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WWII plane at Grand Forks Air Force Base honors heroism of pilot

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A few of Grand Forks native John H. O'Keefe's military keepsakes are displayed from his service as a bomber pilot in WWII. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 3
Nancy Bugliosi and Bill O’Keefe display memorabilia of their father, John O'Keefe, who served in WWII as a bomber pilot. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service3 / 3

GRAND FORKS—A B-25 twin-engine bomber is perched at the gates of Grand Forks Air Force Base, the name "Flo" emblazoned on its side next to an image of a leggy dark-haired beauty lounging luxuriously in a long white gown.

Thousands of people have driven by the historic bomber, but far fewer know the story behind how a symbol of World War II military muscle came to land at an air base not established until 1955.

Bill O'Keefe and Nancy Bugliosi say the B-25 monument is not the very same plane their late father and Grand Forks native John H. O'Keefe flew during World War II, but the bomber that bears his tail number and "nose art" was meant to honor him and others who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps' 321st Bombardment Group — a group that later evolved into the 321st Missile Wing stationed at the local base.

O'Keefe and Bugliosi say their father didn't talk much about his war experience, but they always knew the humble pilot's patriotism ran deep.

"Growing up, we went to all the air shows. Any aviation thing he just loved. He took great pride in serving his country," Bugliosi said.

"He was a very typical veteran," O'Keefe added. "He didn't necessarily enjoy talking about his military service other than to say he served admirably. Those weren't wonderful times. He lost friends to war."

The pair recently pored over their father's photographs, accolades and military keepsakes as they shared stories of the soft-spoken war hero whose strongest language amounted to a strained "golly" through gritted teeth.

Call to duty

O'Keefe said his adventurous father was working as a draftsman for Washington's Boeing Co. in 1942 when he decided to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle home so he could spend a short medical leave with family while recovering from tonsil surgery.

But hanging out with friends, he soon caught the patriotism wave and decided he would not return to Boeing. Instead, he would enlist in Army Air Corps pilot training.

"Social times were different then," O'Keefe said. "The mood (of the country) was everybody wanted to serve."

The young pilot went overseas in 1944 and already had 25 missions under his belt by the time he received orders in February 1945 to lead an 18-bird raid to take out critical German supply routes along the Brenner Pass, which formed the Italy-Austria border through the Alps.

"They had dropped their bombs and they were banking away from the target when they were hit by German flak. Boom! Your nose is shot off, your prop is vibrating, the guys are screaming on the intercom. It was just one of those moments," O'Keefe said.

The pilot knew his best friend and bombardier in the nose of the plane was hit and most certainly dead.

"It was so bad he had to slide his side window open and scrape the blood from his windscreen. They couldn't even see," O'Keefe recalled his father telling him. "It was 20 years before he would say anything. When he talked about it, he said it was a very harrowing trip back."

The official war diary O'Keefe saved from that day describes the mission this way:

"Today our boys flew a very long mission where we encountered some of the most intense and accurate flak our group has experienced. (We) received a direct hit in the nose, and the bombardier (Second Lt. Lonnie Harvel) was killed. ... The ship was a mess ... not sure how Second Lt. John O'Keefe did it ... his bird was all busted up, but he led all squadron planes back to base safely. Boys are going to need some days to get over this one."

No hydraulics, one propeller short and missing part of a wing, O'Keefe knew he was in trouble. With the plane shaking heavily, he worried the engine could break away, so he dropped out of formation and started to head back — piloting what's called in military parlance an easy-target "cripple."

O'Keefe asked his surviving crew members if anyone wanted to parachute out before he rushed a clump of trees to land the plane, but all stayed.

"That was that closeness they had," Bugliosi said. "They all were going to stick together as a crew."

O'Keefe logged a total of 44 missions before he was discharged in May 1945 and returned to Grand Forks. He married, raised four children and ran a furniture business before opening North Dakota's first McDonald's franchise in 1969 in Grand Forks.

Loyal and kind

Bugliosi said those who knew her father personally or in business said he was loyal, gracious and civic-minded — and very passionate about University of North Dakota hockey.

He gave generously to his community and played a major role in building the city's first indoor hockey rink, now Purpur Arena, and also led fundraising for UND's Winter Sports Center.

"He always told us whatever you decide to do, do it well and do it right," Bugliosi said. "Be kind to people, and it always will come back to you."

"And always be fair," O'Keefe added. "Fair with your employees, fair with your family. Always be honest and fair."

Honesty aside, the elder O'Keefe also had a fun sense of humor, and his son laughed about never learning the full truth behind "Flo."

"When you're assigned one particular aircraft, you're given the latitude to put your name and 'nose art' on the aircraft," O'Keefe explained. "But we never did know the backstory on that. The comical part about it was Dad always said this rather curvaceous woman was his co-pilot's girlfriend."

And decades later, "Flo" appeared again. The elder O'Keefe and his wife, Jean, were walking through the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., when he was stopped short by a World War II photo exhibit under the headline "On a Wing and a Prayer."

"Golly, Jean, that's my plane," Nancy recounted the story.

There she was, "Flo," shattered and shot up, battle-worn but not beaten, in a large photo collage of broken airplanes that had made it home.

"He was proud of his service to his country, but this is just one guy's story," O'Keefe said of his father. "He was grateful he didn't pay with his life as so many others did."