By Joe Darby
It was almost exactly 75 years ago. It was late November, 1942, almost a year after the Japanese had attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor and had followed that up with attacks on the Philippines the next day.
Young Lt. Randall Keator of Campti was home on leave and hundreds had gathered for his return. He was, according to that week’s Natchitoches Enterprise newspaper, “The First Natchitoches Parish Hero of World War II.” Crowds of area folks gathered in and around the old Nakitosh Hotel to honor the local flier.
What had Keator done to merit such attention and accolades? Nothing less than being the first American pilot to shoot down an attacking Japanese plane over the Philippines. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to down a second enemy aircraft that day and probably a third.
Keator’s son, Dr. Randall Keator II of Natchitoches, says his dad did not talk very much about his exploits in the war. But the elder Keator did grant interviews during his leave and years later, not too long before his death at only 63 years old in 1981, he recorded some of his memories for his grandchildren.
From those sources, here’s what happened. Keator was flying a P-40 Warhawk with the 24th Pursuit Group out of Clark Field in the Philippines. He had joined the Army Air Corps in 1940 after graduating from the Louisiana Normal School, now Northwestern State University, in 1939.
American forces in the Philippines had learned of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the very next day the enemy hit the Philippines with heavy air raids. Keator was one of only three American pilots to get airborne. All the rest of the US planes were destroyed as they tried to take off or were bombed as they sat on the ground.
“Many of my buddies were killed before they could take off,” he said on the recording. Keator and his two comrades in the air were inexperienced but eager to engage the enemy. “I had never even fired the machine guns (on the P-40),” he said. He would learn how to do so, and quite effectively, very soon.
They wanted to go after the Japanese bombers but by the time they reached the bombers’ altitude, the enemy planes were out of sight. However, about 10 Zero fighters were spotted coming in and the three Americans went on the offensive.
Keator almost literally locked horns with the lead Japanese fighter, with the two aircraft approaching each other head-on. “I managed to destroy his aircraft first and he fell away in flames.” Almost immediately, Keator saw another Zero on his tail. He went into a steep dive to evade the enemy, but in the process, smashed his head against the cockpit’s ceiling.
“I had forgotten to fasten my seat belt,” he said. After a momentary blackout, Keator rejoined the fight. He fired at another enemy plane but it was not certain whether Keator or one of his buddies had destroyed that aircraft.
Then, in a phenomenon not all that unusual, Keator said he looked around and “no other airplanes were visible anywhere — friend or foe”. So he decided to return to Clark Field and was descending to about 5,000 feet when he came up behind another Zero, machined gunning the enemy “until he rolled over and went straight down.”
Landing at Clark was also an adventure. The field was so shot up that Keator had difficulty finding enough space on which to land. Additionally, once safe on the ground, he learned that American machine gunners had been shooting at him, thinking he was the enemy. Fortunately, their accuracy was not what it would be later in the war.
Keator was later to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions over Clalrk that day.
By early 1942, the Air Corps in the Philippines was pretty much destroyed and Keator was placed on beach patrol defense duty, where he was shot at one night by Japanese snipers.
He and other aviators later evacuated the doomed islands but not before another adventure. A senior pilot took one of the few remaining aircraft but Keator managed to fold himself into the luggage compartment of the obsolete fighter, a P-35. They ran out of fuel and had to ditch in the sea off of Leyte but they were rescued by friendly natives from a nearby village. He ended up in Australia, before making his triumphant visit home late in 1942.
He then went into research and development for the Air Corps, later the Air Force. And his influence caused his son, Dr. Keator, as well as two sons-in-law, to become Air Force officers. One son-in-law, Roger Brady, became a four-star general and was head of NATO air forces in Europe for a time, Dr. .Keator said.
His father’s legacy has been a proud one for the family, the doctor said. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has a special display commemorating Lt. Keator’s exploits over the Philippines.
(Editorial note to readers: It is a coincidence that my recent columns have been about
American combat heroes. It wasn’t planned that way, but I’m glad it has turned out as such. The columns may be considered a modest tribute by the Natchitoches Parish Journal, in the month of Veterans’ Day, to warriors who put it all on the line for their country To all those who took the oath to put themselves in harm’s way — thank you for your service.)