The Real Life Jonah of World War Two


Sailors are by nature a superstitious lot, and one of the oldest superstitions is related to the Old Testament figure of Jonah. Jonah, as you'll recall, was a disenchanted prophet sent by God to preach to the hated Ninevites, but he refused to do so and was subsequently swallowed by a whale (actually a "large fish" according to scripture, which makes more sense as whales are not native to the Mediterranean). After spending three days and nights in the "belly of the whale" he was coughed up and, apparently deciding to take that as a sign, preached to the Ninevites as originally assigned. Although one might argue that surviving being swallowed by a whale might constitute good rather than bad fortune, for some reason, the name Jonah has become associated with bad luck and is a term for any sailor whose presence onboard a ship carries with it ill fortune. As such, anyone assigned the title was to be put ashore as soon as possible, making the poor chap unwanted and, probably, incapable of making a living.

Of course, in this day and age we are much less superstitious, though once in a while a remarkable string of coincidences will come together in such a way that we might be willing to reconsider the idea. One such case comes from the annals of World War Two in the form of a Kansas man named Andrew "Andy" O'Donnell, who many believe to have been the modern living embodiment of a bad luck—at least for others.

The story starts in 1936, when Andrew, a seventeen-year-old farm boy from Olathe, Kansas, decided to help his parents and two older brothers make ends meet on their dust bowl ravaged farm by joining the U.S. Navy and sending home a portion of his meager paycheck each month. Not only would his help supplement the families' meager resources, but his absence would reduce the number of mouths to feed by one, making his decision to join the Navy a logical one.

Andy was a strapping young man when he left for Great Lakes Training Center in June of 1936. Upon completion of his basic training, he received orders to his first command, the battleship U.S.S. Arizona, then stationed out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Reporting onboard the old battlewagon in October of 1936, as was common to most sailers fresh out of basic training, Andy was immediately assigned to the deck force—a sort of "holding station" that young sailors endured while they considered what job (or "rating") they wanted to pursue. Fortunately, it wasn't long before Andy picked a vocation and in the spring of 1937 he was designated a radioman, which would be his "rating" for the balance of his life in the Navy.

Andy's time onboard the Arizona proved to be uneventful, and he stayed with the vessel throughout the balance of his enlistment until his discharge in May of 1940, after which he found himself heading home to Olathe, having done his duty to his country. Such would seem to be the end of the story except for two things: first, war was raging in Europe that was soon to engulf America and second, Andy, like all enlisted men, was still under contract to the Navy for another two years. In effect, he enlisted for six years rather than four, with the last two years being served in the inactive reserves. As such, the Navy could call Andy back to active duty at any time until June of 1942, after which he would be truly a "free" man. Of course, we all know what happened next: on December 7th, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the next day the United States was at war. Two weeks after that, Andy, who had been marking time working at a small town filling station while saving for college (the G.I. Bill not having come into existence yet) was called back up, forcing him to put his future on hold.

Andy didn't have to go through basic training again, and he was even allowed to return to duty with the same rank, Radioman Third Class, he had upon being discharged eighteen months earlier. He was, however, required to go through "reoutfitting"—a brief period or reorientation and retraining—before he could return to the fleet. Upon completing his orientation at San Francisco, a few weeks later he received orders to report to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington, then on patrol somewhere in the vast Pacific looking for the Japanese. Since there was no readily available transportation available to take him to Hawaii—the Lexington's home port—he was forced to hitch a ride on whatever available ship he could find that was headed towards Hawaii. In this case, it was the destroyer U.S.S. Hammann that was to be his ticket, which left San Francisco in late February of 1942 bound for Hawaii.

Entering the confined waters of a still battle-scarred Pearl Harbor five days later, Andy was naturally distressed at the sight of the Arizona—his old ship—lying off Ford Island, the bodies of many of his friends from his time onboard permanently interned within the broken and scorched ship's hull. He didn't know it then, but the "O'Donnell curse" had claimed its first victim.

Three weeks later the carrier Lexington arrived at Pearl Harbor to take on supplies before heading back out to the South Pacific, which was when Andy boarded her. A few weeks later she was underway again, and Andy quickly made a home among her nearly 3,000 man crew. It wasn't to last long, however, as in May of 1942, the Lexington was sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea when the Japanese found the carrier and put a bomb and a pair of torpedoes into her. Fortunately, Andy survived unscathed and was plucked out of the water within a few minutes of the ship's sinking by one of the task force's escorts, the light cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes. A week later he was back at Pearl Harbor, shaken but unhurt, awaiting orders to his next command.

While he waited, a battle for control of the Pacific raged just a few hundred miles west of Hawaii around the tiny island of Midway—a three-day ruckus that ended in a resounding victory for the U.S. Navy, with four Japanese aircraft carriers being sunk to the loss of one American carrier, the Yorktown. The carrier wasn't the only loss the U.S. Navy suffered in that battle, however: the destroyer Hammann—the very vessel Andy had ridden to Hawaii three month earlier—also fell victim, this time to a Japanese submarine as she was rendering assistance to the badly damaged carrier Yorktown. 80 of her crew died when depth charges onboard the sinking destroyer detonated underwater, making the Hammann the third ship O'Donnell had been associated with to be sunk.

Of course, Andy knew nothing about the loss of the Hammann when he received orders to his next command, the light cruiser U.S.S. Quincy, and he went to his next command unaware that his "curse" was at work. What he was soon to discover, however, was just how much worse his bad luck was going to get. In August of 1942, the Quincy was one of several cruisers sent to cover a Marine landing at Guadalcanal. A day after landing the Marines on the island, a Japanese taskforce snuck to within a few miles of the landing beaches and in a brief but violent engagement, sank no fewer than four allied warships, almost spelling complete defeat for the allies. Among the ships sunk in that melee—considered to be the worst defeat for the American Navy in its history—was the Quincy, which went down with half of her crew, along with the cruiser Vincennes—the same ship that had pulled Andy out of the water earlier that year and had transported him back to Pearl Harbor. Clearly, Andy's "curse" was working overttime that evening.

Andy, however, survived the Vincennes' sinking and, though seriously injured by shrapnel, he made it into the water and was rescued the next morning by the American destroyer Wilson, which promptly put him ashore to be treated for his injuries. A few days later he was flown out onboard a C-47 transport to a naval hospital in New Caledonia, where he would spend the next three months recovering before being eventually flown back to Hawaii for further rehabilitation and to await orders to his next command.

This was when good fortune finally smiled on Andy. Apparently someone noticed that O'Donnell had had two ships sunk from beneath him in three months, plus had been associated—however briefly—with three other ill-fated vessels, leading some to begin entertaining the notion that the man truly was a modern day Jonah. Apparently deciding that O'Donnell had gone through enough—and perhaps in an effort to not test fate any further—it was decided to assign him to more land-locked duties at the communications center at SubPac on Ford Island. There, radioman Second Class O'Donnell (Andy having earned a promotion in the interim) spent the next two years handling the huge volume of radio traffic that flowed through the center each day.

This remained Andy's situation until the summer of 1944, when the Center's new commanding officer, a crusty old salt who had spent the last thirty months at sea, promptly decided that the land-based sailors had it too easy and had them all returned to sea duty to make way for those "more deserving" sea-bound radiomen who had seen little dry land since the start of the war. Apparently having anticipated such an eventuality—and perhaps imagining that the curse might not work on vessels that were designed to sink—Andy applied for submarine training and was immediately sent to submarine school in New London, Connecticut. After completing the six-week course there in October of 1944, he was promptly assigned to his next—and what would prove to be his last—command, the spanking new submarine U.S.S. Bullhead.

It would be easy to imagine that with the end of the war in August of 1945 Andy's "curse" would finally be lifted, but it was not to be. After having been associated with five ill-fated warships—the Arizona, the Lexington, the Vincennes, the Quincy, and the Hammann—"the curse" was to claim its sixth and final victim when the Bullhead, on her third war patrol off Bali in present day Indonesia, was attacked by a lone Japanese patrol plane. Dropping two depth charges on the ship, the submarine's hull was instantly breached and she sank to the bottom with all hands—including, unfortunately, radioman O'Donnell. He, along with his crewmates, would turn out to be among the last men to die in the conflict, being lost on August 6, 1945—mere days before Japan would agree to surrender.

So what is the verdict? Was Andy really bad luck or was it all just a series of coincidences? Consider that every ship the man spent an evening aboard was sunk, even though in three cases he wasn't onboard when it happened. (Some point out that the vessel that fished him out of the water off Guadalcanal in August of 1942, the destroyer Wilson, survived the war unscathed, suggesting that the "curse" was not all encompassing, but the man did not spend the evening on the ship, having been put ashore just a few hours after being picked up. Do curses have time limits, one wonders?) The odds against such a thing happening are astronomically high. On the other hand, some might argue that other than the Bullhead, the "curse" proved to be anything but that for Andy, for he managed to survive two sinkings in three months—a feat no other American sailor accomplished. In the end, we can only wonder about the farm boy from Olathe, Kansas, and how the stars and planets all managed to line up in such a way as to make his story possible. Whether he was a real-life Jonah will always be open to debate, but that he served his country honorably cannot be doubted, and we would be remiss not to recognize him for both his service and his sacrifice.