Lawrence F. O’Neill,
an Ace with Kearby’s Thunderbolts
By Jon Guttman

   

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 28, 1921, Lawrence Frederick O’Neill
generally looks like a serious young man in his wartime photographs, and his
early years seemed to bear that impression out. “In 1940 I took some ground
school at the Civil Aeronautical Administration flight school, and I studied the
theories of aerodynamics and flight,” he said. “After flight lessons I joined the
Army Air Corps on September 4, 1940, and signed up for aviation mechanic school.
Later, as a mechanic, I taxied North American AT-6s and was not awed by the
flight controls later on in flight school. I was certified as an aviation mechanic,
then I heard about the possibility of pilot training, if I could pass a college
equivalency exam. I took the exam in November 1941, and didn’t hear
anything until January 1942, when I learned that I had passed.” Among
other things, that development would lead O’Neill to an intense afternoon
over Cape Gloucester that would make him an American fighter ace.

“I went to preflight in January 1942,” he continued, “took primary training
in the Fairchild PT-19 and basic training in the Vultee BT-13. When in flight
school, our instructors determined whether or not students went into fighters
by assignment—to either single or multi-engine advanced flight school.
Multi-engine, of course, meant either bombers or transports. I hoped my
work in training would get me fighters and was delighted when it happened.
I took advanced training in the AT-6 at Lake Charles, La. Also, I flew Curtiss
P-36s and P-40s in the last stages of advanced training, then I went into
Republic P-47s. My first impression was ‘big.’ The Jug was so much larger.
I found the P-47 was easy to fly, though, and easier to land than the
P-36, P-40 or AT-6. Once I’d qualified, I was transferred to Bradley Field,
near Hartford, Conn., for indoctrination and orientation.”

First Lieutenant Lawrence F. O’Neill of the 342nd Fighter Squadron,
348th Fighter Group, in the cockpit of his Republic P-47D at Finschhafen,
Papua New Guinea. (Lawrence F. O’Neill via Jon Guttman)

O’Neill’s initial assignment was to the 322nd Squadron of the 326th Fighter Group,
but on November 6, 1942, he was transferred to the 342nd Squadron of the
348th Fighter Group. “After assembling at Westover Field in Massachusetts in
December, we started training as a squadron,” he said. “Group commander
Lt. Col. Neel Kearby and the other two squadrons were at Providence, R.I.
We were by ourselves at Bedford, Mass., under Major Raymond Gallagher.

“When we finally shipped out, it took 30 days to steam to Brisbane, Australia in
June 1943. They brought our planes on freighters. We slow-timed engines for
about 10 hours. We then flew to New Guinea in August, where we operated from
Wards Aerodrome at Port Moresby. We flew a lot of protection for transport planes,
flying supplies to the other side of the island, to Dobodura and Nadzab. Our next
move was to Finschhafen, on the other side, and were there for several months,
until we moved on to Saidor, then Wakde, Biak and Noemfoor.”

Enthusiastically sold on the power and durability of the Thunderbolt, Kearby trained
his pilots to make the most of its level and diving speed and its firepower, to avoid
dogfighting with Japanese fighters and to work as a team. First blood was drawn at
1500 hours on August 16, when Captain Max Wiecks of the 340th Fighter Squadron
was credited with downing a Nakajima Ki.43 Hayabusa (“peregrine falcon”) army fighter,
codenamed Oscar by the Allies, near Marilinan. Lieutenant Leonard Leighton of the
341st downed another Oscar half and hour later, but was hit himself soon afterward.
Although his squadron mates saw him parachuting into the wild New Guinea countryside,
months later an Allied patrol discovered his body, confirming Leighton as the 348th’s
first combat fatality. Kearby scored next, destroying a “Betty” and an “Oscar”
14 miles south of Hopoi at 1430 hours on September 4.

The next opportunity to put Kearby’s training into practice came while eight P-47D-2s
of the 342nd Squadron were escorting transports to Tsili Tsili on September 13, and ran
into a force of Japanese bombers and fighters. In the 15-minute running fight that ensued,
the squadron aggressively employed dive and zoom tactics, resulting in Major William Banks
claiming a “Zero” fighter northeast of Marilinan at 1043, and O’Neill scoring his first victory
over a “Betty” bomber five miles northeast of Marlilinan at 1100. A “Tony” was also claimed as probably destroyed, and the squadron returned unscathed. The uncharacteristically mixed bag
of Japanese naval and army aircraft the flight encountered was more likely all army, the “Bettys” actually being Mitsubishi Ki.21 bombers, called Sally by the Allies, and the “Zeros” really Oscars (which the Allies frequently confused with one another). The Tonys were new Kawasaki Ki.61 Hien (“swallow”) fighters distinguished by their slim profiles and water-cooled inline engines based
on the German Daimler-Benz DB 601, which gave them good performance but proved to be
far less reliable than the radial engines that powered most Japanese aircraft.

Over the next few months, the 348th came fully into its stride. On October 11, Kearby
shot down four Oscars and two Tonys in an action for which he would be awarded the
Medal of Honor. Also promoted to colonel Kearby was transferred to V Fighter Command
on November 17, while Lt. Col. Robert Rowland took charge of the 348th fighter Group.
Meanwhile, O’Neill had been providing steady support to his squadron, but further aerial
successes eluded him.

O’Neill’s next opportunity to score occurred in extraordinarily dramatic fashion on December 26.
The Americans had landed at Cape Gloucester in western New Britain, provoking air attacks by Japanese units based at Rabaul. The first morning attack by naval units was misdirected to Arawe, which the Americans had invaded on the 15th. Although a strong air umbrella of Fifth Air Force fighters and North American B-25 gunships took a heavy toll on them, Aichi D3A2 “Val” dive bombers managed to sink destroyer Brownson, severely damaged Shaw and inflicted lesser
damage to Mugford and Lamson. The four American fighter squadrons involved in the action
claimed 19 dive bombers and 24 fighters, with another dive bomber claimed by the 499th Bomb Squadron, two others by ground gunners and three by the ships’ gunners. American losses totaled two P-47s, two Lockheed P-38s (one of which resulted in the death of the 80th Fighter Group’s commander, Major Edward “Porky” Cragg Jr., shortly after he’d scored his 15th victory), two
B-25s and a Consolidated PBY-5A flying boat downed in error by an American fighter. The
Japanese recorded the loss of 13 D3A2s and four Mitsubishi A6M3 Zeros while claiming
15 American fighters, plus five probables.

The next Japanese attack of the day came from the 6th Flying Division of the Fourth Air Army. Hoping to avert previous failures on December 15 and 16, the Japanese had sent a Mitsubishi
Ki.46 “Dinah” command reconnaissance plane of the 74th Dokoritsu Chutai (independent company) crewed by Captain Kanoyoshi Nakagawa and 1st Lt. Tetsunari Sakuda to pinpoint targets and report weather conditions. Using the information they radioed in, the Japanese launched their attack,
but things went awry anyway—two of the Nakajima Ki.49 Donryu (“dragon swallower”) heavy bombers of the 61st Sentai slated for the mission failed to show up at the rendezvous point, as
did only 10 Ki.61s from the 68th and 78th Sentais and nine Ki.43s of the 248th Sentai—half the intended escort. Opposing them were 16 P-38s and 38 P-47s, either on station or about to report
to the fighter director.

First contact occurred between the 248th Sentai and the 348th Fighter Group, whose P-47s,
in the words of the 248th Sentai’s commander, Major Shinichi Muraoka, “surrounded” his Hayabusas. Relying on their superior maneuverability, the Ki.43 pilots managed to emerge from
the melee without loss and claimed two Thunderbolts, but their hands were too full to defend the bombers. The Ki.61s seem to have also become embroiled in combat with the Fifth Air Force
fighters, because the 342nd Fighter Squadron pilots who intercepted the bombers reported
seeing only two or three Tonys escorting them.

The result might be called a case of “overkill” in more ways than one. Lightnings of the
475th fighter Group’s 433rd Squadron, flying high above the action, reported an arrowhead formation of bombers approaching the convoy at an altitude of 10,000 feet 10 miles northeast
of Umbroi Island, also observing a large dogfight between P-47s and Japanese fighters west of Umbroi. The 433rd did not attack the bombers because of heavy anti-aircraft fire that the ships
were already hurling at them, which the Lighting pilots saw send the formation leader and two others crashing into the sea, while the survivors scattered and fled toward Wewak.

What the 433rd may not have seen were the P-47s of the 342nd Squadron that already were already attacking the Ki.49s, which they had again misidentified as Bettys. Captain Edward Roddy, leading Red Flight, made a head-on pass from below, hit two bombers and saw flames streaking
from one as he roared past. A 7.7mm round from a Japanese gunner glanced off his canopy, however, cracking the glass, and another hit in the fuselage drove him out of the fight.
Lieutenant Marvin Grant, flying on Roddy’s wing, saw his victim descending in flames before
taking on another bomber to the left and claiming that one in flames as well. As Grant pulled
up, he saw Larry O’Neill, flying on Roddy’s other wing, shoot down a third bomber.

“At 13,000 feet over a point about 5 miles north of Umbroi Island, our flight sighted nine enemy Betty bombers in a tight vee of vee’s at 15,000 feet headed east,” O’Neill wrote in his combat report the next day. “The bombers were green and very shiny. My flight leader made a head-on pass and the lead bomber fell out of formation in flames. I followed with a 45 degree head-on pass and hit the number two bomber. Lt. Grant of the second element witnessed my destruction of this plane. After this I pulled around and made three consecutive attacks from astern and each time a different one of the bombers dropped out of formation in flames. Capt. Roddy and Lt. Nagle of Yellow Flight witnessed my destruction of these three Bettys making a total of four that I definitely destroyed. By this time, the rest of the nine bombers were destroyed by other members of our formation so we broke off and returned to base.”

First Lieutenant O’Neill shows off the five Japanese flags added to his
P-47D-4 42-22903, which he christened “Kathy/Veni Vidi Vici,” following
his quadruple victory on December 26, 1943.
(Lawrence F. O’Neill via Jon Guttman).

The Republic P-47D Kathy/Veni! Vini! Vici! flown by O’Neill when he
destroyed four Japanese Betty Bombers on a single mission.

More than 60 years later, O’Neill recalled with respect the cool mission-oriented focus
of the Japanese crews. “They were very, very brave people,” he said, “every time one
went down they would close up and resume formation”

First Lieutenant Robert Sutcliffe was leading the 342nd Squadron’s Blue Flight at 19,000
feet over Umbroi when he spotted what he reported as six green-colored bombers and
three fighters still coming on toward the ships and dived to the attack, claiming one
bomber in flames and one smoking. Coming in from the opposite direction his wingman,
Lieutenant George Orr, attacked a fighter that dived away, then made a stern attack on
the bombers, also claiming one in flames and one smoking. In a second pass, he claimed
to have driven the smoking plane into the sea and saw one of Sutcliff’s victims explode.

Captain Walter Benz and Lieutenant Robert Gibb also attacked the formation, the former
rupturing the fuel tanks of one bomber and both pilots seeing it fall into the water. Gallagher
and Lieutenant Edward Wyroba also claimed bombers, while Lieutenant Winans Frankfort
shot an escorting Tony into the sea. His victim may have been Sergeant Major Makoto
Matsumoto of the 78th Sentai, who was listed as killed over the Bismarck Sea, or a second
Ki.61 that the Japanese admitted to have lost that day, but claims over Tonys in the same
action were also made by squadron mate Lieutenant James E. Pratt and by 1st Lt. Vivian A. Cloud,
a P-38 pilot of the 432nd Squadron, 475th Fighter Group. Pratt’s plane subsequently crashed after being hit by American anti-aircraft fire—contrary to the 248th’s Sentai’s earlier double claim,
the only P-47 lost that day.

While the 342nd Fighter Group was shredding the Ki.49s, Lamson reported seeing a Helen
fall victim to Mugford’s guns over Borgen Bay, one of three bombers the American destroyers claimed in the action. After all that punishment, Colonel Rowland, leading eight P-47s at 15,000 feet, got a call from the fighter director that an enemy torpedo bomber was making a run on an American warship and spotted one more dark brown bomber at 2,000 feet, making a left turn
to attack the ships. After seeing another P-47 make a half-hearted attack on it, the 348’s commander shook his head, looked around to check for enemy fighters, then grinned, dropped
his auxiliary fuel tanks and rolled over into a screaming dive. Accompanied by his wingman,
Rowland noted that the bomber—which he identified as a Betty—was trailing gray smoke as
it tried to press its attack. Firing at 200 yards, he saw it explode and the left wing come off
before it fell flaming into the sea.

Rowland’s victim is believed to have been piloted by Corporal Katsumi Omori, with Sgt. Maj. Yoshiharu Takata as his on-board commander, because Marines found Omori’s diary on Cape Gloucester later that day. It revealed that Omori had graduated from pilot training in July 1942,
and after operational training was assigned to the 3rd Chutai of the 61st Sentai in the Netherlands East Indies. He did not fly his first combat mission over New Guinea until October 1943, when his company joined the 61st’s main force on Wakde Island. A discrepancy exists between Japanese
army records and the American combat reports as to just how many bombers were there,
but both agree that the flight was annihilated.

As the 342nd returned to Finschhafen between 1730 and 1800 hours, O’Neill’s assistant
crew chief, Sergeant Charles Fox, was among the ground crewmen who were treated to a spectacular air show as a succession of Thunderbolts performed victory rolls or close passes
over the runway before landing. Fox was concerned for O’Neill, however. His P-47D-2RE had
been a maintenance nightmare, giving incessant trouble in spite of the mechanics’ daily efforts
to keep it operational. Sure enough, as O’Neill touched down and taxied up, one brake cylinder malfunctioned, causing the plane to ground loop. A dismayed Fox ran up and was relieved to
find the pilot unharmed—and was soon bursting with pride when O’Neill’s normally dour face
broke into a broad grin and he announced his four victories.

O’Neill’s quadruple claim, confirmed by his squadron, set a single-sortie group record
that only its top gun, Neel Kearby matched or exceeded. It also placed him quite
suddenly in the fraternity of aces.

O’Neill added no further successes to his official tally, but his steady performance with the
squadron earned him a promotion to captain by the time his tour of duty ended. “I came home
in September 1944, from Biak,” he said, “and got out in October 1945.”

The postwar years would see a resumption of Lawrence O’Neill’s military career, albeit
in a very different direction. “I went to school in the GI Bill and studied engineering,” he said,
getting his Bachelor of Science at the University of Missouri at Rolla. “I joined the Navy as
a lieutenant junior grade on February 24, 1948,” he added, “and made lieutenant on
August 1, 1951, lieutenant commander on January 1, 1957, and commander on
June 1, 1961. I retired from the Navy after 17 years, in May 1965. I then worked
as a civil engineer in St. Louis until my final retirement in 1986.”

Larry O’Neill signs autographs during the American Fighter Aces Association
2006 Reunion at San Antonio Texas. (Bill Martin)

References:

Richard L. Dunn, Tuluvu’s Air War, Chapter IX, “Landings on Western New Britain,” 2003

Frank Olynyk, Stars & Bars: A Tribute to the American Fighter Ace, 1920-1973, Grub Street, London, England, 1995.

John C. Stanaway, Kearby’s Thunderbolts: The 348th Fighter Group in World War II, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA, 1997.

"An Aces Story" is from the American Fighter Aces Bulletin,
featuring “first person” accounts of experiences written
by the Aces themselves.
The AFAA bulletin is sent 4 times a year to current members.

Join us...see the contact us page for more information.