When Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan, bringing the United States into World War II, the Mississippi-born O’Keefe enlisted in the U.S. Navy to help fight back. He became a fighter pilot, and was assigned to the new Marine Squadron VMF-323, nicknamed the Death Rattlers. On his very first mission, protecting American ships unloading troops and supplies in Okinawa on April 22, 1945, things were quiet — for awhile. “We had been patrolling above the picket ships for over two hours without any activity and no enemy planes in sight,” he remembered years later. “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.” There were 80 kamikaze planes heading in, and his squadron only had 24 fighters to take them on. Their Corsairs outmatched the Japanese Aichi D3A “Val” dive-bombers, and in all, 53 of the attacking planes were shot down — 23 by the Death Rattlers. And O’Keefe was responsible for five of those, qualifying him as an “Ace” on his very first mission. (Two other Rattlers also excelled: Squadron executive officer Maj. Jefferson D. Dorroh Jr. shot down six planes, and commanding officer Maj. George C. Axtell Jr. downed five. Time magazine reported on the battle with the headline, “One Deal, Three Aces”.) Days later O’Keefe shot down two more kamikazes, making him the highest-scoring Ace in Okinawa at the time. He was awarded the Air Medal, the Navy Cross, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war, O’Keefe returned to Mississippi and the family business: a mortuary. In 1960 he won a seat in the state legislature, where he worked to make liquor legal: Mississippi was the last “dry” state after Prohibition was repealed. In 1973, he was elected mayor of Biloxi, where he fought segregation. When he discovered that the Ku Klux Klan had received a permit for a march in the city, he rescinded it. When they marched anyway, he had them arrested. For that, he received death threats — and a burning cross on his front lawn. He would never back down from the idea that all people deserved dignity. “He demonstrated that by example over and over and over again,” said his youngest son, Joe. “He was just an absolute rock-solid believer in the common dignity.” Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe III died at his Biloxi home on August 23, from congestive heart failure. He was 93.