First Lieutenant, United States Air Force
Robert O'Neil, a World War II fighter pilot with the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, a corps of black military men who fought segregation, Nazis and, in O'Neil's case, his way out of enemy-held France after being shot down, died June 18, 2002, at his home in the Loudoun County community of South Riding. Virginia. He was 80 and had cancer.
O'Neil -- then First Lieutenant O'Neil -- completed pilot training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama in January 1944. He went to North Africa to escort large bombers.
That September, he was doing an escort run in a P-51 Mustang when German aircraft shot him down along the southern coast of France.
He parachuted from the plane, which crashed to the ground. He landed in some trees, injuring a knee, hid his chute, waited an hour and saw a young girl running his way.
She was with the French Resistance, and he spent the next two weeks with the underground, working his way back to a U.S. Army unit in France. He also helped the French blow up German trains and trucks before the Army returned him to his unit in Italy.
On his arrival, it was hard to tell who was more surprised -- his Tuskegee colleagues, who had been told that he had been killed in action, or O'Neil, as he saw that the men had divvied up his belongings and were wearing his clothes.
"He made them give them all back to him," said Mr. O'Neil's second wife, Jennie Krasinski O'Neil. "He took it in stride. He said he knew this was what they did."
His decorations included the Air Medal.
Back in Michigan after his ordeal in France, he and other Tuskegee Airmen officers were refused entry to an officers club. O'Neil's family said an Army official threatened the men with court-martial if they did not leave. All were arrested and later released, the family said.
O'Neil's wife said he wanted to fly as a commercial pilot after the war but was told that no one would fly with a black pilot.
He found work in Los Angeles as a lathe operator at Lockheed Corp. He then spent many years at ITT Gilfillan, a radar communications aerospace company, becoming a program manager and one of the first blacks in management.
He moved to the Washington area in 1975 and retired in the mid-1980s as manufacturing coordinator at Bendix Corporation.
He spent the past decade doing part-time cashiering at the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control store in Centreville. He stopped working in December, after his cancer was diagnosed.
O'Neil, a Detroit native, attended Wayne State University and the University of California at Los Angeles.
His avocations included woodworking, collecting modern art and playing classical music on his clarinet. His father had been a professional jazz clarinetist, and Mr. O'Neil had earned a music scholarship to Wayne State years before.
His marriage to Gloria O'Neil ended in divorce.
Survivors include his second wife, whom he
married in 1987, of South Riding; three children from his first marriage,
Robert Keith O'Neil of San Jose, Maureen O'Neil Beer of Germany and Kathleen
O'Neil of Port Hueneme, Calif.; two stepchildren, Dean Masajada of Ruther
Glen, Va., and Kimberly Mitchell of South Riding; and eight grandchildren.
On Tuesday, June 18, 2002, at home in South Riding, VA. Husband of Jennie M. O'Neil; father of Keith O'Neil, Kathleen O'Neil, Maureen Beer; stepfather of Kimberly Mitchell and Dean Masajada; grandfather of Scott, Elizabeth, Marina, Tabitha, Ashley, Haydee, Rachel and Lydia.
Funeral services with full military honors will be held on Tuesday, July 30 at 11 a.m. at Fort Myer Old Post Chapel. Interment Arlington National Cemetery Columbarium.
In lieu of flowers, contributions to Hospice of Northern Virginia, 9300 Lee Hwy., Suite 500, Fairfax, VA 22031-1207.
Posted: 16 July 2002 Updated: 7 August 2002 Updated: 15 January 2006 Updated: 23 August 2006