Wendy Whiteman says she’s “always curious about everything,” especially things about history and the U.S. military.
After all, her third great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Gordon Cartwright Jennings, died in the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.
Her curiosity about him gave her a thirst to learn about other eras of military history.
That’s why the dollar bill with handwritten “Jim O’Neil, 100 Iron Hand, North Vietnam, 1966” and “George Kennedy, Back Seat, F-105F” caught her attention.
It was a 1963 dollar bill, the same year she was born. So, she kept it.
It had come with some change she got from buying lunch with her brother, Bryon Kelso, at a Eugene, Ore., restaurant.
“Realizing some Vietnam veterans had signed it, that was interesting,” she said Friday.
From that day in 2009 when she found it, the bill had hung on a wall at her home in Brownsville, Ore.
Through her research she learned that “Iron Hand” missions involved, in this case, flying F-105F Thunderchiefs over North Vietnam to destroy surface-to-air missile sites.
What she wondered about was the pilot, James W. O’Neil, and his GIB — guy in the backseat, or electronic warfare officer — George Kennedy.
By chance in early July she Googled O’Neil’s name. A news obituary for retired Air Force Col. James W. O’Neil in the Las Vegas Review-Journal popped up.
“Decorated Vietnam War pilot, ex-POW dies in Las Vegas,” read the headline for the June 14 article.
O’Neil, of Las Vegas, had died at age 82.
On a mission in 1972, O’Neil and his GIB at the time, Capt. Michael J. Bosiljevac, were shot down near Hanoi.
They managed to eject safely with parachutes open, but when they landed in North Vietnam, he was captured by an enemy soldier, and Bosiljevac was killed in captivity. O’Neil was held at the infamous Hanoi Hilton from Sept. 29, 1972, until his release on March 29, 1973.
Whiteman contacted the newspaper to get in touch with O’Neil’s widow, Nancy.
After examining a scanned copy of the dollar bill on her computer, Nancy O’Neil confirmed that, without a doubt, that was her husband’s handwriting.
“Oh, definitely. I’d know that anywhere,” she said Friday.
“They might have been at the club and made a bet on something,” she said, referring to her husband and Kennedy, who had stayed in touch with him after the war until they drifted apart in recent years.
To have Whiteman make the connection and track her down is “amazing considering they did that over in Thailand and hung it up on the officers club wall or whatever,” Nancy O’Neil said.
“To know that it found its way back to the United States is simply amazing. It’s a small world.”
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.