Born May 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio, Cyril “Cy” O’Neill is considered a member of what is known as America’s Greatest Generation. Cy, who is of Irish and German decent, experienced amazing eras in his life that most of the current generation can only see in the movies. Of course, he had his run-of-the-mill childhood and got married and whatnot, like most people, but he also became an aviator and traveled the world.
Cy recalled playing with the neighborhood boys as a child, building wooden cars with them when he was about 12 years old. His two closest friends growing up were Bud and Bill Blackey, while his little sister, of course, was preoccupied with her own friends doing “female stuff.”
In 1933, the family moved to Youngstown, Ohio, for five years. Upon moving back, Cy met one who would be his life-long best friend—Bob Harper. They both attended Shore High School (close to Lake Erie) and went on to go to Case School of Applied Science. They wrestled in high school together and played football. “It was hard to play sports because of our compressed schedules,” said O’Neill. “The students were basically divided into two groups. Once the first group was done at school, they had to clear out to make room for the next group.” Cy recalls that there were no school buses at the time, so they had to walk quite a few miles to get to school. He and Bob stayed great friends until Bob’s death in 1973.
Several historical moments happened during Cy’s lifetime. He witnessed the first walk on the moon while at work as a weather forecaster out at Travis Air Force Base– a job he had for 20 years. He heard the shocking news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on the radio from the living room of his apartment.
He saw and heard the avalanche of media on the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Great Depression and the Recession hit when I was about 18,” said Cy. “The Stock Market Crash in 1929 is probably when it really started. I remember March of 1933 when many people lost their savings because none were insured back then.” During the Recession in 1937, the steel mills started operating really strong. “I used to enjoy watching the glow of the steel mills as I fell asleep on the porch in Youngstown. Now I know that they indicated activity, which was good because it meant people were able to go back to work”.
Money was tight but Cy said that they managed to get through okay. “My dad tried to fight the Depression. He bought a 1929 Ford in the middle of it and even bought another car. I don’t know where he got the money from for them, but he did. That’s when I learned how to drive.” This was around the time Cy’s family moved to Florida, and that is where he got his first chance to drive on the highway on his own. “There weren’t many problems with licenses back then. It was very easy to get them, just had to apply for them and they didn’t expire.”
But things changed after the War, including limits on driving. “Less restriction back then because now there are problems with alcoholic drivers, etc.
There used to be no speed limits then, as I remember. I loved to floor the accelerator down the highway... but of course it’d only go about 80 mph. But there used to be much more horrendous accidents and car crashes then.”
Another thing that has changed a lot since his time, according to Cy, are the highways. “Highways were totally different in the 30’s. Now they are high speed, but in British Columbia, they are the same as in the old days – two lanes, beautiful scenery people drove by just to look at, and not as rushed all the time like people now.”
When asked what he considered the greatest invention of the 20th century, he replied, “I’m a pilot so I’m prejudice towards aviation, of course, so I certainly say airplanes.” Cy said that sometimes he feels that we (as in mankind) were a lot better off with the way things were when he was young. “TV is not the greatest but the most disruptive invention,” said Cy. “It’s amazing how quickly we can see the whole world through the TV and Internet, but we still got along fine without them. TV nowadays especially is too much; we got along just fine with just the radio. I think the programs were better quality before, too.”
Cy has always loved airplanes. He started flying while he was in college. One of his teachers owned a plane and started a civilian pilot training program in 1939 because “the government was looking to build up during World War II.” He flew airplanes for fun until the war in 1941, and then he put in applications to be in the Air Force. There, he went through the training program and flew with them until 1963. “I’ve been in situations where the engine quit on me several times while I was in the air, but things worked out fine. I didn’t die”
Right at the end of the war, they released some Japanese prisoners of war from the B29’s. “The prisoners sat along the cat walk and just hung on as we flew them,” said Cy. “Then we landed at the Clark Expo in Manila, Philippines, where an [Australian] plane picked them up from there.”
After he got out of the Air Force, he joined the military and eventually went back to civilian life “There were a lot of adjustments to make from military to civilian man, but I got along pretty well wherever I went. I loved to travel,” recalled Cy.
Cy lived in several places including Seattle where he worked on the B-47 airplanes right around the time of the Korean War and Tallahassee, Florida, where he met the love of his life, Elizabeth, whom he married in January 1943. “Elizabeth went to Florida State, and my cousin Bob worked at the Capitol with her father. One day they introduced us and sparks flew the moment we met,” said Cy. Now married for 64 years, he still feels that they were meant for each other. “It seems so fast,” explained Cy. “It doesn’t feel that long ago since we were first married, like it’s only been a little bit of time.” Together they have raised three boys – Michael, De Witt, James Christopher (Chris).
He had his family while in the Air Force. Luckily they all loved to travel. They’ve visited numerous places including Illinois, Washington, Greenland, Georgia, Morocco, Texas, Arizona, and Canada. They came to Fairfield in the ‘60’s and stayed here ever since. “We still travel a bit, more locally though,” said Cy. “Went up to South Tahoe last fall… beautiful scenery over the lake while we were riding in the cable cars, but not many people seem to look or pay attention to that sort of stuff anymore.” He even took his granddaughter flying over the Bay Bridge 17 years ago, but she was young and she fell asleep. Cy and his wife currently reside in Green Valley.
As his final advice to younger generations, Cyril says to “get a good education, work hard, and stay out of debt.”