One of the many extraordinary and heroic stories to come out of World War II was that of Dr. Jerry O’Neill, third son of Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill of Mount Offaly House, Athy. Born in 1904 Jerry attended the local Christian Brothers School and subsequently Clongowes Woods College. A noted rugby player, he captained the Athy team and later played for Bective Rangers where he was on a winning Leinster senior cup team. He also captained the Leinster Junior team and played for the province on several occasions. He qualified as a doctor in 1928 and after a number of years joined the British Army Indian Medical Service.
During the Second World War, Jerry O’Neill served as a Major in Malaya and when in January 1942 the Japanese invaded the peninsula Major O’Neill and five other British soldiers were cut off from their unit. To escape capture the six soldiers, including another Irish man Paddy Mearns of Donegal, set off on foot through the jungle for Singapore which was 550 miles away. They eventually got within 40 miles of the city only to discover that it had fallen to the Japanese. Turning back, the by now exhausted men set out for Burma, a journey which would take them 3½ months through over 2,000 miles of dense undergrowth and dangerous swamps. On reaching the Malayan coast they needed a boat to cross to Burma and a group of friendly Chinese, who prior to the Japanese invasion had been policemen in the area, agreed to build a boat. The subsequent killing of these Chinese by the Japanese soldiers prompted the six British soldiers who were now in extreme states of exhaustion to retreat back into the jungle. Their luck ran out when the Japanese captured Major O’Neill and his colleague Lt. Marriott after they had sought shelter in a deserted jungle hut during a heavy thunderstorm. Their four companions escaped immediate capture but were taken prisoners a day later.
The two officers were taken to Singapore where they were court martialled and sentenced to four years imprisonment. They were detained in the notorious Outram Road Prison amongst almost 2,000 prisoners. During the first week a prison officer was attacked by a Chinese prisoner and as a result all prisoners were sentenced to one year solitary confinement. Major Jerry O’Neill was to serve that year’s confinement alone in a windowless cell 7 ft. long by 4 ft. wide where he was forbidden to sit during the day. His only food consisted of small portions of rice which were heavily salted to stimulate thirst and a small tin of strong black tea. Many of the prisoners did not survive, dying from disease or malnutrition, while others were executed by the Japanese.
Jerry O’Neill later attributed his survival to prayer and a regular daily routine. In his mind he played a round of golf every day, going over the Geraldine course in Athy where he had played as a young man claiming that he could never get his tee shot over the stream on to the short sixth green. He walked in his small cell, calculating that each day he covered five miles in an attempt to survive the dreadful conditions facing him in solitary confinement. A newspaper report at the end of the war claimed that 39 prisoners out of 100 in the same jail block as Jerry O’Neill died or became insane within the first six months. On completing his term of solitary confinement Jerry O’Neill was to spend another 2 ½ years working within the prison where disease was rampant and where the lack of adequate food reduced the prisoners to emaciated skeletal figures.
On 14th August 1945 the British prisoners were transferred to Changi P.O.W. camp following the commencement of peace negotiations. Early in September of that year the British 5th Division arrived in Changi and all the prisoners were released, amongst them Jerry O’Neill who had been incarcerated for 3½ years.
Different accounts have been written of how Jerry O’Neill was identified amongst the emaciated prisoners following his release. A report in the Leinster Leader recounted how a former colleague, Dr. Vincent Lee of Carlow, recognised him as the ship transporting the British prisoners docked at Bombay. Dr. Lee on seeing his former Athy colleague exclaimed, ‘but Jerry you are supposed to be dead.’ The O’Neill family tradition is that Dr. Jerry was hospitalised in Calcutta where he was being treated by his brother Dr. John O’Neill who was also serving in the Indian Medical Service. Neither men recognising each other. They began talking about golf and discovered that they had both played Athy golf course when the truth suddenly dawned on Dr. John who asked his patient, ‘is your name Jerry?’ This according to family tradition is how the two doctor brothers from Athy were re-united after the war.
Jerry O’Neill returned to Ireland by mail boat, landing at Dun Laoghaire where his 13 year old son Jerry, a pupil at Clongowes Wood College met his father for the first time in six years. The grey haired man (although only 41 years old) was not recognisable. The experience of the Japanese prison had aged Dr. O’Neill but by all accounts had not changed the gentle and kind man remembered by his children.
When he had recovered from his terrible ordeal Dr. O’Neill returned to India where he was promoted to the rank of Colonel. On retiring from the Army he lived in Greystones and later in Kilmuckridge, Co. Wexford before taking up medical positions in Wales and later in South East London. He operated a G.P.’s practice in Bermondsey, London from 1960 to 1969 and retired to Rathfarnham in Dublin where he died on 30th January 1974. His story is one of enormous courage, barely hinted at in the headlines in the local newspapers on his return to Athy following his release ‘Back from the grave – Athy man’s terrible ordeal’.
Dr. Jerry O’Neill was a brother of the late Dr. Joe O’Neill and an uncle of Dr. Giles O’Neill who is the fourth generation of the O’Neill family to practice in Athy.