Four Questions for David O’Neal
"These are the stories that stick with people when you talk to them."
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
David O’Neal acquired his first artifact when he was 16 years old. It was a 37 mm tank round from WWI dated 1917. Some 40 years later, he is still an avid student of the Great War....and still collecting WW1 artifacts. But now he is restoring priceless relics of World War I back into their original condition, so that their stories can be told to new generations. We caught up with David to see what is going on now at his WWI Preservation Collection.
You have a pretty amazing collection of World War I artifacts. What do you have?
Obviously I can’t list everything in the collection, but there are some very impressive items, along with the mundane utilitarian items that were used by the soldiers every day during WW1. Some of the impressive things are of course the WW1 M1917 Ford ambulance re-creation. I brought this vehicle back from extinction, there are no known surviving examples of this version of the WW1 Ambulance produced at the Ford Plant in Detroit in 1917. The Model of 1917 Machine gun cart is an impressive Machine Gun Company artifact that is restored and complete. I also have the 1915 Vickers water cooled heavy machine gun and the Browning 1917 water cooled heavy that were used in conjunction with the cart.
There are uniforms, helmets and accoutrements from many of the combatants specifically on the Western Front. I have a wide variety of small arms, pistols and rifles from all combatants as well as disabled machine guns and ordnance.
There are items that are very rare and hold special attention in the collection. A captured Imperial German Battle Flag. A steel German sniper loop that would have been carried out and set up in no-man’s land. Melted pieces of aluminum that were recovered from the crash site of Zeppelin L48 that was shot down in England in 1917. I have the U.S. First designed WW1 hand Grenade the Mark I, very rare and very interesting story. Pulled from service immediately after implementation.
There are quite few fascinating things in the WW1 Preservation Collection and I am always looking for more artifacts to bring in to preserve them.
Tell us about how your collection got started. Was this a personal hobby that got wonderfully out-of-hand?
That is exactly right! I have always had an interest in Military objects even as early as 10 or 11 years old. At that age I was reading comic books like Sgt. Rock, Capt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, Weird War Tales. That was my reference library at that age Ha! When I was about 15 I read All Quiet on the Western Front and my interest began to zero in on specifically the WW1 time period. Then I met a collector who gave me my first artifact, a 1917 37mm tank round……I was all in after that. I am 56 years old now and I have been involved in WW1 history since I was 16 years old. By the way I still have that 37mm tank round.
Your restoration work -- especially with the ammo carrier and the ambulance -- is world-class. How did these restorations come together? How did you learn the skills to do these, what research did you do, who helped you, etc.?
The WW1 ambulance project started when I decided I wanted one for the Preservation Collection. After an amazing amount of research time (2 years) I came to the conclusion that this particular version of the Ford WW1 ambulance did not survive from WW1. I still wanted one, and I had 2 years of research material. I decided to re-create this vehicle on an original Ford chassis. The results were breathtaking. My WW1 M1917 Ford Ambulance won the 1st Place trophy for, “Best Vehicle Display” at the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA) National Convention in 2015. The ambulance has also been the cover feature story on two internationally published magazines.
The Model of 1917 Machine Gun Cart began with a phone call. I was contacted by a collector who was in his 80’s who had the gun cart in pieces and was trying to get rid of it. He had intentions of restoring it when he was younger but never did. He told me that if I hauled it off I could have it……duh! I was gone to Oklahoma that very weekend. When I got back and cleaned everything up…I had approx. 80% of a very rare Machine Gun Cart that was ready for restoration. I have been trying to write a magazine article about the Gun Cart project but have not had enough quiet time to get that done.
How I acquired my skills….my best answer to that is a life time’s accumulation of doing things with my hands. Attention to details….so many people say that, but what does that really mean? Attention to detail is very subjective. The casual observer may not be trained to see the details in a WW1 artifact as I would. The kind of paint that was used back then, did it come in a can or was it sprayed or was it powder mix that you added the paint thinner. Was the under surface prepared with primer of chemically treated bare metal or wood? When you restore something details are everything. When something is being preserved or restored about 100 questions need to be answered before the work begins. Research is imperative. I have seen so many people assume things and get it wrong….that is when they could use my services, to fix the mess ups.
I once worked as a professional cabinet maker which taught me some very useful wood working skills. Then I went to school to become an aircraft mechanic which brought to me my mechanical abilities. Then I became a Design Engineer working in Flight Test, that gave me knowledge about materials, hardware, adhesives, paints and how they used in different applications.
For my research I use books libraries and the internet. Museum Specialists and archivists are the best! These talented people know their work, and most of us depend on them to find the hard things that nobody else can find.
What is your connection to World War I? Why is this effort of collecting and preserving important to you? What do you want to achieve?
I have kind of a different slant on my WWI connection. My focus is in the field rather than at the strategic and political levels that most schools and universities teach. The causes of WWI have hashed and re-hashed from Sunday to Monday from every different view point. I am more interested to know that lots of doughboys kept a spoon in their puttee leg wraps in case an opportunity to eat something came along. I like knowing facts like quite a few Marines tossed their US issue pack shovels away thinking them inadequate and an unnecessary burden to haul. After the shelling began they prayed to god and mercilessly scraped the earth with their helmets trying to get below ground level. Discarding their shovels was a mistake they would not make again. These are the stories that make me collect and preserve the items of WWI. When I hold a US issued spoon or shovel these stories come to mind. These are the stories that stick with people when you talk to them. I want people to know that those men left home to go on an adventure, what they got was the most horrific war known to mankind and many would never be the same again.
Finally the last question achievement. That’s a hard one for the simple fact is that I have already achieved far more than I really set out to do. Anything more is gravy. I started getting into making films. I made my first short teaser video called “Tin Lizzy”. I just started a WW1 Preservation You Tube Channel and I hope to be making lots of mini documentary movies about the artifacts in the collection. If I could achieve more notoriety for the WW1 Preservation Collection that would be great, and some funding. I have self-funded the entire project since the beginning. I dream of what I could accomplish if I had the ability to fund it.