All soldiers have endured hardship, but some have faced an additional burden. Such was the case for Fred Ohr, a son of Korean immigrants, wwho not only became an ace Army Air Corps pilot, but a squadron Commander.
Veterans Day has an important meaning for Fred Ohr, a 95-year-old ace fighter pilot and Rockford resident who fought and served during World War II. The son of Korean immigrants would like to see all veterans honored without prejudice. “Anyone who lays their life down deserves it, I think.”
Ohr knows how high the cost of freedom can be. He overcame racial prejudice not only to become an Army Air Corps fighter pilot, but also to down six German planes and rise to commander of his fighter squadron during the Second World War.
Ohr was born July 15, 1919, to Korean immigrants Wanda and Wan Ju. His parents had fled their homeland to escape persecution from Japan. “The Japanese were trying to eliminate the Korean race,” says Ohr. “That’s why they came to America. My father ended up in a salmon fishing camp in Alaska. Then he came to Oregon and worked as a lumberjack, in the 1900s.”
When his parents went through immigration to become U.S. citizens, there was no equivalent English name for Ju. The immigration officer heard his father say “Oh,” and, not knowing what to do, added the letter “r” to the sound “Oh.” That’s how Fred’s Korean name of Yu became Americanized to Ohr.
Ohr grew up in the early 1930s, “Way out in the boonies” on an onion farm two hours outside Boise, Idaho. “We would raise vegetables to eat and preserve them for the winter as well,” Ohr recalls. What they didn’t eat, they sold. They were “very poor,” says Ohr.
After graduating from high school, Ohr enlisted in the Idaho National Guard in 1938. Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany were marching toward war in Europe and Fred figured it was just a matter of time before the U.S. would become involved and he would be drafted into the military. “I hoped that, by enlisting, I would avoid being thrown into the trenches as an infantryman, and maybe get a year or two of college through the military, before war broke out.”
But the Idaho National Guard had other plans. Because of his farm experience, Ohr was attached to a cavalry unit, where he was assigned duty in the horse stables, taking care of the unit’s horses. “We smelled so bad, they made us eat separately from the rest of the unit!” Ohr recalls with a laugh.
Through hard work, Ohr managed to become a radio operator and was promoted to private first class. He eventually was put in charge of the entire radio section.
That’s when good fortune provided a golden opportunity for Ohr. In 1941, Leon Christianson, a friend in his radio section, asked Ohr to accompany him as he went before a military aviation board to become a pilot. Ohr had no plans to apply for aviation school himself, but while waiting for his friend, destiny came calling. “I was sitting in the waiting area reading a magazine,” recalls Ohr. “I heard someone call, ‘Sergeant!’ I looked over the top of the magazine and saw an Army colonel looking right at me. I tried to jump up and stand at attention and was so surprised that I flipped over the chair backwards! The colonel yelled ‘Next,’ so I thought I better get in there and see what he wanted.
“The colonel told a captain who was working on the aviation board, ‘We’re going to make a pilot out of this man,’ and that’s exactly what happened.”
Ironically, Ohr was approved by the board for Army Air Corps flight school, but his friend wasn’t. Ohr had taken the first step to becoming a military pilot, and it had all happened by accident.
“As a child, I always knew I wanted to fly, and when I got to flight school it was easy for me,” Ohr recalls. “My mother always told me that if the desire is great enough, one day it will happen.”
Ohr graduated from flight school in May 1942 as a second lieutenant, six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and thrust the United States into World War II. He wanted to go to the Pacific Theatre of Operations and fight the Japanese, but his superiors wouldn’t let him.
“They told me if the Japanese ever caught me, they would torture me to death, (because of my Korean race),” he says. “I wanted to fight them in the Pacific, but I had no choice.”
Two months after graduating from flight school, the novice pilot was deployed to England and eventually to North Africa as part of the 2nd Fighter Squadron, 52nd Fighter Group, to fight the invading Germans. It was there that he shot down his first German plane, a Junker 88 twin-engine bomber.
“I was on my second mission with several other Army Air Corps pilots. We were flying Spitfire fighters given to us by the Royal Air Force,” recalls Ohr. “We came across a flight of 12 German twin-engine bombers. We slid behind them and all I had to do was pull the trigger and the right engine (on the German bomber) caught fire. I looked around and thought about going after another bomber, but there wasn’t another plane in the sky! They had all scattered.”
After the Allies had defeated the Germans in North Africa, the next step was to defeat them in Italy. That’s where Ohr eventually found himself stationed near a town called Medina, again with the 2nd Fighter Squadron. This time they were given the new P-51 Mustang to fly, considered by many to be the greatest fighter plane of World War II.
“There was nothing else like it,” recalls Ohr. “We would fly our P-51s and escort our bombers to attack German oil fields in Ploesti, Romania. It would be a 1,200-mile round trip with a couple of hundred extra miles added on for fighting enemy fighters.”
During these escort missions, and others like them, Ohr would shoot down five more German aircraft, many of them the highly respected German ME-109 fighter. He earned the coveted title of “ace” when he shot down his fifth enemy plane.
As Ohr gained more combat experience, he learned numerous fighter tactics that allowed him to survive air-to-air combat, and shared them with his fellow Army Air Corps pilots. He eventually became the senior pilot of the 2nd Fighter Squadron and was named its commander – a pretty significant achievement for a man who experienced racial discrimination when he first enlisted as a private.
“Before I went overseas, there was quite a bit of prejudice,” notes Ohr. “But after awhile, we were all in the same boat. And when we went out on a mission, there was only one thing on all of our minds – and that was coming back alive.”
For shooting down six enemy aircraft and destroying another 17 on the ground, Ohr was eventually promoted to major and awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and numerous Air Medals for his bravery and actions.
After Germany was defeated and World War II came to an end, Ohr was discharged from the Army Air Corps. Life was good for the combat veteran upon return to the United States. He was accepted into dental school at Northwestern University near Chicago and met his wife, Esther. He eventually became a dental surgeon and practiced for 53 years in Chicago.
Ohr says he has much to be thankful for, these days, despite facing a number of challenges. He lost Esther, after 62 years of marriage, in 2008. In 2009, he suffered a cardiac arrest and then moved to Rockford to be closer to daughter K.J. His only son, Roger, died in 2014. Ohr battles kidney disease and is fighting hard to stay off kidney dialysis.
Today, Ohr lives a quiet but productive life in a Rockford retirement home. He’s thankful to have his two daughters, Tammy and K.J., in his life. He has plenty of veteran friends, and still gets together with them, especially on Veterans Day. He says he is so busy answering correspondence sent to him, “I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom!” He has an easy smile and an engaging laugh that tells the world he’s happy to be here.
Still, when talking about his experiences during World War II, tears come to his eyes. Memories of combat are painful. “I’ve got too much to think about,” Ohr says with sadness. “I’ve killed too many people… in the war.”
And yet, he has no regrets. “It had to be done,” he says. “At age 95, I’ve made the full tour now.”
On Veterans Day, Ohr will meet with some of his fellow veterans for dinner and honor the occasion. He looks forward to the day for many reasons, but one stands out above the rest. “I was a man without a country,” he says. “But I feel like America is my country now… It has been a great ride.”
A great ride that Fred Ohr and other veterans have made together, and will celebrate on Veterans Day 2014.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Ryder is a former Marine Sergeant who served in Operation Desert Storm overseas in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal for his service as a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent and broadcast journalist with the Armed Forces Desert Network.
Ryder worked as senior reporter and substitute news anchor for WTVO, the ABC affiliate in Rockford, for almost 20 years, and was recently named Superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Boone County, a local agency dedicated to helping veterans and their families in need.