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First Name: Robert

Last Name: O'Neal

Birthplace: Concord Twp, Miami, OH, US

Gender: Male

Branch: Navy (present)

Rating: Seaman 1st Class

Home of Record: OH
Middle Name: Shilling

Date of Birth: 28 January 1919

Date of Death: 25 November 1945 (Presumed)

MIA Date: 01 March 1942

Rank or Rate: Seaman

Years Served: 1940-1945

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


Robert Shilling, born 28 Jan 1919, was the youngest of five children born to William Thomas and Elizabeth Bush (Rowlette) O’Neal who married in Kentucky in 1904. Robert’s siblings were Mary Adline Avey, William Sidney, Howard O., and Helen Rowlette Fulton.

Robert’s family lived in Kentucky until about 1913/14 when they removed to Troy, OH. Two children of the five children were born in OH. William T. was a telegraph operator for the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad for all of his working life (43 years) so his continuous employment helped the family navigate the vagaries of the 1920s. Even with William’s steady employment the crash of 1929 that sent the American economy into a tail-spin proved to be challenging to provide for the family’s needs. Between 1926-1930, three of William and Elizabeth’s children left the home place to start their own families. The reduction in the number of mouths to feed was helpful in balancing their budget. The fourth child, Helen, married about 1934, leaving only Robert at home.

Robert was just completing his second year at Troy high school when tragedy struck the family. Robert’s mother, Elizabeth, died unexpectedly on 3 Jun 1939 at the age of 59.

Robert continued to work part-time as he moved ahead with his studies at Troy high school. According to the April 1940 census, he was still in school. He became a member of the Troy fire department. Robert hoped to provide additional steady income to help his dad with expenses. Just like many other young folks, members of the Greatest Generation, Robert also wished to learn a trade, maybe travel and see some of the world, and he was filled with patriotic spirit. Like so many others, Robert looked to the US Navy to fulfill some of his plans. He traveled the 75 miles from Troy, OH to Cincinnati, OH to submit an application for enlistment in April 1940 at the Navy Recruiting Station (NRS). Over the next several weeks, Robert completed general aptitude examinations; submitted personal references, completed administrative paperwork, passed background checks and successfully passed physical and dental examinations. Now that he was 21 years old he didn’t need his father’s consent to enlist.

Robert was accepted for enlistment in early May 1940. On 07 May 1940, Robert, along with 19 other young men, enlisted in the US Navy (NSN: 279-67-91) at NRS, Cincinnati for four years as an Apprentice Seaman (AS). He was sent to the Naval Training Station (NTS), Great Lakes, IL for ten weeks of recruit training. Upon completion of training, AS O’Neal was granted 10 days of “Recruit Leave” to see family. He returned to NTS, Great Lakes after his leave was over to receive orders to report to the heavy cruiser, USS San Francisco (CA-38) for duty. In May 1940, San Francisco steamed to the Puget Sound Navy Yard (PNSY) for an overhaul. That is where AS O’Neal reported to the San Francisco for duty on 09 Aug 1940. On 07 Sep, AS O’Neal advanced in rate to Seaman Second Class (S2c). Several days later on 10 Sep San Francisco departed Bremerton and steamed south to San Pedro, CA. On 23 Sep, San Francisco was underway from San Pedro steaming to Hawaii. On 29 Sep, she arrived at Pearl Harbor.

S2c O’Neal was not on board the San Francisco (she was one of the most decorated ships in the Pacific during WWII.) very long. On 02 Nov 1940, he transferred to the heavy cruiser, USS Houston (CA-30) as a passenger. Houston was being deployed to the Asiatic fleet to become the flagship for Admiral Thos. C. Hart, CINC, Asiatic Fleet. Houston got underway on 3 Nov from Pearl Harbor steaming for Manila via a stop in Guam. She arrived in Manila on 28 Nov where she disembarked her passengers. S2c O’Neal reported to the Commander, Destroyer Squadron 29 on board the destroyer tender, USS Black Hawk (AD-9) for assignment. The following day, S2c O’Neal reported to the destroyer, USS Edsall (DD-219) for duty. It was to be his final duty station. On New Year's Day 1942, S2c O’Neal advanced in rate to Seaman First Class (S1c).


Prelude to War and the Disappearance of the USS Edsall (DD-219)

The threat of hostilities between the United States and Japan grew closer to the boiling point as the year 1941 began. Asiatic Fleet CINC, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, determined then it was time to send all of the families of his sailors home. There was push-back from the resentful spouses who initially declined to leave their husbands. It was only a threat to indefinitely restrict their spouses to their ships without leave that finally convinced the families; it was time to comply with orders and return to the continental United States (CONUS). Admiral Hart's directive probably saved many family members from internment by the Japanese or worse. For many of the married sailors, it was the last time they would ever see their families.

Then, in July 1941, as Japanese aggression intensified with their move south into lower Indo-China, Admiral Hart warned his officers that he had no doubt that war would come although he didn’t know how or when it would start. Hart trained his destroyer crews hard keeping them on a war-footing for extended periods and away from Cavite naval base as much as possible exercising his “defensive deployment.”

Ordered to comply with Adm. Hart’s “defensive deployment” well south of Manila, units of the Asiatic Fleet, including destroyer tender USS Blackhawk (AD-9), USS Edsall (DD-219) and other ships of Destroyer Division (DesDiv) 57, got underway on 25 Nov 1941, and arrived on the morning of 29 Nov 1941 in Balikpapan, a major oil port on the eastern coast of Borneo.

On 8 Dec 1941, Edsall, an element of Destroyer Division 57 (DESDIV), was enroute to Batavia (Djakarta) when word of the attacks on Pearl Harbor was received. The division altered course to Singapore to act as ASW screen for Force Z. From Singapore, Edsall was sent to search for survivors of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, sunk off Malaya on 10 Dec. No survivors were found. It was learned later that other ships had retrieved the survivors. For the next month, Edsall and other units of DESDIV 57 were used to escort shipping to and from Australia. It was on one of these escort trips that Edsall participated in the sinking of IJN submarine (I-124) off Darwin. Several days later, Edsall was damaged during another attack on a suspected submarine. One of Edsall's depth charges exploded prematurely in shallow water damaging one of Edsall’s propeller shafts. This damage would play an important role in her eventual sinking.

On 3 February, Edsall and other American units of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Force (ABDA) moved up to Tjilatjap, Java in order to be closer to the combat theater and refueling facilities. She continued her service as a patrol vessel off southern Java. On 26 February, she steamed from Tjilatjap with her sister ship USS Whipple (DD-217) to rendezvous with the converted seaplane tender USS Langley (AV-3) carrying P-40E fighters and crews for the defense of Java. On 27 February, the Langley, along with Edsall and Whipple, came under attack by sixteen (16) Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bombers of the Japanese 21st and 23rd Naval Air Flotillas and escorted by fifteen (15) A6M Reisen fighters. The attack fatally damaged Langley. She had to be abandoned and later scuttled by Whipple. Edsall rescued 177 survivors; Whipple, 308.

On 28 February, the two destroyers rendezvoused with the fuel replenishment ship USS Pecos (AO-6) off Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island some 250 miles southwest of Tjilatjap. A sudden attack by land based Japanese bombers forced Edsall and the other ships to head for the open sea. They headed directly south into the Indian Ocean for the rest of 28 February in high winds and heavy seas.

Early in the pre-dawn hours of 1 March, Whipple and Edsall transferred all the Langley survivors to Pecos. There were now close to 700 personnel on board the ship. Whipple then set off for Cocos Islands as protection for the tanker Belita sent to meet her there. The Pecos, carrying a large number of survivors was ordered to Australia. Edsall had retained 32 USAAF personnel from Langley needed to assemble and fly an additional 27 P-40E fighters shipped to Tjilatjap aboard the transport Sea Witch. Edsall was instructed to return these "fighter crews" to Tjilatjap. At 0830, she reversed course and headed back to the northeast for Java.

At noon that day, planes from Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu attacked Pecos and struck again an hour later. Finally, in mid-afternoon, third and fourth strikes from aircraft carriers Hiryu and Akagi fatally wounded the Pecos. While under attack, Pecos radioed for help. After Pecos sank, Whipple returned to the scene intentionally arriving after dark. She eventually rescued 232 survivors. Many other survivors, although visible to crewmembers on board Whipple, had to be abandoned at sea because Whipple made sonar contact with what was believed to be several Japanese submarines. It was just too dangerous for her to remain in the area. Edsall may have heard Pecos’s call for help or she may have been complying with orders to reverse course and steam toward Australia.

Mr William O’Neal received a telegram on 19 March 1942 from Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of the Bureau of Navigation of the US Navy. It read: "The Navy Department regrets to inform you that the ship to which your son, Robert Shilling O’Neal, of the US navy was attached, has been lost in action. Information received indicates there may be some survivors, but no positive information regarding your son has been received." S1c O’Neal became the first Troy military casualty of WWII.

For the next three years in March the Navy sent a letter to Mr O” Neal to update the status of his son. In early Dec 1945, the final letter came explaining why S1c O’Neal was being declared "presumed" dead. The official date of his "presumed" death was 25 Nov 1945.

The final muster report for Edsall on 01 Mar 1942 (written several years later) shows that S1c Robert Shilling O’Neal was missing in action on 01 Mar 1942 and presumed dead on 25 Nov 1945. His remains were unrecoverable.


The Truth Finally Told

For whatever the reason, Edsall reversed course and was never heard from again. The US Navy Department simply said Edsall was lost due to enemy action. The US Navy Department declared all Edsall crewmembers “presumed” dead on 25 Nov 1945. This finding of presumptive death date was fixed in order to take care of settlements and claims. At that point no one suspected that survivors from Edsall were among many victims of war crimes on Celebes.

Because no known survivors lived to tell the story, the details surrounding the sinking of Edsall remained largely a mystery for more than a half century. Finally, after historians compiled bits and pieces of information from various allied sources over the years, Japanese records and eyewitnesses on the Chikuma recently became available. The new information points to a short but epic battle involving the aging Edsall and one of the world's strongest naval forces of its day.

After Edsall reversed her course on 01 Mar 1942 and steamed away from Java, she stumbled upon Admiral Nagumo's battle force, Kido Butai, that had been prowling the Indian Ocean in search of enemy shipping. Unfortunately, Edsall was spotted first. She was misidentified as a light cruiser of the Marblehead class. IJN battleships Hiei and Kirishima and heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma were detached from the battle force to attack Edsall with surface gunfire.

The old four-stacker began evasive maneuvers frustrating the Japanese for the next hour and half. However, because of the damage done previously to one of her propeller shafts, Edsall was unable to make top speed or maneuver fully. At one point Edsall turned and launched her torpedoes narrowly missing Chikuma. The Japanese fired some 1400 rounds resulting in only one or two direct hits. The frustrated Admiral Nagumo called upon his carriers to finish off the Edsall. She was attacked by dive-bombers from two Japanese carriers (Kaga, Soryu,) and possibly a third (Hiryu) before succumbing to this devastating attack. The Edsall went down at 1900 hours, 01 Mar 1942, 430 miles south of Java.

Japanese eyewitnesses confirm that at least eight Edsall crewman from a large number of survivors were fished out of the water and brought on board the Chikuma. The rest of the survivors were left to their fate in the water. Chikuma and the rest of the battle force arrived at Staring Bay anchorage, Celebes on 11 Mar 1942. Three dozen POWs, 8 or more from the Edsall and the remainder from a Dutch ship, were turned over to the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces based at Kendari where they were executed on 24 Mar 1942 near Kendari II airfield.

After WWII ended, an Allied War Crimes Tribunal was convened in Java. During the course of the Tribunal's investigations, an eyewitness to Japanese executions was discovered and interviewed. He testified that he witnessed the execution by the Japanese of a number of POWs in 1942. He led investigators to the Japanese Execution Grounds mass grave, Kendari II, Celebes, N.E.I. Five sets of remains in a group of about 10 were later identified from ID tags as USS Edsall crewmen. The other five were unknown but were possibly US Army Air force personnel on board Edsall from the Langley. A sixth set of remains were found in another burying ground on Celebes. They were identified by an ID tag as those of Fireman Second Class (F2) Loren Stanford Myers, a crewman from the Edsall.

All of these remains were disinterred and reburied in the US Military Cemetery, Barrackpore, India on 12 Nov 1946. After three years, their remains were disinterred again and reburied in a mass grave at the National cemetery at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, MO on 20 Dec 1949. The remains of F2 Myers were reinterred according to immediate family wishes in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, HI on 31 Mar 1950. With the discovery of these remains, their presumed date of death was amended to 02 Mar 1942.


U.S. National Cemetery Interment Control Forms, 1928-1962 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012, MM2 J.R. Cameron, USN, died 2 Mar 1942 overseas. Remains returned from overseas WWII. Group burial with MM1 Horace W. Andrus, F1c Sydney Griffith Amory, MM3c Larry Vandiver, and F1c Donald F. Watters at Jefferson Barracks. MO on 20 Dec 1949.


S1c O’Neal was (posthumously) awarded the Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Fleet Clasp and three bronze stars (one bronze star in lieu of Clasp), Philippine Defense Medal with clasp, and WWII Victory Medal. Williams was eligible for the Combat Action Ribbon.


A commemoration in honor of S1c O’Neal’s service from President Harry S. Truman reads:

In Grateful Memory of Robert Shilling O’Neal, Who Died In The Service Of His Country At Sea, Asiatic Area, attached U.S.S. Edsall, 25 November 1945 (presumed). He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives – in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.


Harry Truman

President of the United States of America

Bio #327 composed by Gerry Lawton (GML470/G47)

Find A Grave memorial #56765813

Military Hall of Honor ID#154672

Honoree ID: 154672   Created by: MHOH




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