Irishman responsible for teaching US military that “size doesn’t matter” in hand-to-hand combat

(Video: Dermot “Pat” O’Neill, portrayed by actor Jeremy Slate in the classic film “The Devil’s Brigade”)

When trying to visualize the American breed of soldier, one cannot help but think of a mutt. A little German Shepherd, Pit Bull, Boxer and Labrador, all accumulating into the dog that manages to outrun, outfight and outlive its long-established pedigree contemporaries.

Dermot “Pat” O’Neill was one such mutt and a deadly one at that. Born in 1905 in County Cork, Ireland. The son of a police officer, O’Neill was always one for a dangerous cocktail of adventure and duty.

Travelling to China as a teen to visit his brother (who worked in the International Settlement), O’Neill decided he would settled in Shanghai. In 1925, at the age of twenty he followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Shanghai Municipal Police.

The SMP was a multinational (mostly British-run) police force comprised of over 9000 active and reserve officers, tasked with bringing law and order to the International Settlement that controlled a large section of the city at the time, which was continually under siege by ruthless Chinese gangs.

O’Neill quickly discovered the fighting techniques that served him well in the West were of no use to him in the Orient. Immersing himself in the native martial arts, he became proficient in Chinese Boxing, Judo and knife fighting.

Eventually rising in the ranks, O’Neill helped form one of the world’s first SWAT teams, known as the “Reserves”, which quickly became known for its brutal and effective methods of tracking down and combatting the local gangs that ran amok in the district.

By 1938, O’Neill left Shanghai for Tokyo, Japan to take over as head of security for the British Embassy. While in Japan, he earned his 5th degree black belt in Judo and pursued the Kempo arts.

Leaving Japan shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, O’Neill spent a short time before being recruited by the United States at the urging of Commando legend (and knife designer) William Fairbairn. Despite not being a US Citizen, O’Neill joined forces with the elite Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

Eventually, he was lent out to the First Special Service Force (the grandfather of modern Special Forces), known as the “Devil’s Brigade”. Promoted to Captain by 1943 and given the task of teaching martial arts, O’Neill would often say that he was “Shanghai’ed” by the United States. The FSSF made good use of O’Neill, who taught his comrades how to master hand-to-hand combat.

When the 1st SSF was sent into action, O’Neill refused to stay behind- declaring that since he trained his comrades, he planned to fight beside them. Utilized for his special skill set, he was often the bodyguard to 1st SSF’s commander, General Fredericks.

After the Allies declared victory in Europe, O’Neill was tasked with the position of Provost Marshal over Monte Carlo. While he eventually married and fathered a daughter, his family situation did not fare as well as his military career and ended in divorce.

After the end of the war, O’Neill continued to work for the United States, performing intelligence gathering in Asia, including going to Vietnam before the US officially became involved with the country. Following the Vietnam War,  O’Neill greatly influenced early combative methods within the United States Army and Marine Corps. In fact, the hand-to-hand methods taught in the 1970s are highly-diluted versions of his modified “Defendu” system, dumbed-down to ensure that it could be quickly taught to the average 18-year-old with ease.

While information about his method or even the man himself is not in large abundance, O’Neill was immortalized with a character based upon him in the classic film “The Devil’s Brigade”, where his character was portrayed by actor Jeremy Slate.

While O’Neill wasn’t born in the United States, he certainly sleeps here. Unfortunately, Major O’Neill died of pneumonia in 1985 and now rests at Arlington National Cemetery, located in Columbarium Section 1-QQ. Some say that even in the eerie quiet of America’s most sacred burial site, you can still hear the old man thundering beneath the ground as he practices his throws.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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