WWII aviator, who fought at Iwo Jima, led Oceana's 1st jet squadron, dies at 94
By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: November 22, 2017
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Earl Wadsworth Keegan was floating in the open sea, clutching a life preserver, as he watched the rest of his fleet fly over the horizon.
The naval aviator, then 22, had launched from his ship's flight deck, but a rogue wave rose up and swallowed the plane, he later told his family. He crashed into the water alone.
It was early 1945 and the U.S. was working to end World War II in the South Pacific.
Alone overnight, Keegan shot a flare each time a wave swell receded. A destroyer finally found him, severely dehydrated and hypothermic, and he ziplined back to his ship, where a doctor put him in an Epsom salt bath to get his muscles moving. But a bad mixture burned Keegan, giving him scars he'd carry the rest of his life, said his son, David Keegan.
The next morning, he was off to fly at the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Earl Keegan went on to serve in two more wars, lead Naval Air Station Oceana's first jet squadron and work in federal aviation safety. Along the way he became a father of four and and earned two distinguished flying crosses and five air medals.
Keegan, a tough guy with a sentimental soul and a love of scotch, died Nov. 15 of congestive heart failure in his Alanton home. He was 94.
"He enjoyed life," said daughter Leslie Dyanne. "He didn't want to go."
Keegan was known around town for his war stories and wisecracks. He ate at his favorite Oceanfront haunts seven nights a week – always in a sport coat – getting to know regulars until they became like family.
His frankness could come across as gruff – it got him thrown out of some of those restaurants for bossing people around. But friends and family said it was hard not to love him.
"There was a wrong way to do things, then there was Earl Keegan's way," said grandson John Branham with a laugh. "He was definitely a ham."
Born on Long Island in 1922, Keegan was studying at Cornell University when he shifted course to join the Navy at age 20. He learned to fly off paddle steamer boats, David said.
"They put them on Lake Michigan and said, 'Go land on it.'"
He was then sent off to the South Pacific, starting his career at the Second Battle of the Philippines – the "return" that General Douglas MacArthur had promised in a famous quote.
Later he flew ground support at Iwo Jima, dropping a brand new weapon: napalm.
Throughout World War II he shot down several Japanese aircraft, including a kamikaze plane during the invasion of Okinawa, according to a service record from a military fraternal organization.
"Just being in the right place at the right time, is all," he said in a conversation recorded on video by his family last year.
When he returned, he married his high school sweetheart, Adalynne, a runway model in New York City's Garment District. They were married for almost 65 years until her death in 2009. He briefly left the Navy to serve as a private pilot for Nelson Doubleday, the major book publisher, but before long he rejoined, serving through the Korean and Vietnam wars until 1969.
He and Adalynne bought their Alanton home in 1954 when there was just a dirt road with sheep grazing in the area. Neighborhood couples would bounce between the few houses for cocktail parties, and their kids collected oysters in the water across the street.
He was commanding officer at nearby Oceana, leading the air station's first jet squadron. He then went down to Pensacola to teach jet flying.
During Vietnam, he was the air boss of a ship based in the Mediterranean, which fostered a lifelong love of world travel.
Meanwhile, his family – Adalynne and their four children – bounced around from Rhode Island to California to Cuba. But they always drifted back to Virginia Beach.
In the late '60s, Keegan was assigned to Norfolk's Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic air strike desk under NATO. After two and a half decades with the Navy, he retired and joined the federal government in aircraft safety with the Federal Aviation Administration and then as aviation director for the U.S. Forest Service.
Thirty years ago, he retired with four federal pensions.
Later in life, Keegan would recount surviving a second harrowing plane crash.
In 1951 he was flying a F9F Panther, one of the Navy's first aircraft carrier-based jet fighters. He missed his hook landing and crashed aboard the USS Midway, causing the flight deck to erupt in flames. He ended up in the ocean, where sailors rescued him from the cockpit.
The fiery crash tore up his hands and one side of his face, David said, though doctors did a good job patching him up.
"He'd get a little choked up" telling that story, David said. "We wouldn't be here if he wasn't as tough as he was."
The gruffness borne of war belied a generous heart.
Earl was on the board of directors at the Virginia Beach Artists Gallery and co-founded the Sugar Plum Bakery, which teaches and trains people with disabilities. He bartended events at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, where Adalynne was a docent, and took an interest in theater, art, music, gardening, birdwatching and woodworking.
David said his father's credit card bill was up to $7,000 a month, because "if he ran into you at dinner, he'd go 'Oh, I'll take care of it.'"
"He always liked to sit in a booth or table for four ... never at a table that he couldn't invite other people to," said Alex Hinck, manager and bartender at Tempt by the Oceanfront, where Keegan ate almost four times a week. "He was loved by our owners and all the staff and was friends with all of our regulars. Always had a joke and some stories."
The man drank three scotches a day up until just two weeks before his death.
"I learned how to count to five from pouring scotch for my grandfather," Branham said with a laugh. "He said five seconds was a good pour."
David said his father was baffled by his diagnosis of heart failure: "He said, 'I thought the three scotches a day were going to keep all that clear.' He thought that kept him going, and it did.
"It certainly kept him interesting."
Keegan traveled with a bottle in his suitcase. When President Richard Nixon opened the door to China, he and Adalynne were among the first to go. Shortly before her death, the couple took a Baltic cruise and visited more than a dozen countries.
Family said his mind was sharp through the end. He could remember his surgeon's name from World War II, local speed limits and how many seconds in the microwave it took to get the dish handle facing him.
He aimed to be the last surviving WWII naval aviator out of the South Pacific front, David said, but President George H.W. Bush "beat him."
"It's the end of that 'Greatest Generation,'" David said.
Shirley Anderson, Earl's girlfriend of six years, said she was a young girl in Liverpool during the war. She was awed by Keegan's stories of bravery.
"He was one of our heroes. He was a hero to me, anyway."