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Largo veteran closes gap between 'greatest generation' and newest generation

Howard O’Neil, 90, of Largo was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart during World War II. With him at left is his wife, Millie, 90.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Howard O’Neil, 90, of Largo was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart during World War II. With him at left is his wife, Millie, 90.

Howard O'Neil told his great-grandson he'd leave him his Purple Heart and Silver Star in his will.

Last year, the 90-year-old Largo man decided not to wait any longer and gave them to 13-year-old Satchel Johnsen. It's a decision they're both thrilled with.

"It makes me feel like I helped a kid be a patriotic American," O'Neil said.

Satchel, now 14, of Long Island, N.Y., says his great-grandfather's gift was a big moment for him.

"First thing I did was call all my friends and showed all my relatives," he said. "I put them (the medals) in a frame and I have all his articles and pictures.

"I believe I'm one of the more patriotic teenagers today that support America in whatever actions we take."

• • •

O'Neil, originally from New York and now living in Fairway Mobile Home Park, remembers, down to the last detail, how he earned those medals.

His military adventures began in December of 1940 when his friend Willie Finck got his draft notice. O'Neil decided to go along and volunteer so he could get into the Coast Guard artillery. But that's not what happened.

"The guy told me okay, you're in," he said. "One month later, I was getting my shots and uniforms in Long Island and they had put me into the Army infantry."

O'Neil got into the Army even though he had only partial vision in his left eye because of a childhood injury. He said he passed the military eye test when he enlisted by covering the same eye twice.

Despite his inadvertent route to the Army, O'Neil said he was able to make the best of things.

"It was the happiest day of my life," he said. "Thank God because I had 150 New York guys with me. Company F, 106th regiment of New York's 27th infantry. I met lifelong friends."

O'Neil's ability to adapt also helped him cope in combat.

In 1944 at age 25, he was awarded the Silver Star for his actions at Saipan in the Mariana Islands. He dodged sniper fire to create a forward observation post.

"Marines originally hit the beach. They lost a hell of a lot of men. (They) took a shellackin'," O'Neil said. "We lost our first men. We started to cross over the island. We had a hell of a time because the Japanese lived underground in tunnels.

"We come to one point and we notice a lot of action down in the valley — Japanese cars and bicycles."

O'Neil and that young lieutenant fought off machine gun fire to discover where dozens of troops and ammunition were held.

"It was an ammo dump and we blew it up."

Just days later, shrapnel from a shell hit O'Neil's wrist, sending him back to Hawaii for treatment. He nearly lost his hand but doctors were able to save it. That's when he was awarded the Purple Heart.

While on furlough in December 1944, O'Neil met Betty Schwick of Hollis, N.Y. Just 17 days later, they were married.

"I was away for three years," O'Neil said, with a chuckle.

After his discharge in 1945, O'Neil went on to work as a milkman, a newspaper deliveryman for New York city hotels and a magazine wholesaler before retiring to Largo in 1978.

He and Betty had 41 years together before her death from lung cancer in 1985. He has three children, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

He also found love again and married his current wife, Mildred, 90, in 1986.

• • •

When it comes to Independence Day and all its historical significance, O'Neil has mixed feelings.

"This is the greatest country in the world," he said. "Everybody at one time was patriotic. That doesn't seem true anymore. I really believe this country is greatest in the world and a lot of people don't think so."

O'Neil knows his greatest gift to his grandson isn't the medals, it's the love for America. Satchel says if his country needed him, he'd be ready.

"I would follow my family's footsteps. It's for the cause — to protect America," he said. "Most likely, I would not hesitate."

Decades after his heroics, O'Neil now lives quietly in his mobile home community.

His childhood eye injury, combined with a detached retina in a work accident in 1968, have limited his vision through the years. And a bout with shingles last year left him completely blind.

But he still has a clear vision of one thing. He credits faith for his longevity.

"I'm lucky," he said. "I believe in God. That's the only answer I have. I enjoy life. My slogan is, 'Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.'

"All I know is I've lived a charmed life."

Largo veteran closes gap between 'greatest generation' and newest generation 07/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 5:00pm]
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