In the latest installment of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Aviation History Program, the campus and community came together to learn about one of Arizona’s lesser-known WWI heroes. A contemporary of WWI pilot and Prisoner of War Ernest A. Love (the namesake of Prescott’s airport) and a fellow ace to Frank Luke, for whom Luke AFB in Phoenix is named, Ralph A. O’Neill has somehow slipped through the cracks of history. Historian Alan Roesler brought him back to life in the Davis Learning Center on Wed., Mar. 21.
Roesler has been a member of the League of WWI Historians since 1986, with numerous articles and a book, An Arizona Aviator in France, published. Roesler’s interest in O’Neill began when he noticed the WWI aviator’s name on the Santa Cruz County Roll of Honor, a memorial dedicated to the servicemen of that county who have died while on active duty since 1861. By researching that mysterious name, Roesler uncovered a rich life undocumented in many history books.
O’Neill was born to a prominent family in Durango, Mexico, in 1896. Because his father, a banker, worked on both sides of the border, O’Neill was granted dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship at birth. He and his four sisters spent their childhoods all over the border region as their father followed ever more promising business opportunities. O’Neill was a bright and industrious student, but when WWI broke out, he decided to put his dreams of becoming a metallurgist on hold to join the U.S. Air Service.
According to Roesler, O’Neill wanted to join the military, but also remain “his own man.” In an interview after the war, O’Neill said he had “no desire to be one of the mob. If there were still knights in shining armor, I would have liked to be one of them.” O’Neill certainly set himself apart from his fellow airmen, both in ability and lifestyle.
As one of the highest ranking cadets in his class, O’Neill was added to the 147th Aero Squadron at the last moment to fill an empty slot, and followed behind his new squadron on their way to France. While his squadron mates languished on a troop transport packed with other young men, O’Neill was on a ship full of doctors and, more importantly, nurses. On his leisurely trip across the pond, he managed to stop in London and get his uniforms tailored in the British style at the posh Savile Row, and he met and began dating the daughter of a Royal Navy Captain. Before hooking up with his squadron in Paris, O’Neill made sure to stay at the Regent Hotel, the largest hotel in Europe at the time. In the 147th, O’Neill often avoided group calisthenics by jumping over a hedge and riding away on his bike.
Besides leading a unique personal life, O’Neill’s skills as an aviator were extraordinary. Within five months of combat, O’Neill had won five victories, enough to make him the fifth ace of WWI. Roesler was skeptical at first when reading O’Neill’s claim that he had flown 99 combat missions in that time, an extraordinary number for a WWI pilot. He was even more surprised to find that O’Neill had flown 103 combat missions in the Nieuport 28, the Spad 13, and the Sopwith Camel. For his efforts, O’Neill earned the Distinguished Flying Cross three times as well as a French Croix de Guerre.
Although O’Neill’s marriage to the Captain’s daughter didn’t last, he went on to accomplish much after the war, including helping form the Mexican Air Force and founding the New York Rio-Buenos Aires airline, which later merged with Pan Am. He passed away in California in 1980, at the age of 83, and was inducted into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame in April 2012.
Aviation History Program events such as this highlight exciting and often overlooked moments in the development of modern aviation. Keep an eye out for a presentation on the Berlin Airlift this April, and for one event a month during every semester.