The RAF is turning 100 this year
As the RAF celebrates 100 years, we delve into the Lottery-funded RAF Museum's archives to meet Sergeant Harry Fusao O. Ha’Ra. Born in Tokyo Japan in 1891, he’s Britain’s first – and perhaps only – Japanese RAF pilot.
At only 17 years of age, Harry was on a holiday cruise between Japan and Hawaii with a party of 30 fellow students when they were shipwrecked. The students made it to a desert island and survived on a diet of seagulls and turtles and by drinking rainwater. Sadly, one of the teenagers died and his schoolmates cremated his body on a pyre. The youngsters were eventually rescued by an American ship and the bones of the unfortunate young man were brought with them back to Japan.
The experience didn’t put Harry off travelling, however, and as a young man he visited China, the Philippines, Siam, Singapore, Ceylon and India. He wrote three books about his experiences and in India he worked for a time as a journalist. Harry also supplemented his earnings with martial arts instruction and he was teaching Jiu-Jitsu to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers when war broke out.
Harry decided to enlist in the 34th Sikh Pioneers and arrived in France by troopship in September 1914. He saw action with the Sikhs and then with the Ghurkhas before transferring, in October 1915, to the Middlesex Regiment. While fighting on the Western Front, he was wounded six times and it was discovered that he bore nearly 70 battle scars. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal for his bravery. While in hospital, he occupied himself by making a model Japanese village and if asked about his bravery he would only say:
"Just one of those things...it was luck...it was duty – that is all"
In March 1917, Harry transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) as an air mechanic but volunteered for flying training. He qualified as a pilot at the London and Provincial School of Flying in Edgware on 21st July and received Royal Aero Club Certificate 4991. Promoted to Sergeant, Harry is believed to have been posted to France to fly S.E.5a fighters with No. 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF). On 1st June 1918, he was wounded for a seventh time, suffering a bullet in the jaw, and was evacuated to the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup. After the war, he was used to help recruit men for the new Royal Air Force and he was eventually discharged from the RAF in 1919. He remained in Britain, settling in North London with his English wife, Muriel. In later life, when he heard that the son of one of his neighbours was going to join the RAF, he bought him a Parker fountain pen as a gift, saying “Young man, you have made a wise decision”.
Harry Fusao O. Ha’Ra, the only Japanese pilot known to have served in the RAF, died at the age of 60 in Hampstead in 1951.
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Photo credit: By kind permission of the Royal Aero Club Trust.