountable. But determination and a little bit of luck along the way made all the difference.
By the time the war ended, Ohr would be decorated as the country’s lone World War II Korean-American ace fighter pilot.
Ohr, now 92 and a retired dentist living in Loves Park, was born in 1919, growing up on a small truck farm in the Boise, Idaho, basin.
“At a very young age, I observed one of the first U.S. air mail flights to Boise, and from that day on, a passion developed within me that one day I would fly one of those machines,” Ohr remembers.
“If your desire is great enough,” his mother would tell him, “some day it will happen.”
Ohr’s parents, Wanda and Wan Ju, had met and married in Korea. They fled their homeland to escape a puppet government run by the Japanese, arriving at different times in the United States before meeting and settling down.
War definitely was on the horizon by the time Ohr was a senior in high school. “In 1938, I took a wild chance by enlisting in the 116th Cavalry, Idaho National Guard, figuring when the draft came that I wouldn’t have to register,” Ohr said.
In late fall 1940, he was sent to Fort Francis E. Warren in Cheyenne, Wyo., and was able to finish his first two years of college, becoming a radio communication sergeant along the way.
A stroke of luck — or fate — would come into play at Fort Warren that would open the door to his dream of flying.
One of Ohr’s fellow soldiers, a young man by the name of Leon, signed up for the aviation cadet physical, and invited Ohr to come along for moral support.
But during the war years, many didn’t look favorably on someone of Asian decent.
“I could think of nothing more devastating for Leon than he might not be accepted because someone who looked different accompanied him,” Ohr said. “I told him it might be in his best interest that I not go with him...”
Eventually, Ohr’s friend convinced him to reconsider, and they arrived at the examining site about 20 minutes early.
Ohr settled into a comfortable wicker chair and became engrossed in the stack of brochures about the cadet training program.
But at one point, Ohr says he faintly heard someone calling out, “sergeant.” He didn’t respond, because who would be calling him? So he kept on daydreaming.
About the third time he heard, “sergeant,” he realized whomever was calling was standing directly in front of him. It was a colonel, and Ohr leapt to attention.
The colonel yelled, “next,” and before he knew it, Ohr was taking the exam as well.
All the while, he remembered what his mother told him years earlier, “If your desire is great enough, some day it will happen.”
He passed the exam and physical, and as he was leaving, the colonel grabbed him by the shoulder. “Son, have your personal effects in order, because in September, you’ll receive your orders to report to a flying school to become a pilot.”
Ohr went on to do well throughout training, but excelled at understanding how planes operated and what made them work. So when he graduated in 1942, he was deployed to the 68th Material Service Squadron at Daniel Field in Augusta, Ga., putting his boyhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot on hold — but only temporarily, as it would turn out.
Ohr’s immediate superior at Daniel Field was an obsessed man driven to one day be decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. He had little regard for Ohr, once even telling him to never sit in the plane’s cockpit.
Their unit shipped out to Britain in the fall of 1942 and as 1943 rolled around, it was apparent that a move eastward to Tunisia’s Kasserine Pass was imminent.
The Allies were up against the German-Italian Panzer Army, led by Field Marshal Edwin Rommel, along with two other Panzer divisions of the 5th Panzer Army.
Soon, however, everything was about to fall apart for the Allies in North Africa.
“We received orders to retreat, and periodically an artillery shell would hit the air field, so we knew that the enemy was not far away,” Ohr said.
Suddenly his immediate superior, the one who had placed the no flying restrictions on him, announced there were two P-40s to be flown out, and they would fly together.
“Time was running short because artillery shells were hitting the field with repeated accuracy, so I never gave it another thought,” Ohr remembers. “The plan was that we would take off together and I would fly his wing and we’d go to a designated airfield. I had no more than gotten into my plane when he suddenly started his engine and took off.”
At that point, Ohr says he didn’t know where he was going, except to the west. He strapped in and asked the mechanic, “Do you think this plane will fly?”
The man hesitated and said, “All I can say is that they flew it in.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Ohr said. “Let’s give it a try.”
With that, the mechanic tapped him on his helmet, wishing him good luck.
As Ohr began his flight, there was an explosion. Oil, thick black smoke and flames were shooting out from the engine. The windscreen was covered with oil.
Ohr made a 180-degree turn to make his way back to the airfield, landing in the fuel disbursement area. He knew the area would be overrun soon with the enemy and didn’t want to risk having the plane fall into German hands.
“I took my 45-Colt and fired into the drum of gas trying to set it on fire, but it wouldn’t ignite,” Ohr said. “So I gathered up a few sprigs of sagebrush and soaked them in the gas. I tossed my little torch into the punctured drum of gas and it ignited instantaneously and flames engulfed the plane.”
As Ohr was trying to set fire to a third plane, a truck carrying 10 fellow soldiers arrived on the runway to rescue him. But before leaving, they used pick axes to puncture the wing tanks and set the remaining planes on fire.
“I hadn’t even thought how I was going to escape until I saw the men who put themselves in harm’s way to return to rescue me,” Ohr said. “By this time, the artillery shells were hitting the airfield with great accuracy, because there were numerous plumes of smoke from the burning planes for the Germans to zero in on.
“It was daybreak when we reached our destination, and I saw my commanding officer coming toward me,” Ohr said. “He suddenly whirled around and said, ‘Freddie, what are you doing here?’”
Ohr’s immediate superior, who had arrived earlier after leaving Ohr alone on the runway, claimed Ohr had been shot down and killed.
“Pinch me,” Ohr told the commanding officer. “I’m still alive.”
That was the beginning of Ohr’s career as a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps. By 1944, Ohr was promoted to captain, then to major with the air corps.
In the end, Ohr was awarded with the Silver Star with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star and the Air Medal with 18 Oak Leaf Clusters.
Among the missions that he would go on to fly, Ohr received numerous commendations, like the mission he flew in 1944 escorting heavy bombers against enemy oil installations in Romania.
Over the target area, Ohr spotted three enemy aircraft preparing to attack the bombers. He led his formation in an attack against the enemy fighters, enabling the bombers to complete their mission.
Ohr, seeing another enemy fighter during the ensuing chase, attacked the enemy plane and destroyed it.
Later that year, Ohr led his squadron on a strafing run over an important enemy airdrome in Romania. Skillfully leading his squadron in their attacks, Ohr destroyed six enemy aircraft and damaged several others, while his formation destroyed 11 planes on the ground and three in the air.
After their 12th strafing run, Ohr noticed a fellow pilot in a crippled P-51 under attack from an enemy fighter. He rushed to help and successfully drove off all subsequent attacks.
“Despite his dangerously low supply of fuel and ammunition in the face of superior numbers of the enemy, Capt. Ohr courageously remained with the crippled P-51, bringing him safely through enemy territory to base without further damage,” a citation presented to Ohr later on read.
Ohr was home in Idaho by Christmas 1944. He went on to finish college on the GI Bill and became a dentist, maintaining a practice in Chicago for 53 years. He married Esther Kang in 1946, raising a son, Roger, and two daughters, K.J. and Tamara.
Ohr never learned the name of the colonel who had the gumption and the foresight to stand in front of a young Korean-American and get him into the Air Corps, but he says he is still searching for that information.
Ohr, as it turned out, was the only known ace Korean-American fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force in World War II.
He flew a total of 155 missions.