60 years ago, Cmdr. Ault lost in combat

Sixty years ago today, the U.S. Navy lost a hero, a mother lost her son, a woman lost her husband, and two young boys lost their father. But, his legacy continues to live on both through his sons and by a lasting memorial to the fallen aviator, right here in Oak Harbor.

Cmdr. William Bowen Ault, for whom Ault Field at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is named, is presumed to have perished on May 8, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea. He was the pilot of a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber and the Commander Lexington Air Group. As the USS Lexington’s CLAG, Ault commanded four 18-plane squadrons.

At the time of his death, the Navy was in the process of preparing orders for Ault, 43, to transfer to a new assignment as the executive officer of another aircraft carrier, said his son, Robert Bowen Ault, in a recent telephone interview.

On May 7 and 8, 1942 the Lexington and the air group engaged the enemy Japanese aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. The air group faced significant anti-aircraft fire from the Japanese vessels and heavy opposition from enemy fighter planes. On May 7 one of the Japanese carriers was destroyed, and on May 8, the other was badly damaged. Ault reported via radio on May 8 that he had dropped a 1,000-pound bomb on the deck of the enemy carrier.

He and his radioman/gunner, William Thomas Butler, never returned from the mission. Ault had radioed that they both had been wounded by bullets, and the aircraft was too low on fuel to make it to a landing site. The Dauntless either crashed or Ault ditched it in the ocean. No wreckage or remains were found.

Ault Field was named in Ault’s honor on Sept. 25, 1943. A ship, the destroyer USS Ault (DD 698), was christened six months later.

The last time Robert Ault saw his father, he was just four-and-a-half years old. The family said goodbye to Ault in San Diego, when the Lexington shipped out to Pearl Harbor in October, 1941. The Lexington was not in port in Pearl Harbor during the surprise Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

After Ault left San Diego, his wife Margaret and two sons went to live in Norfolk, VA to be near Margaret Ault’s family. She wrote to her husband on board the Lexington regularly. Margaret Ault had no idea that her husband was missing as of May 8, until she received a telegram more than a month later.

“In contrast to today’s those days...the telegram from the Navy didn’t even reach my mother until late June,” Robert Ault said. Before the telegram arrived the only inkling Maragaret Ault had that something was out of the ordinary was that the letters she had written to her husband since May 8 had been returned to her unopened, without explanation, Robert Ault said.

Ault’s Navy career was long and distinguished. He originally enlisted in the Navy, but a year later he was accepted into the United States Naval Academy in Anapolis, MD. He graduated from the Academy in 1922. He then earned his wings and progressed in rank and responsibility over the next 20 years. He was posthumously awarded both the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart.

But more than a military hero, Ault is a personal hero to his son. Despite being just five years old when his father was killed, Robert Ault has some very vivid memories of his father and the lessons he taught. Those memories have carried Ault through life.

“He was very much an all-business military type of person,” Ault said. However, while being a strong authoritative figure, Ault also said his father was a “good dad.”

The pain of losing his father at such a young age is evident in Ault’s voice. He talked of a man that was fair and strong, yet also interested in spending as much time as he could with his family. Growing up a hero’s son without the presence of the real man was difficult, but it also shaped the man Robert Ault became.

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” Ault said, his voice thick with emotion. While he said he has always been incredibly proud of his father, he’d rather have had the opportunity to know him.

Margaret Ault always talked to her sons about their father, and she would answer Robert Ault’s questions about his dad. Additionally, his father’s friends from his Naval Academy days would come to visit from time to time and tell stories about Ault.

Those stories and his few first-hand memories of his father helped guide Ault through his life and through decision-making.

“I would always think, ‘What would my father have done in this situation?’ ” Ault said.

Robert Ault is a retired Deputy Chief United States Probation Officer who lives in Glen Allen, VA. He is married and has three grown sons. He said he made sure his sons knew as much as they could about their grandfather. Ault’s older brother, William Upshur Ault, is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Their mother passed away in 1987.

Of his father’s early death, Ault said that losing a parent at a young age leaves one “with the very best of wishful thinking.” It is easy, he said, to imagine all the great things his father would have gone on to achieve.

While Robert Ault’s pride is mixed with regret— he misses his father still today — he doesn’t feel like he was without his father.

“You always have a parent if you know who they are and what they did,” Ault said.

Word of honor for a hero

Cmdr. William Bowen Ault was posthumously awarded the following citations for his heroic actions during the Battle of the Coral Sea. The text is transcribed from copies of the actual awards, provided by Ault’s son, Robert Bowen Ault.

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the NAVY CROSS to COMMANDER WILLIAM B. AULT, UNITED STATES NAVY for service as set forth in the following CITATION:

“For extraordinary heroism as Air Group Commander of the U.S.S. LEXINGTON in action against Japanese forces in the Coral Sea, May 7 and 8, 1942. Commander Ault led the air attacks in the face of severe anti-aircraft barrage and heavy fighter opposition, which resulted in the complete destruction of one enemy carrier on May 7 and major damage to another on May 8. His failure to return from the latter encounter and his courageous conduct throughout the duration of these actions were an inspiration to the whole air group.”

For the President,

Frank Knox

Secretary of the Navy.


To all who shall see these presents, greeting:

This is to certify that the President of the United States of America pursuant to authority vested in him by Congress has awarded the PURPLE HEART established by General George Washington at Newburgh, New York, August 7, 1782 to Commander William B. Ault, U.S. Navy, FOR MILITARY MERIT AND FOR WOUNDS RECEIVED IN ACTION resulting in his death.

Given under my hand in the city of Washington this tenth day of August, 1943.

Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy

Sad words from the government

Cmdr. William B. Ault’s wife, Margaret U. Ault, received the following letter, more than a year after the Battle of the Coral Sea, during which Ault perished.

25 June 1943

My dear Mrs. Ault:

After a full review of all available information, I am reluctantly forced to the conclusion that your husband, Commander William Bowen Ault, United States Navy, is deceased, having been reported “missing in action” when the airplane in which he was a member failed to return from an engagement with the enemy in the Coral Sea.

In accordance with Section 5 of Public Law 490, 77th Congress, as amended, your husband’s death is presumed to have occurred on the 9th day of May, 1943, which is the day following the day of expiration of an absence of twelve months.

I extend to you my sincere sympathy in your great loss and hope you may find comfort in the knowledge that your husband gave his life for his country, upholding the highest traditions of the Navy. The Navy shares in your sense of bereavement and feels the loss of his services.

Sincerely yours,

Frank Knox

Secretary of the Navy

Source: Copy of original letter provided by Robert Bowen Ault.

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