Fans of the baseball tear-jerker, “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones, are quite familiar with the mystique surrounding Archibald Graham, portrayed in the film during his later years by legendary actor, Burt Lancaster.
As the story goes, Graham had been toiling in the minor leagues for a number of years when, in 1905, his dreams of playing at the game’s highest level were finally realized after the New York Giants purchased his contract.
During the waning moments of a game that year, Graham was summoned from the bench, for the first time, to replace George Browne in right field. With his team up to bat and two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Graham strode into the on-deck circle, confidently awaiting a chance to hit in the big leagues for the first time. But Claude Elliot flied out, ending the inning.
He’d never play in another Major League game.
Almost 34 years after “Doc” Graham — as he was affectionately known in Chisholm, Minnesota, where he practiced medicine for 50 years after walking away from baseball — made his only appearance in a Major League game, another player was writing a similar script, except his was not a story magnified in a book or immortalized through cinema.
Harry O’Neill was a highly-touted three-sport athlete coming out of Gettysburg College in 1939. On the day of his graduation, the Philadelphia Athletics — and Hall-of-Fame manager, Connie Mack — came calling, inking the 6-foot-3, 205-pound star catcher to a contract that paid him $200 a month.
O’Neill would spend that season as the team’s third-string backstop, never sniffing the prospect of Major League action while relegated to warming up pitchers in the role of bullpen catcher.
His restriction to the pen was lifted, though, on July 23, 1939, when he entered the contest as defensive substitute for the final two innings of a lopsided game between the A’s and Hank Greenberg’s Detroit Tigers.
Detroit would go on to bludgeon the A’s, 16-3.
O’Neill would never again be called into a Major League game.
Like Graham, O’Neill was not afforded the chance to dig his cleats into the pristine dirt of a Major League Baseball batter’s box.
But unlike Graham’s universally respected leap into the world of medicine, O’Neill’s life after baseball would take him on an entirely different path, to distant corners of the world and islands most Americans — at the time — had never even heard of.
He was bouncing between high school coaching gigs, playing semi-professional basketball and football, and last-ditch attempts at clawing his way back into Major League Baseball when the Japanese stunned the world by launching a vicious attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Like many Americans, O’Neill responded by volunteering to fight. And less than a year later, he was wrapping up Marine Corps basic training, donning the Eagle, Globe and Anchor and heading off to Quantico, Virginia, to become an officer.
Upon pinning on the shiny brass insignia of a Marine second lieutenant, Harry O’Neill received orders to Camp Pendleton, California, to train with the recently-formed Fourth Marine Division.
At Pendleton, O’Neill’s knack for leadership quickly turned the heads of his superiors, earning him a promotion to first lieutenant.
Things in his personal life were also going well.
O’Neill was newly married to his hometown sweetheart, Ethel McKay, who made the cross-country trip to California from Colwyn, Pennsylvania, to spend what little time the couple had together before a ever-looming deployment to the Pacific interrupted any semblance of a normal matrimony.
And brief it was.
On Jan. 13, 1944, 1st Lt. Harry O’Neill and the Marines of the 25th Marine Regiment, Fourth Marine Division, loaded their gear onto ships and steamed for a relentless enemy awaiting them across the Pacific.
It wouldn’t take long after leaving California for the young Marine to experience his first taste of action.
Less than three weeks after saying goodbye to his wife, O’Neill waded ashore on the 880-yard-wide, two-and-a-half-mile-long island of Kwajalein as part of an amphibious assault that made quick work of fortified Japanese defenses.
The Marines declared the island secure in only four days, marking a significant momentum shift for U.S. forces in the island hopping campaign toward mainland Japan.
By June 1944, O’Neill and the Marines from the “Fighting Fourth” had their sights set on their next major target: Saipan.
But just one day after landing and beginning the push inland, O’Neill was hit in the arm by shrapnel from an artillery round, an injury that sidelined him for weeks on a hospital ship while U.S. forces inflicted nearly 30,000 casualties on Japanese defenses to secure the island.
Thousands of Japanese civilians would also die in the nearly four-week assault, many by their own hand.
Sufficiently healed, O’Neill rejoined his unit on July 22, just days before another successful amphibious assault by the Fourth Marine Division — this time on the island of Tinian, a week-long campaign that netted the U.S. and its allies an airfield that became one of the most frequently used throughout the rest of the war.
Months after the success at Tinian, the Fighting Fourth were tasked with their fourth major assault in 13 months — a small, volcanic island with black beaches and rough, ragged terrain that one Navy lieutenant, while viewing the island from the bridge of a troopship, described as “a rude, ugly sight,” according to a WWII commemorative series by the National Park Service.
“Only a geologist could look at it and not be repelled.”
At 6:45 a.m. on Feb. 19, 1945, the order was given to launch the assault on Iwo Jima.
A thunderous naval and aerial bombardment commenced, pummeling targets that had long been identified on maps during planning stages, while anxious Marines, including Harry O’Neill and men from the 25th Marine Regiment, looked on in awe from their Higgins boats as the hellish, volcanic landscape was torn by orange bursts of hot steel, clouding the air with smoke and carnage.
The 25th were tasked with the daunting assault of Blue Beach Two and scaling a towering area known as the Rock Quarry, a vulnerable sector along the extreme right flank of the attack that was in full view of elevated Japanese fortifications.
Recognizing the arduous task that lay ahead, Maj. Gen. Clifton B. Cates, commander of the Fourth Marine Division, admitted, “If I knew the name of the man on the extreme right of the right-hand squad I’d recommend him for a medal before we go in.”
By 9 a.m., Marines and landing craft from multiple other divisions covered vast sections of the beach, not yet experiencing the harsh resistance that awaited as the day wore on.
For many, the terrain itself initially posed the greatest difficulty.
“The sand was so soft it was like trying to run in loose coffee grounds,” one Marine rifleman recalled.
Advancing up Blue Beach, however, the sinister prediction of Maj. Gen. Cates came to fruition when the 25th Marines were met with a fierce, concentrated barrage of rifles, machine guns, mortars and artillery.
“That right flank was a bitch if there ever was one,” Cates recounted.
Unforgiving terrain made finding cover from the relentless onslaught nearly impossible, with one Marine comparing trying to dig a fox hole to digging "a hole in a barrel of wheat.”
A 10:36 a.m. message over the command net from 25th Marines to the assault’s flagship painted a grim picture of the situation.
“Catching all hell from the quarry,” the correspondence said. “Heavy mortar and machine gun fire!”
Lt. Col. Justice Chambers, who would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on Iwo, commented on the near-impossible task of scaling the steep, treacherous ground of the Rock Quarry.
“Crossing that second terrace, you could’ve held up a cigarette and lit it on the stuff going by,” he said. “I knew immediately we were in for one hell of a time.”
Four days into the assault on Iwo Jima, meanwhile, Marines on the other side of the island had taken Mount Suribachi, eventually raising a replacement American Flag — after the original was taken down — on Feb. 23, a moment made iconic by photographer Joe Rosenthal.
A little over a week later, the first damaged U.S. B-29 bomber returning from a raid on Tokyo was able to land safely on Iwo Jima’s Airfield No. 1.
The Marines were making headway, but much fighting remained.
For O’Neill and the 25th Marines, territorial gains through the Rock Quarry and the Turkey Knob — a section of the island referred to ominously as “The Meatgrinder,” and one critical to securing the second airfield — were much harder to come by.
On March 6, O’Neill was engaged in a vicious, day-long fight in The Meatgrinder when he managed to find what he perceived as decent cover — a bomb crater he climbed into with Pfc. James Kontes.
“We were standing shoulder to shoulder. Harry was on my left," Kontes said in a 2009 interview with the Bucks County Courier Times. "We were looking out at the terrain in front of us. And this shot came out of nowhere.”
Kontes watched his lieutenant collapse, the sniper’s surgical round tearing into O’Neill’s neck and severing his spinal cord.
Harry O’Neill was dead before he hit the ground. He was 27 years old.
It would be another 20 days before the Marines officially declared Iwo Jima secure.
O’Neill, along with nearly 7,000 other Marines, was buried in the island’s vast cemetery, Mt. Suribachi looming ever-present over the headstones of so many.
Two years would pass before his body returned to the United States, when he was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.
In all, over 1,800 Marines from the 4th Marine Division were killed on Iwo Jima, and another 7,200 wounded.
The total number of casualties incurred by the Fighting Fourth accounted for more than 50 percent of the division’s total force.
“At Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, I saw Marines killed and wounded in a shocking manner, but I saw nothing like the ghastliness that hung over the Iwo beachhead,” noted Marine and combat correspondent, Lt. Cyril Zurlinden.
“Nothing any of us had ever known could compare with the utter anguish, frustration, and constant inner battle to maintain some semblance of sanity.”
A month would pass following Harry’s death before Ethel would receive official notice from the Department of the Navy.
In death, O’Neill was immortalized, becoming one of just two players with Major League Baseball experience to be killed during World War II.
Elmer Gedeon was killed in 1944 when a B-26 bomber he was flying was shot down over France.
Weeks after news of Harry’s death reached his family, O’Neill’s sister, Susanna, wrote a letter to Gettysburg College, breaking the tragic news to the coaches and faculty of the athletic department where Harry had wowed so many as a three-sport star just a few years prior.
“We are trying to keep our courage up, as Harry would want us to do," she wrote. "But our hearts are very sad, and as the days go on it seems to be getting worse. Harry was always so full of life that it seems hard to think he is gone.
“But God knows best, and perhaps someday we will understand why all this sacrifice of so many fine young men.”