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Breaking Down Barriers: 1st Lt. Robert O’Neil, Tuskegee Airman

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brooke Moeder
  • 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ashley O’Brien, 31st Fighter Wing Equal Opportunity superintendent, recalls a memory of her sitting in a sixth grade classroom, hanging onto every detail of a Tuskegee Airman’s words as he recounted his escapades.

O’Brien’s step grandfather, Robert (Bob) O’Neil, described the experience of flying in the back of a P-51 Mustang and how bone-chilling cold it was, so cold he and his crew made ice cream as they flew over France.  

O’Neil was one of more than 1,000 World War II fighter pilots with the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps. They flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during WWII, destroying 251 enemy aircraft.

O’Brien and O’Neil shared many fond memories, and especially bonded over their love of playing the clarinet.

“I played [the clarinet] in elementary and middle school,” said O’Brien. “Although, I have a lot of great memories with him. My sister and I were always excited to see him, and he never made us feel like we were ‘the step grandkids.’ He really made us feel like we were part of the family.”

O’Neil did not openly talk about his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman often, but O’Brien said she admires all the barriers he broke while he was enlisted.

In World War II, an individual was required to be 18 years old to enlist. At 16 years old and eager to leave his hometown of Detroit, O’Neil had to forge his mother’s signature in 1943 to enlist, said O’Brien.

In January 1944, O’Neil completed pilot training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. He was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group, 100th Fighter Squadron, and escorted large bombers during missions.

In February 1944, the 100th FS arrived in Italy and joined other squadrons to make up the new 332nd FG. The aircraft’s identifying mark was a red tail, earning them the nickname “Red Tails.” 

The pilots of the 332nd FG began flying P-51s to escort the heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force during raids into enemy territory. O’Neil was executing an escort run in a P-51 when a German aircraft shot him down into a tree in France.

“He was rescued by a woman, and her brother, I think, from the French resistance after hiding from the Nazis in a storage container,” said O’Brien. “Even when the woman found him, he insisted on staying where he was because he knew the Nazis would kill everyone in that small village if they found him.”

As he made his way back to his unit in Italy, O’Neil helped members from the French Resistance destroy German trains and trucks.

“When he got back to his unit, they all thought he was dead,” said O’Brien. “They’d divvied up all his belongings. He came back from being gone to everyone wearing his clothes.”

O’Neil passed away from cancer in 2002 at the age of 80, more than 57 years after the end of WWII.  

“At his funeral, his commanding officer shared that O’Neil used to play pranks on everyone,” said O’Brien. “He especially liked to put gum on the earpiece of the phone, hand the phone to you saying you had a call, and then you’d get gum all over your ear.”

A tribute is painted on a wall in the Airman Leadership School to commemorate 1st Lt. Robert O’Neil and all other Tuskegee Airmen. U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Bridget Hoffman, 31st Munitions Squadron armament maintenance supervisor, and Airman 1st Class Logan Cindrich, 31st MUNs weapons back shop member, completed the painting Feb. 19, 2021.

“The tribute took 50 or more hours from start to finish,” said Hoffman. “It has so many moving parts and it showcases the copious amount of war-time sorties that the Tuskegee Airmen were able to accomplish. The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of men who forever changed the future for our military forces. They proved everyone wrong, they saved countless lives and they made those red tails famous.”

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dominique Griffin, 31st Force Support Squadron ALS instructor, coordinated the behind-the-scenes details for the tribute. She got O’Brien’s blessing to put pictures of 1st Lt. O’Neil on the wall to pay tribute to all that he and the Tuskegee Airmen achieved.

“I think it's important to commemorate them because of all of the barriers they had to face, just from the color of their skin not deeming them worthy enough to be a pilot,” said Griffin. “The number of lives they saved [who] didn't even look like them… I think that is a tribute in itself. His legacy will be left in the schoolhouse.”

Griffin says that we are all a part of history, no matter what background an individual comes from.

“This is what we need to highlight,” said Griffin. “Not only are African Americans a part of history, but we all are. African American history is still U.S. history.”

Other than her grandfather, O’Brien is the only member of her family to enlist in the military. She looks back and wishes O’Neil would have shared more experiences about his time in the military and the challenges he had to face.

“I do wish I was able to appreciate what he did more when he was alive, like I do now,” said O’Brien. “I didn’t really understand the significance when I was a child, but I admire the courage he had and what he had to overcome.”