A heroic moment in World War II left a lasting legacy but also marked a family tragedy.
In 1942, Cmdr. William Bowen Ault led the effort to destroy one Japanese aircraft carrier and damage another in the Battle of Coral Sea. He piloted a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber as commander of the Lexington Air Group (CLAG). Neither his aircraft nor his remains were ever found after that battle on May 7.
Today, his last transmission is memorialized near the airfield that bears his name: “From CLAG. OK. So long people. We put a 1,000 pound bomb on the flatop.”
On Sept. 25, 2018, Ault’s grandsons and great-grandchildren saw the mural at the Ault Field Base of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island for the first time.
“I don’t think he was bragging,” said William Bowen Ault II, Ault’s grandson.
Ault II said he thinks his grandfather was only worried about letting the Navy know of the mission’s success.
“His bravery that he exhibited was an inspiration. … How many people could do that?”
Ault II said his perspective of that moment has changed over time, however. As a child, hearing stories about his war hero grandfather was “cool.” But later, he realized it meant that his own father, who was 8 years old when Ault died, grew up without a dad.
“It’s a nice legacy to have and for him to have, but it was another war-time tragedy,” he said. “Even at 86, he’s never gotten over his father’s death.”
Ault II’s father is alive but was unable to make the trip to Whidbey Island. William, his brother Burr, wife Margaret and children Clara Agnes, William and Anna Ault traveled to Oak Harbor to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the airfield at NAS Whidbey Island being named for the fallen commander.
William Ault II was most excited for his children to see both their great-grandfather’s legacy and feel closer to the Navy. Ault II grew up as a Navy dependent, but his children had never been on a base before.
“(It was) completely eye-opening,” said Anna Ault.
“It exceeded expectations,” William Ault added.
The Association of Naval Aviation hosted the family and organized the programs, which included tours of the P-8 Poseidon, EA-18G Growler, the flight tower and a presentation from the base commanding officer, Capt. Matt Arny.
Sec. of the Navy Richard V. Spencer even sent a letter that Arny read to the family.
William Ault enlisted in the Navy right after high school and shortly after entered the Naval Academy. Ault II suspects his grandfather might have used family connections to get into the academy, as “scholastics were not his thing.”
However, Ault excelled in other ways. He was captain of the basketball team and a “man of action,” Ault II said.
“I think he was gifted physically and he was a planner,” he said.
Ault graduated from the academy in 1922 and became commander of the Lexington Air Group in 1941. The Battle of Coral Sea lasted four days and was the first air-sea battle in history.
After sinking a Japanese carrier and damaging another, Ault was injured and lacked the fuel to return to safety. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
The Ault family members said seeing the mural of his last transmission in the exchange building was a particularly special moment.
“It was very touching,” said Ault II’s wife Margaret. “We’ve heard about it all, but it feels nice to be more connected.”