Jeremiah Joseph O'Keefe

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Jeremiah Joseph O'Keefe
Jerry O'Keefe.jpg
Jeremiah O'Keefe in December 2011
Born(1923-07-12)July 12, 1923
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
DiedAugust 23, 2016(2016-08-23) (aged 93)
Biloxi, Mississippi
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
 United States Marine Corps
Years of service1942–1945
RankFirst Lieutenant
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsNavy Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
Air Medal (2)
Congressional Gold Medal
RelationsJeremiah Joseph O'Keefe IV (son)
Other workFuneral director, politician and philanthropist

Jeremiah Joseph "Jerry" O'Keefe III (July 12, 1923 – August 23, 2016) was an American World War II veteran and decorated fighter pilot ace. In addition, he served as a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives and was the mayor of Biloxi, Mississippi from 1973 to 1981.

Early life and education[edit]

Jeremiah O'Keefe was born in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on July 12, 1923. His parents were J. Ben O'Keefe and Teresa Slattery O'Keefe. He was the second of four children. With his family, he moved to Biloxi, Mississippi at age thirteen because the home he was born in and lived in was lost to the family during the Depression. O'Keefe went to St. Alphonsus Elementary School and Sacred Heart Academy in Biloxi, Mississippi. After World War II, O'Keefe graduated from Loyola University, in New Orleans, Louisiana.[1]

Military career[edit]

On Okinawa in April 1945: Maj Axtell, CMC Vandegrift, MajGen Mulcahy, Maj Dorroh, and Lt O'Keefe (left to right)
April 1945, the three USMC pilots of the VMF-323 "Death Rattlers" squadron who each scored "ace in a day" on April 22 in the Battle of Okinawa, meeting with two of the USMC's overall commanders (left to right): Maj Axtell (ace), 1st Marine Division CMC Vandegrift, TAF CMC Mulcahy, Maj Dorroh (ace), and Lt O'Keefe (ace)
O'Keefe in Marine uniform in 1945

O'Keefe was attending Soule Business College during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He quickly enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served from 1942–1943. Then he became a fighter pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1943–1945. He was a 1st Lt. with the VMF-323 Marine Squadron, known as the "Death Rattlers". He gained recognition for his contributions to an dogfight in Okinawa on April 22, 1945 in which he shot down five Japanese Kamikazes, becoming an ace in a single day.[2] (This action was chronicled on the Dogfights TV series, the episode: Supersonic.)[3]

On April 28 Lt. O'Keefe shot down another two enemy planes bringing his total victories to seven which made him the highest scoring ace in Okinawa at the time.[4][5]


O'Keefe received both the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 5/16 inch star for his service.[6] In connection with the celebration of his 90th birthday on July 12, 2013, a bronze bust depicting him in his gear as a young aviator was installed in the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, honoring him as an ace and member of the Death Rattlers.

Naval Aviator Badge.jpg Naval Aviator Badge
Navy Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
Gold star
Air Medal with 5/16 inch star
Navy Presidential Unit Citation
Navy Unit Commendation
American Campaign Medal
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze campaign stars
World War II Victory Medal

O'Keefe, at the age of 91, was recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony in his home town of Ocean Springs, MS on June 5, 2015. This medal is the highest civilian award given by Congress.[7]

Navy Cross citation[edit]


The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant Jeremiah Joseph O'Keefe (MCSN: 0-25432), United States Marine Corps Reserve, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Section Leader and a Pilot in Marine Fighting Squadron THREE HUNDRED TWENTY-THREE (VMF-323), Marine Air Group THIRTY-THREE (MAG-33), FOURTH Marine Aircraft Wing, in aerial combat against enemy Japanese forces during the assault on Okinawa Shima, Ryukyu Islands, on 22 April 1945. Fighting his plane aggressively in two engagements against a total of more than fifty Japanese suicide dive bombers, First Lieutenant O'Keefe pressed home a series of bold attacks in the face of hostile fire to destroy five of the enemy aircraft. By his resolute courage, skillful airmanship and devotion to duty, he aided materially in preventing the numerically superior force from reaching its objective, and his gallant conduct throughout reflects the highest credit upon First Lieutenant O'Keefe and the United States Naval Service.[6]

Personal life[edit]

O'Keefe and his wife, Annette Saxon O'Keefe, had 13 children, 43 grandchildren, and 33 great-grandchildren. Their family has a fondness for Southern cooking and story-telling which inspired their 1994 publication of a family cookbook, Cooking on the Coast. They remained married until Annette O'Keefe died on May 16, 1998.[8] At the time of his death, O'Keefe was married to his second wife, Martha Peterson O'Keefe.[9] He died on August 23, 2016 and was buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.[10]

O'Keefe was interested in civil rights and took a stand throughout his life. O'Keefe described an event that led him to being active and attentive to minority relations. While in college, he was asked to join a business fraternity. The fraternity told him that Jews and Blacks were not allowed to participate in the fraternity; O'Keefe told the fraternity that he was uninterested in joining unless they allowed minorities to participate and join. The fraternity obliged, and altered their policy allowing minorities to join. O'Keefe then became president of the fraternity for a year proceeding the policy change.[11]


Jerry O'Keefe and his family have owned O'Keefe Funeral Homes since the early 1900s. In 1957 he bought his major competitor's business, creating Bradford-O'Keefe Funeral Homes. He also founded a life insurance company, Gulf National Life. In 1996 O'Keefe won a jury trial concerning a contractual dispute involving the family businesses. He and fellow plaintiffs were awarded $500 million in damages, a sum that would have bankrupted the defendant. O'Keefe eventually settled for a significantly lower sum.[12][13]

Political career[edit]

In 1954, O'Keefe was selected Outstanding Young Man of the year and later the Outstanding Citizen. He was elected to the Mississippi State Legislature in 1960 and served one term, ending 1964. He served as the Chairman of the 'Temperance Committee', fighting for liquor legalization, on a local-option basis, in Mississippi, the last remaining 'dry' state in the nation. In his freshman year he was named one of four most outstanding legislators for his service.[14] One of his sons Jeremiah Joseph O'Keefe IV also served in the Mississippi Legislature from 1971 to 1979.[15]

After completing his term in office, he returned to his business and civic activities. He later was elected the Mayor of Biloxi, Mississippi for two terms from 1973 to 1981.[16] It was during his tenure as mayor that O'Keefe stood up to the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil Rights-era which earned him death threats and a burning cross in his yard. Nevertheless, O'Keefe stood his ground then as he had in 1945 and never backed down, which earned him previous recognition from Congress in 2011.[17]


Grounds of Ohr-O'keefe Museums of Art, Biloxi, Mississippi, USA
Grounds of Ohr-O'Keefe Museums of Art, Biloxi

O'Keefe was a major financial contributor and fundraiser for both the Walter Anderson Museum of Art and the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art.[18]

He and his wife Annette also founded and endowed the O'Keefe Charitable Foundation, a charitable organization designed to support local organizations and various other charitable purposes. O'Keefe has long been active in a variety of civic organizations.[16]

In 1967 and 1975, he was honored by the United Fund Campaign for Distinguished Service to the people of Harrison County. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Boy Scouts of America's Pine Burr Area Council.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jeremiah Joseph O'Keefe-obituary
  2. ^ "Jerry O'Keefe Becomes 'Ace' in 1st. Combat Flight", Daily Herald (April 22, 1945).
  3. ^ "Supersonic"
  4. ^ Wolf, William (1999). Death Rattlers: Marine Squadron VMF-323 over Okinawa. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7643-0953-3.
  5. ^ Hammel, Eric (2010). Aces in Combat. Pacifica Military History. pp. 119–122. ISBN 9781890988081.
  6. ^ a b "Jeremiah Joseph O'Keefe". Military Times.
  7. ^ "WWII Marine fighter ace recognized by Congress". 2015.
  8. ^ O'Keefe, Annette (1994). Cooking on the Coast. Wimmer. pp. 51 and 218. ISBN 978-0-9641501-0-2.
  9. ^ "Congressional Record, Volume 157 Issue 186 (Tuesday, December 6, 2011)".
  10. ^ "Former Biloxi mayor dies at 93; was WWII fighter pilot".
  11. ^ "Oral history with Jeremiah J. O'Keefe F341.5 .M57 vol. 747, pt. 1". The University of Southern Mississippi.
  12. ^ Harr, Jonathan. November 1999. "The Burial" The New Yorker Vol. LXXV No. 32 pp.70–95 [1]
  13. ^ Larson, Erik (December 1996). "Fight to the Death". Time. Vol. 148, no. 26. pp. 62–67. Archived from the original on November 6, 2010.
  14. ^ Jackson Daily News, May 9, 1960, "Outstanding Legislators".
  15. ^ "Jeremiah Joseph O'Keefe IV – View Obituary & Service Information".
  16. ^ a b Wilemon, Tom (October 22, 2000). "Jerry O'Keefe: Big Man On The Coast Want To Get It Done? Call Jerry O'Keefe". The Sun Herald.
  17. ^ "WWII Marine fighter ace recognized by Congress".
  18. ^ Pitt, Matt. December 2010. "Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art" South Mississippi Living. pp.58–61. [2]
  19. ^ [5]

External links[edit]