Originally Published: March 24, 2013 8:47 p.m.
PRESCOTT - Arizona is proud, and rightfully so, of Frank Luke, World War I fighter ace, who was born in Phoenix. He was the first pilot to receive the Medal of Honor and ranks second - after Eddie Rickenbacher - in aerial victories, and there's an air force base in the west Valley named for him.
But nearly forgotten by history is Luke's contemporary, Ralph A. O'Neill, who grew up in Nogales, Ariz., flew 103 missions, was awarded several citations including the Distinguished Flying Cross, and started an airline after the war.
Alan Roesler, a World War I aviation historian from Mesa, has made it a goal to shed light on O'Neill's career. He was instrumental in having O'Neill inducted into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame in 2010.
Roesler, who is also a published author, spoke to a crowd of about 50 at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Wednesday night, detailing O'Neill's history.
O'Neill, it turns out, flew in the same unit as hometown hero Ernest A. Love, the 147th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Service, and Roesler has researched and spoken about him as well.
A fighter "ace" is a pilot who has five or more confirmed kills in battle. There were 107 Americans who achieved that status; O'Neill, with five, and Luke, with 18, were among them, although Love was not.
Born in 1896 in Mexico, O'Neill was a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico.
In 1901, the family moved to Nogales for several years, and then the peripatetic O'Neills moved away and ended up back in Mexico before relocating to El Paso, Texas.
To hear Roesler tell it, O'Neill was larger than life, by his own design.
"He wanted to get into the war, but he wanted to be his own man," Roesler said. "'I had no desire to be one of the mob,'" he continued, quoting O'Neill, who said he envisioned himself as a "knight in armor."
After training, he ended up being delayed in joining the squadron. "He had a couple of weeks to kill in London," Roesler said, and during that time, "he had British-style military uniforms made up. He didn't want just an American uniform."
O'Neill also fell in love with the daughter of a British Royal Navy captain, and for a brief time, didn't want to leave London.
The aerial combat in World War I took place primarily in the skies over France. The still-green O'Neill was first assigned to a unit that saw little combat. "Ralph complained that, during June 1918, he didn't have a single encounter with a German" in 30 combat patrols, Roesler said.
He eventually was assigned to a more active area, and went on to gain his ace status.
After the war, he helped the Mexican government develop an air force to fight rebellions and coup attempts.
Later, he went on to start the New York, Rio, and Buenos Aires Line, which was ultimately swallowed up by Pan Am.
The audience for the presentation was diverse, with ERAU students sitting next to World War II veterans.
Next month, ERAU will host Tom Cossaboom, a retired U.S. Air Force historian, as he speaks about the WWII Berlin Airlift. The free presentation will take place at the Davis Learning Center Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10.