Exercise is music to his ears

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Andrew Ragless (author), ABIS Steven Thomson (photographer)

Able Seaman Musician Phillip O'Neill on the forecastle of HMAS Canberra en-route to Pearl Harbour, Harbour to participate in Exercise Rim of The Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016. (photo: ABIS Steven Thomson)
Able Seaman Musician Phillip O'Neill on the forecastle of HMAS Canberra en-route to Pearl Harbour, Harbour to participate in Exercise Rim of The Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016.

Able Seaman Musician Phill O’Neill has toured Afghanistan, visited the Kokoda Track and played the trumpet to a live audience of over one million people in India.

But this winter the Royal Australian Navy sailor will go to sea for the very first time.

A former student of Marryatville High School in Adelaide, South Australia, which has a specialist music program, and the Elder Conservatorium of Music, he joined the Australian Army Band Corps at the age of 17.

He said a career in music was a likely choice.

“My dad, Des, just loved music,” he said.

“No one else in the family played music, and yet he saved a small fortune in pocket money to buy his first trumpet and learn how to play. 

“I don’t think my brother and I had much of a choice, if it was sport or music, it was definitely going to be music,” he joked.

Able Seaman O’Neill, who is also an accomplished bugler, served ten years in the Australian Army before restlessness and the promise of adventure led him to the Navy.

“I had some great experiences in the Army but I was ready for a new challenge,” he said.

“My wife and Section Commander convinced me to consider the Navy and I haven’t looked back."

Shortly after his transfer in 2014, he took part in a three-week Forces Entertainment Tour in Afghanistan, performing to Coalition audiences around the country alongside Melbourne punk rock band, 28 Days, and comedians Mick and Lehmo.

“I was also the chief sound engineer,” he said.

“After a long time in the Army, it was a great experience to finally deploy and visit the bases in Afghanistan, especially for such a big morale booster.”
Now a member of the Royal Australian Navy Band in Sydney, Able Seaman O’Neill has travelled the more than 4,000 nautical mile voyage to Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.
Embarked in Amphibious ship, HMAS Canberra, he is taking part in the largest maritime warfare exercise in the world, Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC).
He said the exercise was an exciting prospect.
“We have deployed with a parade band, woodwind quintet and a contemporary/rock band,” he said.
“We’ll play at Official receptions onboard HMAS Canberra and assist the US Pacific Fleet Band.
“But I’m most looking forward to our first public performance in the USS Missouri memorial and playing in the Honolulu shopping malls as part of Independence Day celebrations.”
He is no stranger to large-scale celebrations, performing as part of the Navy contingent in the 2016 International Fleet Review in Vishakhapatnam, India.
“There were more than one million people lining the streets and the parade was broadcast live,” he said.
“The cheering was so loud; we couldn’t hear the band over the roar of the crowd – It certainly pepped us up!
“As musicians we perform for people to enjoy, so when you’ve got a crowd who’s clearly enjoying what you’re doing, it’s easy to give that extra 10 percent.”
With music aside, Able Seaman O’Neill said he was looking forward to learning about the greater Navy in his pan-pacific voyage.
“It’s easy to be caught up in the bubble of the band; we spend a lot of time in ceremony, but not often in ships at sea.”
As well as rehearsals, Able Seaman O’Neill is on the roster for café party in the kitchen and a member of Repair Base Seven.
“We are the damage control team for the superstructure from the flight deck up,” he said.
“We train for a helicopter crash on deck and the necessary fire fighting.
“It’s definitely a challenge but something out of the ordinary and very rewarding.”
Exercise RIMPAC is designed to practise maritime operations and enhance cooperation between nations with interest in the Pacific Rim.
The Australian Defence Force has participated in Exercise RIMPAC since its inception in 1971, but 2016 will be the first year in which the ADF will contribute an entire Amphibious Task Group, with frigates HMA Ships Warramunga and Ballarat, Landing Helicopter Dock, HMAS Canberra and troops and vehicles from Army’s 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.