MHS # CT-DA- 423 Written by: Walter Krell
Transcribed by: Michelle Krell Malone in "Micro Soft Word"
Mesa, Arizona November 1986
Mid afternoon, Sunday, November 16th, I received the phone call that I've long dreaded. Tom O'Neill, Shanty's son, called from New Jersey to say that Shanty had died suddenly of severe pneumonia.
Col. Bryan "Shanty" O'Neill was probably the most exceptional man many of us had ever known. Those who knew him don't have to hear it; those who didn't know him may not believe us.
His stature as a brave man set him high among other brave men. He was in total command of himself, the men, the machine, and the situation. When a Group order was issued prohibiting squadron commanders from flying combat, Shanty would have none of it. As C.O. of the 38th Group, it was not uncommon for Shanty to go off in the lead plane, get back several hours later and hop right back into the lead plane of the next flight.
Little wonder some of us followed Shanty from the 22nd to the 38th even though it meant that we were turning down a chance to come home. He treated all men the same regardless of rank, never putting on a show of authority or self importance. He was just naturally what so many people try to be.
If he got mad, he was over it instantly. He never bore a grudge, and if any of us continued to dwell on a matter that was finished, Shanty would just keep telling that guy, "Forget it, forget it." In forgetting, Shanty could forgive, and the speed which he could move mentally into fresh territory put him out in front.
Shanty would say that the only reason for rank was that it offered the chance to argue with the brass. On one occasion, it was one o'clock in the morning, and we had been up all night trying to plan a mission ordered earlier from Bomber Command. Finally, in exasperation, Shanty declared the whole thing lousy: wrong bombs, wrong approach, wrong everything. To hell with these orders. Shanty grabbed the phone and got Roger Ramey, Commanding General, Advanced Bomber Command, out of bed.
He told Ramey the mission orders stunk and he wanted them changed. Ramey wouldn't budge and hung up. Shanty said, "Come on, Walt, let's take a ride."
We drove from 17-Mile on down to Three-Mile and pounded on the door of Ennis Whitehead's quarters and roused the crusty old man out of bed. Whitehead was Commanding General, 5th Air Force Advanced Headquarters.
We went in, and Shanty told his story. Then for 15 minutes we listened to Whitehead rant and rave as he shuffled around his quarters in his shorts and slippers. The whole show would have scared off anyone less than Shanty O'Neill, but there he sat with that concealed mirth that I had learned to recognize. Finally, the General said, "All right O'Neill, it'll be your way , but if anything goes wrong, you're finished. Get Ramey on the phone for me."
Shanty was right as usual. The generals learned that this rough-and- ready combat flying colonel was a rare achiever of solid results. His aircraft and men always on the ready, no excuse sir.
More and more the generals leaned on Shanty's say-so; after all, what the hell did they know? After 20 years of officer club socials, the hottest airplane in their experience was a B-18. Then suddenly, a cruel twist.
Often, when we found ourselves finishing up long after hours, Shanty would go back into the semi-dark kitchen and swallow a spoon of powdered cheese from a small container he kept up on a shelf.. Not knowing this, the kitchen help had used this container for lye, and this night Shanty wound up with a mouth full of lye.
Shanty continued to run things from his hospital bed where several of us would take the group business each night. The tongue , gums, and other mucous membranes of his mouth were horribly burned and swollen. The lymph glands in his neck greatly distended, and he was unable to eat or drink. His discomfort was enormous.
Unable to talk, he made his point by writing. Steadfastly refusing any painkiller for fear it would impair his thinking, he got so incredibly sharp he had the answers before we could ask the questions. Infection inevitably set in and Shanty had to be flown south from New Guinea.
Anecdotes about Shanty would fill books. Here's one I love to tell.
When Shanty got the 38th Group, there were only two squadrons; two more were to be activated. I was to be C.O. of the 822nd and Barney Johnson C.O. of the 823rd. We wound up with about 40 new B-25s with the 75 mm cannon being modified with blisters of two 50 caliber each on both sides of the fuselage. We set about training the new crews at Charters Towers some 70 miles west of Townsville.
The base commander at Charters Towers was one of those old colonels whose constant interference with the war effort was such a help to the Japanese.
As senior officer, I was constantly the target of this base commander's complaints. He would track me down in his staff car on the line or wherever I was, and work me over about the behavior of our men on the base, in town, and in the mess hall. Soon I had had enough and got word to Shanty to get this guy off my back.
Shanty got word back for me to pick him up in Townsville on a certain day. We then flew back to Charters Towers, got a car, and drove out to the old cluck's quarters. His quarters, if you can believe it, were set up just slightly to one side of the end of a runway.
We went in, and for 30 minutes, Shanty listened in deadpan silence while the old crone unloaded his dissatisfaction about these undisciplined new Air Corps flying tramps.
Shanty had just been promoted to full colonel. From a friend, he had borrowed the eagle insignia pinned to his shirt collar. The eagle heads on the insignia must face either to the right or left according to how they are worn or displayed.
Shanty's little eagle faced the wrong way, which Shanty hadn't known or even cared about. As we were leaving, the old farce picked up the incorrectness of the insignia, tiptoed over to his trinket box, fetched out an eagle facing the correct way, and proceeded to pin it on Shanty's collar. Shanty tensed up, and I backed off a couple of paces. Nothing happened; we left.
Whenever we went anywhere, Shanty always did the flying. As we taxied out this day, Shanty asked, "Which runway goes over the old bastard's camp?"
I said, "The wind's the other way."
"I didn't ask you about the wind."
The B-25 was light and Shanty had it off the ground halfway down the runway. Wheels and flaps were up by the end of the runway and we were still less than six feet off the ground. Shanty swung over the old colonel's pyramidal tent, straddled the peak with his props, and hauled up. As we peeled around and looked down, Shanty clearly deserved another D.F.C. The tent was mashed flat!
Landing back at Charters Towers after leaving Shanty at Townsville, the old boy was waiting--Did I know that within minutes after he had given the order to Col. O'Neill to put a stop to aircraft flying over his area, some crazy pilot had demolished his very own tent and with him still inside it, no less? He had suffered great distress and might even have been hurt. He told me that I was to track down and identify the pilot. There would be a court martial, said he, enraged and shaking his swagger stick in my face.
I then told the old duck that the man who flew that airplane was Col. O'Neill himself and that Col. O'Neill himself declared that anyone idiot enough to set up his headquarters in such a stupid place was asking to get hurt. Also, O'Neill was at this very moment on his way to Brisbane to talk to General Kenney, Commanding General, 5th Air Force, to find a new training base for these critically needed combat units where they would no longer be an inconvenience to the Colonel. I canÕt be sure, but I think I suddenly saw him gulp and turn ashen.
Within two days, the old fool had been relieved of his command and he promptly departed the base. Following this, I made it clear to the remaining base paddlefeet that O'Neill was the kind of man who could quickly arrange for them to be shouldering muskets over the Owen Stanley Mountains, and that their jobs were to provide the services that the flyboys needed, or else. How things did improve!
What a privilege to work with and support Col. Bryan O'Neill. His qualities of greatness earned him the respect and admiration of all who knew him. Moments of silence for Shanty, he was all the man there is.