Thursday, March 6, 2014

March 6, 1945: Harry O'Neill Makes The Ultimate Sacrifice

   
     On March 6, 1945, 27-year-old Philadelphia A's catcher Harry O'Neill was killed at Iwo Jima. More than 500 major leaguers served their country during World War II. Two were killed in action. Nearly a year before O'Neill lost his life Washington Senators outfielder Elmer Gedeon became the first casualty of World War II who had major league experience. Like O'Neill, Gedeon's time in the majors was short. He played in just 5 games, recorded 3 hits in 15 at bats, and scored a run. O'Neill saw just one inning of work behind the dish. He never did get an at bat. However, he did serve his country proudly. Both men were 27 years of age when they were killed. We tend to remember the service of the superstar players like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Bob Feller, and rightly so, as their service should never be forgotten. The same should be said when it comes to the names Harry O'Neill and Elmer Gedeon. Their service should never be forgotten as they paid the ultimate price in the name of freedom. Today we should all tip our caps to the both of them and to each of the men and women who have paid that price.

     Gedeon and O'Neill were two very similar people. They had both excelled at the collegiate level in multiple sports. Gedeon spent his college days at the University of Michigan. He had lettered in baseball, football, and track and field. While track was considered to be his best sport his baseball skills caught the eye of the Washington Senators. In the Summer of '39, Gedeon signed a deal to play for the club. He was promoted to the majors in the final weeks of the season where he got a taste of the big leagues. Following that season he spent a season with the Senators minor league affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina where he hit .271 in 131 games. It would be his last season as a professional baseball player as he joined the ranks of the military in the Spring of '41.

     Like Gedeon, O'Neill signed a deal to play ball in the Summer of '39 after graduating from college. O'Neill spent his college days at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, He had excelled in baseball, basketball, and football. In June of '39 O'Neill's college baseball coach Ira Plank, whose brother Eddie had forged a Hall of Fame career, put him in contact with the legendary manager  Connie Mack. Mack was impressed with O'Neill's abilities enough to offer him a contract. A month after he signed O'Neill would make his one and only appearance at the major league level. He came in as a late defensive replacement for Frankie Hayes as his A's were being romped to the tune of 16-3 by the Detroit Tigers. Not exactly storybook, but reaching the major league level is something that most players only dream of. Just like Gedeon, O'Neill would spend his next year in the minor leagues before joining the Marine Corps.

     They each lost their lives a few years after joining the service. In February of 1944, Gedeon earned his wings, two months later he was shot down while piloting a B-26 bomber during an attack on enemy construction works. His co-pilot survived, but Gedeon was not as fortunate. He was initially reported missing in action, then in 1945 the British military reported that he had been buried at a cemetery in France. His body was returned to the United States and he was laid to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. O'Neill had risen to the rank of lieutenant. He was a part of multiple missions before being wounded by shrapnel in July of '44. For that he received a Purple Heart. He returned stateside where he was nursed back to health. In October of '44, he returned to service and continued to fight for his country.

     The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest battles during World War II. The islands that are Iwo Jima had three airfields that the United States sought to control. The battle began on February 19, 1945 and ended on March 26, 1945. Before it was over 6,821 American soldiers had lost their lives. O'Neill was one of those 6,821 men. On that fateful day in early March he was killed by sniper fire. He, like Gedeon did not get to live the lives that brought him well deserved recognition. He was also laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. They did not accomplish the things that an average sports hero accomplishes. However, they are the true heroes and On This Day their lives are remembered.

I just want to add that I do not like to write about someone losing their life. It does happen from time to time, but I do believe that telling the story of their lives is a way to honor them. I truly appreciate all of the men and women who sacrifice their lives to protect our freedoms. I would like to thank each and everyone of them for their service. If you happen to be serving, or have served, Thank You.

If you would like to read more about the life and times of Harry O'Neill check this out: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/44e9cdff


   

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