An Interview with Joseph O’Neil - by Stephen J. O’Neil (11/29/89)

John O’Neil dutifully served his country. At the age of eighteen, on July 3, 1941, Joe (as he was referred to in his family) established in the United States Army. At that time, all able-bodied young men owed a year of service in the armed forces; Joe enlisted to complete his duty ahead of schedule. During his first six months, however, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States officially entered the war. His assignment was no longer for one year; Joe was now a valued soldier in the war for the duration.

Joe served his country for over four years. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Joe was transferred from Manchester Air Force base in Manchester, New Hampshire, to Debden Air Force base in England, north of London. At Debden, Joe was a medic; he drove an ambulance on the flight line, aided nurses as an orderly, and did whatever else that was asked of him. After two years at Debden, Joe volunteered for air combat, hoping to someday build upon this experience in becoming a pilot. After undergoing training, Joe became a tail gunner in the 482nd Pathfinder Group, stationed at the Alconbury Base. (A base that remains active today – U.S. planes that bombed Libya in 1986 took off from Alconbury). During two stints in combat operations, Joe flew seventeen missions, including some night missions designed to test newly developed radar systems. One mission in particular, an attack on Berlin, stands out. Berlin had been selected as a target by General Doolittle to boost morale in Europe; it was General Doolittle who had boosted morale when he daringly attacked Tokyo in 1942 and won the Medal of Honor. On March 4, 1944, Joe, flying in lead plane in a bomber group, was the tail gunner in the first American plane to bomb Berlin. This attack provided American forces with a necessary morale boost and was described in "Stars and Stripes". To this day, Joe still possesses a copy of the issue, which is evidence of his courageous contributions to the war effort.

After two years of air combat and a stint instructing troops in the use of radar, Joe's duty to his country was complete and he was honorably discharged from the service at Ft. Devins in Massachusetts, having attained the rank of staff sergeant. Shortly thereafter, Joe took full advantage of the GI Bill and received a BA in biology and an MA in biology from Boston university, and an MA in food science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all of which he put to good use in a career in the field of nutrition.

A sharp, learned man of sixty-six, Joe is an invaluable source of information and knowledge. Having seen the ravages of war firsthand, he possesses strong feelings about the war. For these reasons, an interview was conducted with Joe (or Uncle Joe as he is known to this writer). In the interview, Joe shed light on a variety of World War II issues, many of which are relevant today. He provided keen insights into the war, and dispelled certain myths about the war that are prevalent today. What follows is an account of this interview, which hopefully is able to capture the experiences, insights and feelings of this fascinating man, John Joseph O'Neil.

It is often argued that American involvement in WWII was inevitable, and that the Japanese attack was expected. Gaddis Smith, in American Diplomacy during the Second World War, 1941-1945, argues that the issue was not whether or not the Japanese were going to attach, but who the Japanese were going to attack. "Japanese leaders, in the meanwhile, concluded that American economic sanctions and general refusal during diplomatic negotiations to accept Japan's supposed right to control China left no alternative but war. Any reader of newspapers in the autumn of 1941 knew that Japan was likely to strike. But where? Joe strongly disagrees with Smith's contention. A young man of eighteen in 1941, Joe was just coming out of the Depression, and the thought of U.S. involvement in the war did not enter his mind. Although military jobs had started to appear in 1939, as far as Joe was concerned, it was business as usual in the States. To Joe, the "war was very, very far away". Even further from his mind were the prospects of a Japanese attack. Joe, as a soldier in December, 1941, neither saw nor heard any news of an impending Japanese attack, on the United States or on any other nation. Perhaps for army cryptographers and top level bureaucrats, the Japanese attack was imminent, but for an alert, astute soldier stationed in New Hampshire, the Japanese attack was a complete surprise.

To counter this, it could be argued that the typical soldier was not "any reader of newspapers". Joe certainly agrees. Trapped in an informational void during the war, Joe was seldom able to obtain news of any kind. The motto "Loose Lips Sinks Ships" appeared on posters on U.S. bases all over England, and was strictly enforced by the army. Soldiers were poorly informed and were unable to inform those back home. "V" mail from home, written on short sheets of paper, contained only basic news from the family, and the soldiers' outgoing mail was censored. "Stars and Stripes" contained all the news that the army thought the soldiers should know, and the occasional dog-eared copies of "Time" magazine were hoarded by the fortunate few who came across them. For Joe, this was not enough. As a staff sergeant, he had access to certain military records, but he was not able to glean much information from these. Joe discovered that, under the circumstances, his best source of information was Winston Churchill, whose speeches were broadcast on BBC radio. Joe attempted to read between the lines of Churchill’s speeches, but he met with only marginal success in his quest for knowledge. This "information blackout", as he called it, strengthened Joe's desire to learn and propelled him into college after the war (on the GI bill), where he studied for eight years and achieved much success.

Under this information blackout, the politics of war occupied little of Joe’s time. From the news that he did acquire, Joe concluded that Churchill "called the shots" for the Allies and that Roosevelt followed Churchill's lead. Joe possessed ambivalent feelings about Roosevelt, although he became more critical of FDR as time passed. Although Joe supported FDR’s efforts during the Depression, he strongly believed that Roosevelt "undoubtedly did everything he could to get us into the war". In 1944, voting as an independent in his first election, Joe voted for the Republication candidate, Thomas Dewey, as a symbolic protest of the war. He supports the two-term limit for presidents, arguing that this preserves democracy. Joe believes that FDR, had he lived longer, would have continually been re-elected, although not with the aid of Joe’s vote.

As a soldier, Joe had a duty to complete; his job to defeat the Germans, the Japanese, and the Italians. With the exception of his missions, the war was never very close to him. The enemy never landed on U.S. soil; the fight was in Europe and in the Pacific. Accordingly, Joe felt no great hate for the enemy. He contrasted himself with the Polish airmen that he knew who had seen their homeland invaded and who harbored tremendous hate for the enemy, particularly the Germans. Joe did concede that, because of Pearl Harbor, there was a greater animosity towards the Japanese, on the part of both the soldiers and the American people. He mentioned a popular song of the era that exhorted Americans to "remember Pearl Harbor". When asked about the influence of Nazi behavior on his feelings towards the German soldiers, Joe cited the information blackout. As a soldier, he was unaware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis; he therefore harbored no hate.

War philosophies were seldom discussed. Joe saw himself as a soldier with a job. He agreed that he did possess some patriotism, but he primarily was driven by his duty and his desire to survive. For lack of a better word, Joe begrudgingly labeled himself a "professional". Secretly, Joe sometimes wondered why he was fighting against the Germans, the Japanese, and the Italians. Upon seeing his first prisoner of war, an Italian working on a British prison farm, Joe wanted to ask the man what, if any, were their inherent differences, and why should he )Joe) want to kill the man? (The language barrier, however, prevented this exchange of ideas.) Joe believes that these questions must be asked in peace and in war. All too often, wars are fought for no worthwhile reason. Accordingly to Joe, soldiers as a whole did not openly question the war; they simply did their duty and hoped to survive.

Joe, his duty nearly complete, was stationed at Fort Devens in Massachusetts in the summer of 1945. He was awaiting his discharge when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6. At the time, Joe felt that the decision to drop the bomb was a proper one. The thought of the war dragging on and the additional losses of American lives, coupled with the time, money, and energy spent to develop this war ending weapon justify the decision to drop the bomb. In 1945, Joe did not hear a negative word about the dropping of the bomb; everyone that he spoke with agreed that it was the correct decision.

After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war ended and it was time to get on with life back home. Joe's views on the period between World War II and the Korean War are best summed up by the title of William Wyler's movie, "The Best Years of Our Lives". Joe, like many other soldiers, anticipated a whole new era. World War II ended the Depression, brought peace, and cleared the path to progress. For Joe, the years 1945-1950 lived up to his expectations. Goods became available for purchase, jobs opened up, and colleges welcomed veterans (aided by the GI Bill). Although the Communist threat loomed large, Joe saw this period as being as close to perfection as possible under the circumstances. The Korean War, however, brought this "new era" to an abrupt end. Many of Joe's comrades were recalled to active duty; Joe fortunately was spared another tour of duty. Nonetheless, "the best years of our lives" were over.

When asked about the postwar settlement, Joe echoed the sentiments of many Americans, particularly the views of Republicans at the time. He believed that at Yalta, the United States gave the Russians too much power. In placing some of the blame on Roosevelt, Joe contended that the United States should have been more aggressive in Europe, and conceded less to the Russians. Joe strongly disagreed with the division of Germany. He believed that a state could not be separated as Germany was, and that someday unification would occur. Joe was particularly critical of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau's plan for Germany, which called for heavy German reparations and a divided, agrarian Germany, stripped of its industries. Joe believed that a stable Germany was necessary for economic stability worldwide, and that it was morally wrong to divide and repress a nation. Joe thought at the time that someday Germany would be united; his predictions may soon ring true. Unlike many other people, Joe does not fear a united Germany. He argues that the United States was able to avoid war with the Soviets for forty-five years; the unification of Germany will not bring World War III. In fact, Joe sees a unified Germany as a counterbalance to Soviet influence in Europe.

Above all, Joe stressed the horrors of war. The one impression he wanted to convey to this writer was that "all war is bad". Joe correctly believes that there is a common perception among Americans that World War II was a glorious war, unlike Korea and Vietnam. Joe argues that "no war is a glorious war". To Joe, war is simply a failure of human beings to settle their differences. War cannot be sold on patriotism or nationalism; war is necessary only for survival. Forty years ago, flying over a brutal battle on the front lines, Joe had a birds-eye view of the war. What he saw is forever etched in his mind. In the black of the night, omnipresent fires raged in testimony to the oft used but deathly true maxim, "war is hell".

Looking back at the war, Joe has many deep feelings but harbors few regrets. He still feels great sadness about his role in the bombing raids; he recognizes, however, that he was doing his duty and that the war was inevitable. For Joe, World War II was an enormous learning experience; most importantly, he learned the horrors of war and the values of education. Stressing the horrors of war, he argued that war was never the desirable option, only the last option. Joe is a firm believer in the benefits of education, both as a means to advancement, and as a joy in itself. Even today, at age sixty-six, Joe takes classes, and pursues yet another degree, further evidence of the effects that the information blackout had on him. Joe is best described as a wise man; he is educated in every sense of the word. He learned the lessons of war firsthand, and from a textbook. Joe is a precious source of information and knowledge; this writer benefited immensely from this interview. It is unfortunate that so few will learn the lessons of this wise man, Uncle Joe.