CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — 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, U.S. Army Air Forces 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," O'Neill told The Associated Press from Rabaul, the former Japanese stronghold on the Papua New Guinea island of New Britain, over which his father had four of his eight Japanese kills in a P-38 Lighting fighter.
The image of his father had been etched in O'Neill'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 the guidance of World War II historian Justin Taylan, founder of the charity website PacificWrecks.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. But Rabaul had been rendered useless as a base for Japanese fighting in the South Pacific by relentless air attacks and isolation from supply lines.
O'Neill's two weeks in Papua New Guinea, Australia's nearest neighbor, end on Wednesday.
On March 28 — his late father's 97th birthday — O'Neill was at Oro Bay, a former U.S. military staging post on the northeast coast, where his father shot down a Mitsubishi Zero, his second Japanese kill, on the day he turned 22.
A poignant moment came when visiting the town of Dobodura on the east coast, where an array of 15 airstrips for bombers and fighter planes became the U.S. front line of the Pacific War. From there, John O'Neill launched into intense air battles over Rabaul with his friend Capt. Richard Bong, the United States' highest-scoring ace, who won a Medal of Honor for 40 confirmed kills. Bong survived 146 combat missions, only to be killed in California while test-flying a jet fighter prototype shortly before the war ended in 1945.
"When I got to Dobodura and I saw the runway where he flew from, I just got really, overwhelmingly depressed that I just couldn't look at him and say, 'What was this like for you when you were 21 or 22?'" O'Neill said.
"I got to see the campsite where he actually lived while he was in Oro Province, and that to me was one of the most amazing experiences, just to know that he was there," he said.
O'Neill was promoted to captain before returning to the United States with Bong in late 1943 as combat heroes to sell war bonds.
Within weeks, O'Neill's P-38, nicknamed Beautiful Lass, and its new pilot, Ormond Powell, disappeared somewhere in the New Britain jungles or the Bismarck Sea.
Taylan, who has been to Papua New Guinea dozens of times since his first visit in 1993 with his veteran grandfather, Carl R. Thien, a U.S. Army combat photographer in the Pacific, believes Beautiful Lass will someday be found.
The key is to reach out to villagers who have known for generations where in the jungle the wreckage lies.
"We believe the plane can be found," Taylan said. "I can't promise to him (Jon O'Neill) how long or how difficult that would be. But knowing him and seeing his experience of this trip makes me really want to find his father's aircraft."
"There are hundreds of missing in action aircraft from just the United States in this country and probably dozens from Australia. Many may never be found. Others will be found beyond my lifetime," he said.
Jon O'Neill said Oro Province, where his father spent most of 1943, was much the same as it was during the war years.
The American military presence during World War II is still evident to those who look beneath the jungle canopy.
O'Neill hacked through the jungle with a machete for an hour to reach the wreck of a P-38. He saw a B-24 Liberator bomber, a Jeep and a canteen marked "U.S. Army 1942." Near Japan's Tobera Airfield on New Britain, he saw the wrecks of Mitsubishi Zeros that his father might have fought.
O'Neill cherishes the idea that Beautiful Lass might one day be found.
"It was last seen over New Britain somewhere," he said. "It disappeared into a cloud and never came out, and I'm hoping that one of these days Justin will find it and I'll be able to come back and actually see my father's plane."
"Who knows? You fly over New Britain and there's just jungle. It could be down there anywhere," he said.
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