The life he loved and lived: Remembering BM3 Michael O’Neill

Michael O'Neill and his shipmates aboard Coast Guard Cutter Baranof. Photo courtesy of Sharon O'Neill.

Michael O’Neill and his shipmates aboard Coast Guard Cutter Baranof. Photo courtesy of Sharon O’Neill.

He was a son. He was a shipmate. He was a Coast Guardsman. He died in service to his country and his name was Michael O’Neill.

Mike’s journey serving his nation started in August 1991 when he reported to his first unit, Coast Guard Cutter Baranof. Mike was a seaman apprentice when he reported, but his youth and inexperience was no match for his desire to serve.

“The first months of sea duty can be difficult. … Many new Coast Guardsmen struggle with adapting to the demands of shipboard life, but not Mike,” said retired Capt. Kevin Quigley, a member of Mike’s command aboard Baranof. “On a small cutter, every person matters and every person notices. We all noticed and were immediately impressed with Mike’s positive attitude and willingness to get involved with every aspect of the cutter’s life and mission.”

Michael O'Neill was posthumously advanced to a third class petty officer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Station Cleveland Harbor.

Michael O’Neill was posthumously advanced to a third class petty officer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Station Cleveland Harbor.

“He was a very good shipmate with a very good sense of humor. The patrol boat crew is a tight-knit family and he fit right in,” said Capt. Pat DeQuattro, executive officer aboard Coast Guard Cutter Baranof when Mike arrived. “He was willing to do whatever needed to be done.”

“Mike was always capable of making us laugh till our sides hurt,” added retired Master Chief Petty Officer Bob Milmoe.

His sense of humor made him someone the crew could always count on to liven any project or task. Standing watch as officer of the deck with Mike, Milmoe recalls watches that went from dusk to dawn where he would grow tired; that’s where Mike came in.

“He’d always offer to go below and get us a cup of coffee. A short while later he’d return to the bridge – a very dark space illuminated with very dim lights. He’d hand me a cup of coffee and it was full to the brim – I’d always ask how he climbed two stairwells without spilling a drop. He’d never tell me until I was getting ready to transfer – his trick – Saran Wrap; he’d cover the coffee cup with the wrap and never spilled a drop. Boy that was the best coffee I’ve ever had,” recalled Milmoe.

From watchstanding to midnight coffee runs, there were no jobs Mike didn’t approach with zeal. Mike’s enthusiasm and verve weren’t just directed toward the latest adventure, however. He honed his tenacity into completing Coast Guard missions.

In November 1991, only a few months out of basic training, Mike participated in the rescue of two 40-foot vessels severely overloaded with more than 300 Haitian migrants. Mike helped transfer the Haitians from their overloaded vessels to the Baranof; the second of which was a night operation in poor weather resulting in the rescue of 212 persons from a vessel on the verge of capsizing.

“I remember talking to Mike on the radio during this night rescue. … As tenuous and overwhelming as the on-scene conditions were, Mike remained calm and focused throughout the process,” recalled Quigley.

A photo Michael O'Neill sent his mother after a drug bust aboard Coast Guard Cutter Baranof. Photo courtesy of Sharon O'Neill.

A photo Michael O’Neill sent his mother after a drug bust aboard Coast Guard Cutter Baranof. Photo courtesy of Sharon O’Neill.

On another mission, just one day before Hurricane Andrew came ashore, the crew aboard Baranof, with Mike as the coxswain of the rescue boat, saved the lives of migrants who were rescued from 55-gallon drums in the Straits of Florida.

Pulling back into homeport after the hurricane, Mike wasn’t satisfied with just saving the lives of those in distress on the sea. He wanted to help his fellow crewmembers as they tried to recover from the hurricane’s damage.

“Upon return to the U.S., Mike was one of the first shipmates to help me get my home back in order after the devastating effects of the Category 5 storm,” recalled Milmoe.

“My son Michael was so proud of himself, of what he did and the Coast Guard. He got to see part of the world and take care of different people,” wrote his mother, Sharon.

Soon Mike’s time aboard Baranof had come to an end. It was summer 1993 when he transferred to Station Cleveland Harbor in the 9th Coast Guard District. Mike was at the station for only a few weeks when the search and rescue alarm sounded on Sept. 20, 1993, just before midnight.

Mike set out on his last mission, a mission where he gave his life to rescue others.

The 70-foot tug Duke Luedtke was taking on water 14 miles offshore in Lake Erie. Mike was on watch that night and set out with a crew of five aboard the 41487. The rescuers arrived on scene to find the commercial tug’s crew still aboard their vessel as water poured on and over the stern. Mike boarded the tug with another Coast Guardsman to start de-watering operations.

Within minutes of boarding the tug, however, the ship rolled to port striking the Coast Guard rescue boat. The Duke Luedtke sank stern first, almost immediately.

The tug’s crew and the other Coast Guard crewmember escaped, rescued by a second Coast Guard utility boat that had arrived on scene. Tragically, Mike was trapped inside the tug and could not escape.

Michael O'Neill and two of his shipmates aboard Coast Guard Cutter Baranof. Photo courtesy of Sharon O'Neill.

Michael O’Neill and two of his shipmates aboard Coast Guard Cutter Baranof. Photo courtesy of Sharon O’Neill.

The loss of any shipmate is hard, but the loss of Mike was especially hard for his shipmates aboard Baranof who had seen the young recruit grow into a confident Coast Guardsman capable of saving lives.

After Mike’s death, Milmoe made a promise to himself and Mike’s mother. A promise he is proud to say he remained true to.

“I vowed to never lose a shipmate during my watch. … I went on to have a 30-year career with the Coast Guard, retiring as a master chief boatswain’s mate, 15 years of which were as a commanding officer of four Coast Guard units. I told every member of every crew that served with me the life story of BM3 Michael O’Neill,” said Milmoe.

Servicemembers often talk about someone’s legacy or about remembering the fallen. For those who served alongside Mike, honoring him is about remembering the life he loved and lived.

“Mike paid the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of his duties, and as we continue to carry out our duties in whatever capacity we should not only remember the tragedy but also what made him a good shipmate,” said DeQuattro.

“Mike’s untimely death took a toll on me, but I realized years later that Mike, in true fashion, would not want me to be sad,” said Milmoe. “He’d want us to remember his life, one that was full of laughter, joy, love for his family and a love for the service he so cherished – the United States Coast Guard.”

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