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A life shaped by dust bowl, Depression and WWII

For many years, World War II veterans didn’t talk about the war. You might have heard a few stories at the American Legion Club or in local cafes over coffee, but what happened at war seemed to stay at war. However, over the years the stories started to emerge. Tales of battles, bombings and terrible loss; of life in the trenches, barracks, on ships and in camps. Some were fighting the enemy, while others were protecting the home front.

Phil and Vivian O’Neill pictured on a recent Memorial Day. Contributed photo

Veteran Phil O’Neill, 98, has many stories to tell. Not just about the war but of life in the Depression, dust bowl and pre-war days. Born in 1919, he grew up on a farm near Beardsley. Times were hard, and money was scarce. Those hard times eventually led to service to his country.

Phil was just 12 years old when the dust bowl hit this area. He remembers what it was like to get caught in those blinding storms.

“I was cultivating with two horses and a single-row cultivator,” Phil said. ” I went out in the early morning, and the weather was fine. By 11 a.m. the dust was blowing so bad that I couldn’t see anything. Someone had told me that if this happened to let the horses go, and they will lead you home. I lifted the cultivator, told the horses to go, and I followed along. When they stopped, we were right in front of the barn door.”

Phil went on to finish high school and attended one year of college at St. Thomas, but ran out of money. He and a friend, John Zych, started talking about going to California and working for an airplane factory. In order to make the money needed for the trip, they first went to Wisconsin, where they picked up enough work to get them to California. They headed west in August 1941.

When the two men got to California they met up with 21 other young men from the Beardsley area. They were broke again and living out of their car. They had no California address so most places would not hire them. Eventually, John got them a job in a bowling alley where they set up bowling pins for three cents a line. It was often a dangerous and tedious job but paid the rent. They also had enough leisure time to attend a free aircraft engine school that lasted one month.

The men completed the school on a Friday and were all set to go to Chanute Field in Illious for further training the next week. However, fate interfered. On Sunday morning the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That Monday they were asked by the school’s instructor to go to McClellen Field in Sacramento. Four of the Beardsley men loaded up in a car, headed to Sacramento and got jobs at the depot there.

At McClellen Field the men worked to outfit and prepare planes for combat. There were often so many planes there that they had to park on the grass, where they sometimes got stuck in the mud. Caterpillars were used to pull them out which had to be done carefully so as not to wreck the aircraft. The only guy on the base who knew how this should be done was John Zych from Beardsley. Two more of his friends, including Phil O’Neill, were put in charge of the flight line.

While working on the flight line, they were sent 33 B-25 bombers to be outfitted. The planes were lined up in a row, and there were a lot of army people hovering around.

“I had myself and four under me as a crew,” Phil explained. “We were told to take the propellers off the planes but not to enter the shop. We used a scaffold to take them off and carted them away. The propellers were then adjusted to take a bigger bite of air because the aircraft carriers had short decks for landing and take off. No one had ever heard of a bomber taking off from a carrier. We workers thought there must be a small island somewhere with awful short runways.”

Planes prepare for flight on aircraft carrier during WWII. Contributed photo

“After the propellers were put back on, our job was to put chucks under the airplane wheels and then push the throttle forward until the propellers went so fast that they would lower toward the ground. After taking an RPM reading, the planes were declared ready to go.”

The men watched as these planes were loaded with gas, Some of the pilots carried two gas cans, and they figured these were heading to the islands. After three weeks, the planes were done and under a lot of security, were secretly loaded on an aircraft carrier. In a few days, the men learned that these planes were part of the famous Jimmy Doolittle attack on Japan. The planes fitted with extra gas had gone on to Russia. The work the men did on the propellers enabled them to go farther and faster by changing the pitch and angle allowing them to catch more air. This was important when the planes departed from an aircraft carrier.

The work at McClellen soon slowed, and Phil had to decide what he wanted to do next. A friend suggested joining the service, and they went to each division to see what kind of deal they could make. One division, the Coast Guard, was willing to put in writing all their stipulations, so they enlisted.

On their first day, the new recruits were told they were heading to a camp in California. Dozens of men were loaded on a bus to make the trip. Phil stated that the bus went into a tunnel and when they came out, they were on a government island near San Francisco. The tunnel was actually a road under the bay. They spent one month there for boot camp.

Phil O’Neill during his military days. Contributed photo

From there, Phil and a friend, Jake Jacobson, were sent to an air station in San Francisco and then on to the Banana River Camp in Florida which is now Cape Kennedy. He had one month of training to fly large float planes and then went to Elizabeth City, N.C., where he and his crew got their own plane. They returned to the base in San Francisco with their new plane.

Every third day, Phil and his crew would patrol the waters about 1,200 miles off the California shore where they would meet a plane patrolling from Hawaii. They were looking for Japanese submarines in the water.

“We only dropped one bomb,” said Phil. “But I don’t think it was a sub. I think it was a whale.”

On the off days, Phil worked in the mess tent where he got to know many of the officers. He asked if he could join them in their card games and, thinking they had a sucker, the officers eagerly agreed. He was able to hold his own, and getting to know these men helped him work his way up the ladder to flight engineer.

Phil was discharged in February 1946 after four years in the Coast Guard. He returned to Beardsley to help farm and considered going back to school on the GI Bill. His sister, known as a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ in a California factory, had met and married Dan Agar, from Hancock. They also returned to Beardsley and soon Dan asked Phil to join him in the purchase of a restaurant in Browns Valley. During the two years they owned the restaurant, Phil met Vivian Sauer, a Browns Valley girl. The two were married on June 7, 1948, and they had eight children — three boys and five girls.

Eventually, Phil went back to farming near Beardsley, where the couple lived until retiring. Phil became active in both the Beardsley and Browns Valley American Legions. At each place he served one term as commander and has 70 years and counting of membership in the Legion. He remains a current member of the August Altheide Post 302 in Beardsley.

Phil and Vivian now live at the Browns Valley Health Care home ,but Phil rarely misses a card game in his hometown of Beardsley. They have also visited some of the places in California that were a big part of his life.

Phil loves to share the stories of events that have shaped his life. He may not have been fighting directly in the war, but he helped outfit and fly the aircraft that were an instrumental part of many battles. He helped protect the homeland from Japanese attacks (and whales!) His life stories are ones that will be remembered forever and passed on for generations.

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