Wallowa County has the highest per capita veteran population in Oregon, so it only makes sense that it has its share of war heroes.
To celebrate Veterans Day, the Chieftain honors one of those heroes.
Perhaps few who enter Ault Field at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington State, wonder about the man for whom the field is named. They should.
William Bowen Ault, a Wallowa County native, planned to return home after a distinguished U.S. Naval career, only to have the 1942 battle of the Coral Sea put an end to the dream.
An Enterprise High School graduate, Ault entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1918, He obviously wasn’t thinking of having an airfield or a ship named after him.
Ault, a stellar basketball athlete at Enterprise High, joined the U.S. Navy in 1917 not long after American involvement in “The Great War.” In 1918, Ault became a midshipman and studied at the Academy. Ault graduated near the top of his class in 1922.
Always looking ahead, Ault chose to pursue a career in aviation, still a relatively new field. He received his wings in May 1925. From then on, he served at various posts on both sea and shore. He even returned to the academy as an aviation instructor at one point.
After a stint as commanding officer of a Naval Reserve air base in Kansas, the Navy assigned Ault as Air Officer on the USS Lexington (CV-2), an aircraft carrier, in June 1941. In July he was assigned as the ship’s commander of its air group.
He accepted a temporary appointment to the rank of commander in early 1942. Four months later, the Lexington took part in the largest sea battle of WW II to that point, The Battle of the Coral Sea.
The battle raged May 4-8. Only days earlier, he had written his mother that he shortly expected a transfer to Seattle and would visit the Wallowa Valley soon afterward.
Ault led several air attacks against the Japanese fleet and helped sink a light carrier on May 7. The following day. Ault again led an air assault against the remaining Japanese ships under murderous anti-aircraft gunfire. He never returned although he managed to score a direct hit on one of the Japanese vessels.
With both he and his tail gunner wounded from enemy fire, Ault attempted to return to the Lexington, which had suffered massive damage from Japanese aircraft fire. He communicated with another carrier, the USS Yorktown, in a vain attempt to facilitate a landing on a friendly air deck as he had only 20 minutes of fuel remaining.
The Yorktown could not pick him up on its radar to initiate the landing. They wished him good luck.
He attempted to make a sea landing. In his last call, Ault radioed: “O.K. So long, people. We put a 1,000 pound hit on the flat top.”
Both Ault and Butler were listed as Missing in Action and presumed dead May 8, 1942. Their bodies and plane were never recovered. He left a wife and two sons in Norfolk, Va.
To honor Ault’s bravery in battle and ultimate sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy’s highest honor. It was given for “extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as pilot of a carrier-based Navy Combat Plane and Group commander of a Navy Air Group embarked from the U.S.S. Lexington.”
Ault was recognized again in 1943 when a destroyer was named after him, the USS Ault and the airfield at Whidbey Island honor came on Sept. 25 of that same year. The Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor in McMinville inducted Ault into its ranks in 2011.
His likeness, deeds and final communication grace a wall mural at the Navy Exchange on the base. On Sept. 25, the base held a 75th anniversary ceremony in honor of Ault’s service. Several of Ault’s descendants attended the event.
CELEBRATE VETERAN’S DAY NOV. 11
Honor where honor is due
Text of William Ault’s nomination for the Oregon Aviation Hall of honor:
Perhaps it was patriotism, or adventure that spurred William Ault to join the U.S. Navy during World War I, but it was the beginning of a distinguished career for the young man from Enterprise, Ore. Born in 1898, Ault enlisted in 1917 and after a year of duty, was appointed to the Naval Academy, graduating with the class of 1922.
He was accepted for flight training and received his wings in May 1925. Ault was assigned to the cruiser USS Cincinnati flying a floatplane, before tours as an instructor at the Naval Academy and with VMO-3.
Another assignment to the Academy was followed by tours with VP-10, VT- 1 aboard the USS Lexington, and the USS Mississippi. Ault was next assigned to the fitting out of the new carrier USS Yorktown before going on to USS Enterprise to command VT-6.
In July, 1941, he returned to the Lexington as Air Group Commander; a position he held when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Then, on May 7, 1942, Ault took Lexington’s airmen into combat and into the history books, at the Battle of Coral Sea. Flying an SBD Dauntless, he led the attack that sank the Japanese carrier Shoho. The next day, he scored a hit that disabled the carrier Shokaku before his SBD was attacked by Japanese fighters and both Ault and his gunner were wounded.
They ditched in the ocean and were never seen again.
Commander Ault’s leadership helped turn back the Japanese at Coral Sea and set the stage for the decisive Battle of Midway. For his courage he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. The following year, the Navy named the destroyer USS Ault in his honor, as well as the airfield at NAS Whidbey Island; lasting tributes to an Oregonian who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.