Canberra, Australia: Jon O’Neill flew 23 hours from Florida to the mountainous jungles of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific in search of clues to the life of his war hero father, whom he can barely remember. At times, it has been a painful journey of discovery among the rusted relics entangled in undergrowth of a conflict that ended 75 years ago for his father, US Army Air Forces 9th Fighter Squad-ron of the 49th Fighter Group ace John G. “Jump” O’Neill. But it has also been an experience planned over a decade that has rewarded the 57-year-old editor and recreational pilot from De Land, Florida, beyond his expectations.
“I go ... back home with more memories than I ever thought I would be able to take with me. It's been amazing,” the son said from Rabaul, the former Japanese stronghold on the Papua New Guinea island of New Britain, over which the father had four of his eight Japanese kills in a P-38 Lighting fighter. The image of the father had been etched in the son’s mind more by family stories than by memory. John O’Neill died of leukemia in Florida when his only son was 6 and his daughter Tracey was a year younger.
With guidance of World War II historian Justin Taylan, founder of charity website Pacific-Wrecks.com, which documents and preserves war sites and graves, the son has retraced his father’s 1943 wartime steps, from Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, to the wilds of the country’s north and east coasts. Japan took Rabaul in 1942 and held it until the war ended in 1945. The son’s two weeks in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s nearest neighbour, ends on Wednesday.