CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Joseph O’Brien was born in South Amherst, Massachusetts in 1924 and raised in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. His father served during World War I in the Navy and was stationed in the United States. O’Brien enlisted in the US Navy Reserve in August 1942, after being recruited at an aviation night hosted by the Elks Club in Pawtucket. His initial rank was Seaman 2nd Class.
O’Brien entered the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as part of the “B5” program for Navy pre-flight training. He enjoyed his time in Chapel Hill, where he made many friends, such as future presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford. After completing the Chapel Hill course, O’Brien was transferred to St. Louis, Missouri for basic flight school. While there, he earned the nickname “Crash” for crash landing his trainer plane, an incident he blamed on weather conditions that caused his goggles to be frosted over. After graduating from flight school, O’Brien was ordered to Pensacola, Florida for advanced training.
On completion of his advanced flight training, O’Brien was assigned to Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn, New York, as a member of an aircraft transport unit. There his duty was ferrying planes of all types to the West Coast and other parts of the country, where they would be assigned to units about to deploy. He explained that aircraft transport units had three classifications for pilots; follower, single, and leader. Followers had to follow a leader, who was a highly skilled aviator, from the starting point to the destination, while single pilots were deemed skillful enough to fly to destinations on their own. When asked what battles he participated in during the war, O’Brien joked “the Battle of Flatbush Avenue.”
O’Brien got to see many cities across the country as an aircraft transport pilot. He commented that during that time he frequented more than a few “dives.” O’Brien visited Manhattan many times while on break from Floyd Bennet and attended Broadway plays. While in Manhattan he met ZaSu Pitts, a famous movie actress at the time, who starred in her first Broadway show in 1944. O’Brien became acquainted with her and introduced her to the delights of a coffee milkshake, and he takes pride in that memory. He was also invited to attend one of Shirley Temple’s parties while on a mission in California; and, he met other celebrities, including Helen Keller, while in the service.
O’Brien recalled that once, while ferrying a plane from St. Louis to Little Rock, Arkansas, he got lost due to having an incorrect map. The city was on a river bend; but, when he thought he had arrived at his destination, there was no city to be found! Faced with the dilemma of flying north over forests and swamps or south over grasslands, he opted to go south, where an emergency landing was possible, should he run out of fuel. Indeed, O’Brien did run out of fuel and was forced to attempt a landing on a highway near Lake Village, Arkansas. He flew over a truck and narrowly avoided hitting a car traveling in the oncoming lane, before finally hitting the ground in a roadside alfalfa field. Remarkably, his plane was totally undamaged and was transported by truck to a nearby airport in Greenville, Mississippi for refueling. O’Brien eventually arrived in Little Rock and fortunately was not blamed for the incident.
On another occasion, O’Brien, stuck in Prescott, Arizona, for Thanksgiving, ended up having roast prairie dog for dinner. He also was involved in the fruitless search for “Flight 19,” a group of five navy planes that disappeared off the Florida coast in December 1945, contributing to the “Bermuda Triangle” popular culture myth.
O’Brien reconnected with President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and enjoyed breakfast in the executive dining room with him, followed by a full White House tour. O’Brien arranged reunions for his old unit, with attendance ranging from 35-126 people in attendance. He noted in closing that his old squadron also has a historian who has gathered the history of the unit.
Joseph E. O’Brien passed away on October 1, 2013.