Jeremiah J. O’Keefe, ace in his first WWII battle
Mr. O’Keefe downed seven Japanese planes over Okinawa in one week in 1945. (Handout via New York Times)
New York Times

NEW YORK — Jeremiah J. O’Keefe, who earned ace status in his first aerial battle when he downed five Japanese planes over Okinawa during World War II and later entered Mississippi politics as a staunch opponent of segregation, died Aug. 23 at his home in Biloxi, Miss. He was 93.

Mr. O’Keefe enlisted in the Navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After earning his wings, and a lieutenant’s commission in the Marine Corps, he joined the VMF-323, a newly formed squadron nicknamed the Death Rattlers.

On April 22, 1945, Mr. O’Keefe and his fellow pilots, assigned to protect US ships unloading troops and supplies in Okinawa, took to the skies.

“We had been patrolling above the picket ships for over two hours without any activity and no enemy planes in sight,’’ he said on the History Channel program “Dogfights’’ in 2008. “All of a sudden we were notified by a picket ship below us that a large number of enemy aircraft were coming down from the north — the direction of Japan.’’

The 24-plane US squadron, flying speedy, powerful F4U-1D Corsairs, faced off against a swarm of 80 kamikaze planes heading for US ships. Mr. O’Keefe executed a textbook dive and shredded one of the slow-moving Val dive bombers with his Browning .50 caliber machine guns.

Leveling off, he spotted six more Japanese planes before him and quickly closed the gap.

“It was my intention to shoot all six of them down, but it didn’t work out that way,’’ he said.

He fired and missed the leader, who broke off from formation and dived into the clouds, seeking cover. Mr. O’Keefe gave chase.

“I decided I was going to stay with him until we settled the matter,’’ he said.

When the clouds thinned, he took dead aim and let loose with his guns.

“He just blew up,’’ Mr. O’Keefe said.

As he headed back to the Japanese formation, a Val attacked him head on, and a classic dogfight ensued. The two planes crisscrossed, each trying to get inside the other’s path for a clear shot. Mr. O’Keefe struck first, and smoke began streaming from the Japanese plane. The pilot, in a desperation move, tried to ram Mr. O’Keefe.

“I guess he realized that he was gone and wanted to take me with him,’’ Mr. O’Keefe said. “And I didn’t want to go.’’ Pulling back hard on the stick, Mr. O’Keefe brought his plane up sharply, narrowly avoiding a collision, as the Japanese plane fell into the sea.

After taking out a fourth Japanese plane in a swooping dive, Mr. O’Keefe caught up with a distant kamikaze heading toward US ships and, running low on ammunition, took him out with a few short bursts. On landing at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, he found that he had exhausted the ammunition in four of his plane’s six machine guns.

The squadron claimed 23 of the 54 Japanese planes downed that day.

Mr. O’Keefe shot down two more kamikazes later in the week, putting him in a tie for first place among the squadron’s 12 aces at the end of the war. For his exploits he was awarded the Air Medal, the Navy Cross, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 2015, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress.

Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe III was born in Ocean Springs, Miss.

Before shipping out with the Marine Corps, he married Annette Saxon. She died in 1998. In addition to his son Joseph, he leaves his wife, the former Martha Peterson; three other sons; seven daughters; 40 grandchildren; and 33 great-grandchildren.

After returning from the war, Mr. O’Keefe earned a degree in business administration from Loyola University in New Orleans and went to work at the O’Keefe Funeral Home. In 1958, he bought the Bradford Funeral Home Co. and later merged it with the family business to form the Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home. The same year, he and his wife founded the Gulf National Life Insurance Co., which became the state’s largest seller of life and burial insurance policies.

In 1959, Mr. O’Keefe won election as a state representative, serving one four-year term in the legislature. He also managed John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign for southern Mississippi. In 1973, he was elected mayor of Biloxi, an office he held for eight years.

A longtime champion of equal rights for black Mississippians, Mr. O’Keefe confronted the Ku Klux Klan by rescinding a parade permit that the group had been granted without his knowledge. When the Klan members went ahead and marched, he had them arrested. The Klan responded with death threats and burning a cross on his lawn.