The Air Force Historical Research Agency recently credited Capt. Eugene O’Neill Jr. with his fifth victory during World War II, making him the 40th ace of the 56th Fighter Wing.
As I learned of this major milestone in our wing’s history, I couldn’t help but think back on one of the most rewarding experiences of my Air Force career when I met one of those 40 aces, retired Col. Billy Edens. The stories of these two heroes are inspirational for Thunderbolts today and remind us of our proud legacy of courage and sacrifice.
The 56th FW traces its history back to the 56th Pursuit Group activated in 1941 and re-designated the 56th Fighter Group in 1942. O’Neill flew 87 combat sorties during World War II in the 56th FG’s 62nd Fighter Squadron. On one mission Nov. 26, 1943, he earned two of his five kills while leading a formation of P-47s. During the sortie, O’Neill’s flight completed a rendezvous to escort a formation of withdrawing U.S. bombers from Germany. A furious aerial battle ensued during which O’Neill destroyed one of the enemy planes, pressing his attack so close that pieces of the disintegrating plane damaged his own aircraft knocking off a portion of the wing tip and damaging the tail assembly. In spite of this, O’Neill, thinking only of the safety of the bombers, attacked and destroyed another enemy fighter that was vigorously attacking a straggling bomber. The bomber survived, the withdrawal was successful and he was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.
Later on in the war, then 2nd Lt. Billy Edens became an ace with seven aerial victories while flying with the 56th FG out of Boxted, England. I had the pleasure of meeting Edens in 2010 and hearing his amazing stories first hand. At age 87, the colonel brought history to life as he recounted tales of sacrifice and triumph during the war. In addition to being an ace, Edens piloted four aircraft that went down during the war. Amazing survival and evasion stories followed each of those losses. During his second combat mission, he was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft artillery, bailed out and spent six hours in the North Sea. Despite severe hypothermia, he was airborne a few weeks later, scoring his first kills of the war. During what would be his last combat mission of World War II, Edens was captured and spent 10 months as a prisoner of war in Barth, Germany. While a POW, Edens continually found small ways to resist.
“The more I did to resist, the more guards the enemy had to keep at the camp and the less troops they could send to the front,” he said.
His fighting spirit never faded, no matter how bleak his circumstances appeared.
O’Neill and Edens are just two of the thousands of veterans who were willing to go to any length to protect America and its allies. One of the things that struck me after my encounter with Edens was how thankful he was for the opportunity to tell his story. I asked him why on earth he should thank me when he was the one inspiring me.
He replied, “It’s nice to know that someone cares.”
Here at Luke, due to our large retiree population, we have a disproportionate number of opportunities to meet our combat veterans during informal encounters and official events. I encourage all Thunderbolts to take a moment to engage a veteran in conversation the next time you are at the clinic, in line at the commissary, or sitting in the food court at lunch. Seek out events, such as Retiree Appreciation Day, that honor our veterans and get involved. Show a veteran your thanks for what they did for our country, and you just may be inspired along the way.