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.
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.
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.
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