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Harry Fusao O’Hara: Japanese Fighter Pilot, 1918

23 Apr

If British people think of Japanese fighter pilots, they probably think of the Second World War and the Zero long-range fighter aircraft, or even kamikaze. They certainly do not think of a young man in a Royal Air Force biplane. But Harry Fusao O’Hara was a Japanese fighter pilot, flying with the RAF in 1918.

Harry Fusao O’Hara was born in Tokyo in 1891. As a treaty partner of the UK, Japan joined the Allies early in the war; O’Hara, though, seems to have decided to fight for the British rather than his homeland. First, he served in the Indian Army in the 34th Sikh Pioneers, the pioneer unit of the 3rd (Lahore) Division, which served on the Western Front in 1914 and moved to Mesopotamia in August 1915. It is not clear whether O’Hara served at the front with the SIkhs. Instead of going to Mesopotamia, though, O’Hara joined the Middlesex Regiment in December 1915 and did then go out to France, arriving on Christmas Eve.

In August 1916, O’Hara was wounded in action. Although the records do not detail his actions, he was awarded the Military Medal in January 1917 and, when inspected by a Royal Flying Corps doctor, he was found to have shrapnel scars on his left arm, chest, left shoulder, right arm and right thigh. He had clearly – as the phrase goes – been through the wars.

Harry Fusao O'Hara's flying certificate photo, 1917

Harry Fusao O’Hara’s flying certificate photo, 1917

In March 1917, O’Hara transferred to the RFC as a 2nd-class air mechanic (the basic rank for RFC men – equivalent to his rank of private in the Middlesex Regiment).  He was soon undergoing flying training, though, and living in London at 25 Fitzroy Square, a boarding-house run by Jukicki Ikuine, another Japanese man living in London. In 1911 Ikuine and his English wife had run a boarding-house entirely populated by Japanese men (servants, cooks and waiters), so perhaps his properties were a standard place for Japanese men to board.

O’Hara qualified as a pilot on 21 July 1917 at the London and Provincial flying school in Edgeware, and was immediately promoted to Sergeant by the RFC.  It is not clear where he was stationed between then and March 1918, when he was posted from France to the No 1 School of Military Aeronautics (in Reading), but at some point he became engaged to Norfolk-born Muriel M McDonald. They married in Lewisham in September 1917.

No 1 Squadron with their SE5As and dog

In 1918, Sgt O’Hara went out to the front again to join No 1 Squadron RFC/RAF. Quite what his commanders and comrades made of this Japanese man with an Irish name we will never know.  Given his proven bravery and obvious technical capability shown by gaining his flying certificate, it seems likely that his race held O’Hara back from becoming an officer. Nonetheless, the RFC and RAF accepted sergeant-pilots and O’Hara was able – again – to fight for Britain in France and Flanders.

On 1 June 1918, O’Hara was again wounded and sent to hospital. This time he suffered a gun-shot wound in his jaw.  Two weeks later (after treatment in Boulogne) he was back in England and sent to Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, which specialised in facial reconstructive surgery. He was granted a month’s furlough in both September 1918 and April 1919, effectively leaving the RAF during the latter before being discharged officially a year later. He was awarded a war pension of 19s 3d per week from November 1919.

Sadly, the hospital records on O’Hara are incomplete, only covering a return visit to Sidcup in 1923-24 to have a new set of dentures fitted – presumably to replace those made after his injury in 1918.  The photos of his face don’t show the severe wounding experienced by other Sidcup patients (like HR Lumley), so it looks like he was one of the lucky ones among facial wounding victims.

Harry and Muriel O’Hara lived on in London after the war, first of all at 39 Thornford Road, near Lewisham Park, and later at 32 Pemberton Gardens, Islington.  In the early 1920s, Harry worked teaching Japanese at SOAS, but otherwise little record of their life remains. The National Army Museum’s collection includes a cigarette box given by O’Hara to a former officer of the 34th Sikh Pioneers in 1932 “in memory of World War One”, so he obviously maintained some links with his wartime comrades.

When war came again, Harry O’Hara became an enemy alien after Britain declared war on Japan in December 1941; so too did Muriel under the laws of the day, whereby a woman automatically held her husband’s nationality.  She reclaimed her British nationality in 1944, but he apparently remained Japanese.  There is no record of his having been interned, so hopefully this decorated and repeatedly-wounded war hero of the Great War was allowed to live on in peace (from the authorities at least) in his house in Islington.  Harry Fusao O’Hara died in Hampstead in 1951.

A nation’s wartime armed forces really take all sorts.  The RFC and RAF included men from across the Britain’s Empire, dominions and other allied and friendly nations.  Harry Fusao O’Hara may well be unique, though, as a Japanese fighter pilot on the Western Front.

___________________________

Archive sources:

National Archives: AIR 79/1/1 RAF service record of Harry Fasao O’Hara

The Papers of Harold D. Gilles at the Archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England: Ref. ADDMSS622, Box 26, Sgt H O’Hara: ID 1541

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24 Comments

Posted by on 23 April 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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24 responses to “Harry Fusao O’Hara: Japanese Fighter Pilot, 1918

  1. Andy Kemp

    24 April 2013 at 6:10 am

    Excellent piece, showing the diversity of Britain’s armed forces in WW1. Just one nit to pick. In 1918, 1 Squadron RFC / RAF were flying the SE5A, not the Sopwith Camel.

     
    • Stuart

      24 April 2013 at 11:18 am

      Thanks, Andy – I’ve corrected the post now. Glad you enjoyed it despite that error. Not sure where I got the Sopwith Camel thing from. I think there was a picture of one on a website about No 1 Sqn, which blinded me to the fact that the aircraft in the picture I’ve used are clearly SE5s.

       
  2. SilverTiger

    26 April 2013 at 12:23 pm

    I found O’Hara’s story fascinating. He must have been an impressive fellow to have followed such a career, and very determined. The fact that his nation, from being an ally in WWI became an enemy in WWII, thus turning him into an enemy alien, is one of sad irony. I wonder what he thought of the kamikaze: did he admire their courage while deprecating the cause they supported? Did he suffer hostility from his neighbours?

    I am glad if he was able to live out his life in peace, as he certainly deserved to do.

     
  3. Peter Love

    27 April 2013 at 9:11 pm

    As a young boy I had the privilege of knowing Harry O’Hara and his wife and their children, Peter, Molly and Jacqueline as our neighbours in Pemberton Gardens, London, before WWII.

    I know that Harry O’Hara was interned at the beginning of the war as an enemy alien, but due to the efforts of St Dustan’s he was soon released.

    After the war my family and that of Harry O’Hara by chance became reunited and this is when my real memories of him began. Even though he had lived in England for very many year he never lost many of his Japanese customs such leaving your home backwards with a bow. At the time I knew him he was suffering very badly from his old wounds and injuries and was, to a large extent, bed-ridden. It was partially due to his influence that in 1948 I joined the Royal Air Force as an Aircraft Apprentice and later became a pilot. When he died he left me a small gift of a parker pen which I valued greatly and used throughout my time as an apprentice at No.1 Radio School, RAF Cranwell.

    Reading his history I feel even more privileged to have known Harry O’Hara.

     
  4. Peter Love

    28 April 2013 at 7:08 pm

    Reference my recent post, the children of Harry O’Hara were Peter, Molly and Geraldine not Jacqueline. Apologies for my memory lapse, particularly to the family of harry O’Hara.

    Peter Love

     
    • Stuart

      28 April 2013 at 7:59 pm

      Hello Peter. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my blog post. It is fascinating to hear a bit more information about Harry O’Hara and your experience of knowing him, and also that he was in fact temporarily interned. He sounds like an impressive man, both in his experiences of the Great War and his influence on your life three decades later. Did he talk to you about his time as a pilot in the Great War?
      One thing that one never fully gets from the archive sources that I’ve been using is a sense of what the person was like. It sounds as though Harry O’Hara was a courteous and generous man, as well as a brave one.
      Stuart

       
    • Wim Reedyk

      20 November 2013 at 1:32 pm

      I am moved by the fact that so much is told about my grandfather, and that Mr Love personally has known him and his family. My mother happens to be his youngest daughter, Geraldine. She married my father, a Dutchman, in 1954 and moved to Holland where she still lives. She, 82 years old, is still doing well. Unfortunately for me, Harry O’Hara, my grandpa, died before my birth in 1957. Interesting to note is that his name was Ohara. But when he enlisted in the British Army in India, a recruitment officer said to him: We don’t have any Ohara’s here, so we call you O’Hara. My mother told me this story many times, and I’ve got every reason to believe that this is correct.

       
      • Stuart

        11 December 2013 at 8:10 pm

        Hello Wim,
        Thank you for getting in touch. I’m glad you and your mother have found and read my blog post. It is great to hear from Harry O’Hara’s family. That story about his name-change is highly believable, and conjures and amusing mental image of the conversation with the officer involved.
        Best wishes, STuart

         
      • Simon Buck

        25 February 2014 at 2:45 pm

        Dear Peter Love, Wim Reedyk and Mrs G.M. Reedijk,

        I am an historian working for Eastside Community Heritage, a charity in East London which is currently running a heritage project on the Middlesex Regiment during the First World War. I was wondering if any of you would be interested in speaking over the phone, or by email on the wartime experiences of Harry O’Hara?
        My email address is simon@ech.org.uk, and our office number is 02085533116.

        I was fascinating by this very well-written and researched piece.

        Kind regards,

        Simon Buck

         
  5. Mrs G.M. reedijk

    20 November 2013 at 5:51 pm

    hallo,i am Geraldine, his youngest daughter. we were very proud of dad. he was a gentleman and came from a good family but ran away from home at the age of 19. i do not remember him being interred at all, and there was absolutely no hostility from neighbours or anyone.he loved and admired England.

     
    • Stuart

      11 December 2013 at 8:08 pm

      Hello Geraldine,
      Thank you so much for getting in touch. I always enjoy hearing from the family and friends of people about whom I’ve written. It is lovely to get comments about the people themselves, beyond what the public record tells us. You certainly have every right to be proud of your father!
      Best wishes,
      Stuart

       
    • Simon Buck

      28 February 2014 at 11:49 am

      Hello Geraldine,
      Thank you for ringing the other day. I have tried to send an email to the address you provided. It has not worked several times My email address is simon@ech.org.uk. It would be great if you could send me the details you suggested on the phone.

      Kind regards,

      Simon Buck

       
  6. Mrs G.M. reedijk

    28 February 2014 at 11:52 am

    I would like to get in touch with Peter Love if he is willing as the memories are flooding back, at first i couldnt place him. Geraldine reedijk.

     
    • Peter Love

      28 February 2014 at 4:52 pm

      Hello Geraldine

      Very glad to hear from you and of course i would be delighted to be in contact with you after all these years.

      My email is pvltechie@gmail.com

      Regards

      Peter Love

       
      • Mrs G.M. reedijk

        28 March 2014 at 8:53 am

        Hello Peter, I have sent 2 e/mails to your e/mail address hoping you might be able to add to what dad may have told you of his wartime experiences. However, today 28thMarch two people from the East London heritage site are coming here to interview me. Hope to hear from you anyway regards Geraldine

         
  7. Peter Ohara

    17 July 2014 at 6:54 am

    Hello Aunt Gerry, Hello Wim.
    I am one of Harry O’Hara’s grandsons. My grandfather was an interesting and colorful character but of whom there seems to be little physical evidence remaining. My history of my grandfather as I was growing up was entirely an oral one passed down by my father. In the past few decades I have collected other information, much of it intriguing but difficult to follow up on. The article is interesting and contains details I had not known.
    I might fill in a few more details. He was working as a newspaper correspondent in India at the outbreak of the war and according to my father and quotes from newspaper articles, he joined the Sikh’s but they were much taller than him. On an inspection, Lord Roberts thougth my grandfather was too short for the Sikh’s and had him transferred to the Gurka’s. After being wounded with the Gurkha’s he was transferred to the 17th Middlesex.
    After the war he worked for St Dunstan’s school for the blind decorating their furniture with lacquer work. I have newspaper articles of him presenting one of the trays he decorated to Queen Mary. Rather than being interned during the war my father says he served duty as a fire watcher.
    Although I met him, I was too young to remember the occasion. Our family retained the spelling “O’Hara” and it was probably expedient as it was better not to be too open about the Japanese ancestry on the post-war yrears. I changed my name to “Ohara” some time ago. It is wonderful to see this record of him and his achievements.
    Best wishes,
    Peter Ohara

     
    • G.M.Reedijk OHara

      17 July 2014 at 12:29 pm

      Hallo Peter,,A unty Gerry here, I was hoping to hear from you. I also have all the cuttings and photos, and have been interviewed here twice. Once by an East London project and once by the bbc. They also wanted to know how he met your grandmother, and how he was as a father . I couldnt tell them much about his wartime experiences as he never talked to us about it. all i know is what my mother told me. If you want to get in touch my e/mail address is reedijk.d-t@telfort.nl. hope you are both well. love auntyGerry.

       
    • Robert Robinson

      16 July 2016 at 7:12 pm

      Doing a little research he would appear to have been wounded (again) in the attack at Guillemot on the 8th August 1916 an action for which he received the Military Medal. Probably (but I have nothing but circumstantial evidence) in the attack on ZZ Trench where the Middlesex took heavy casualties. If he was transfered from the 34th Sikh Pioneers to the Gurkhas on Lord Robert’s instruction then he must have served with the Indian Corps in France in 1914/15. as Lord Roberts died there in November 1914. As a very mature student I have just completed an MA on WW1 and my dissertation was on the Indian Army in France and Mesopotamia. I would be fascinated to know how he got into the 34th Sikhs in the first place as this would have been contrary to the way in which the Indian Army was normally run at the time which was on the basis of recruiting from “the martial races” and whilst it would be difficult to find a people less martial at the time than the Japanese the Indian Army was recruiting largely from people from the Punjab, Nepal and the Trans frontier region (todays Tribal Areas). Indeed the 24th Sikhs operated in support of Wilde’s Rifles – a classic Frontier Force unit (all very Kiplingesque). How a Japanese journalist became involved would be very interesting.

      I would also be very interested to know which Gurkha unit he was with if any one has a clue. If it was the 1/10th Gurkha Rifles (one of Robert’s favourites) I have a copy of their war diary for the period.

      Regards

      Robert Robinson

       
  8. Peter Ohara

    17 July 2014 at 6:58 am

    PS. I forgot to mention that it was particularly moving to read what Peter Love wrote as someone who knew my grandfather. I should also say that my comment about internment was not to deny Peter Love’s information, rather that my father never mentioned that aspect.

    Peter Ohara

     
  9. Sergio

    30 July 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Fascinating article and very well researched.

     
  10. GBJapan

    9 July 2016 at 4:36 pm

    as a japan resident i can confirm the following- Hari Ohara is a japanese name. the spelling in this case must have changed to a more westernised version during his army years or service,

     
  11. Mark

    29 September 2017 at 11:01 am

    According to a report in the Pakenham Gazette of 11 May 1917, when O’Hara left the Edmonton Military Hospital he had the scars from almost 70 wounds.

     
    • Peter Love

      30 September 2017 at 4:36 pm

      I can confirm the report, if not the actual number. I knew Harry O’Hara in the early 1950’s and saw the many wounds and scars that remain to that day.

       

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