O'Neal was the son of Governor Emmet O'Neal and grandson of Governor Edward O'Neal. He grew up in Florence where, at age six, he convinced his parents to give him a Daisy air rifle for Christmas. Two days later it fired accidently while he was loading it and a pellet lodged in his left eye, narrowly missing the optic nerve. He missed eight months of school, but had already been promoted to the second grade due to his reading skills.
At the suggestion of Congressman William Richardson, a friend of the family's, O'Neal entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. His roommate, Don Douglas, resigned from the academy to pursue aircraft design, later founding the Douglas Aircraft Company.
At graduation in 1913, O'Neal's former eye injury was discovered during a medical examination. The navy's surgeon general advised O'Neal that if it ever worsened he would have to resign without a pension. He chose to resign the service then and became his father's private secretary in Montgomery. Afterward he moved to Birmingham as his father's law clerk. They lived at the Ridgely Apartments before buying a house on 30th Street South. O'Neal joined the Birmingham Country Club and golfed most weekends.
World War I
After the United States entered World War I O'Neal reapplied for his naval commission. With two weeks before he had to report for New York he began a whirlwind romance with Elizabeth Paramore. After being introduced at a country club dance the couple had their first date at the Lyric Theatre. With his deployment delayed by an attack of appendicitis, O'Neal underwent an appendectomy and returned to Birmingham for 10-days medical leave before returning to New York and taking over the conversion of John Wannamaker's private yacht, The Druid, for military service. Two weeks before he set sail, O'Neal proposed to Elizabeth by telegram. The captain of the boat allowed him three days leave to return to Birmingham for a quick wedding at the home of Charles Terry on October 9. She accompanied him back to New York and stayed with him there and in Newport, Rhode Island until the U.S.S. Druid set sail for Europe on November 1, 1917.
The passage had a rough start with the craft leaking in heavy seas. The craft was towed in for repairs in Bermuda after six days at sea. After repairs they made for the Azores, but experienced the same trouble in bad weather and ran low on coal. The yacht successfully reached Horta on December 6, taking on 70 tons of coal before leaving the next morning for a supply base at Punta Del Gado. Patrol boats in the vicinity were sunk by enemy submarines. The Druid set out again on December 19 and ran into rougher weather than before on its way to Europe, adjusting course to Gibraltar rather than Brest. The vessel encountered a submarine on December 24 but no torpedoes were fired. The African coast came into view that same day and the Druid moored at Gibraltar on December 26. O'Neal attended a dance hosted by the officers of Rear Admiral A. P. Niblack's U.S.S. Birmingham on December 29 and also received delayed letters and Christmas gifts from home. The Druid was condemned there and O'Neal accompanied his Captain on the U.S.S. Decatur as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade. The Decatur was charged over the next year with escorting shipping convoys through the submarine zone, primarily to safe waters in the Atlantic, but on a few occasions into the Mediterranean.
On November 9, 1918 just two days before the armistice was signed, the Decatur assisted in the rescue of crewmen from the H.M.S. Britannia, sunk by a German submarine off Cape Trafalgar. O'Neal returned to the Azores aboard the Decatur in December. A deck load of coal taken on at Horta overstressed the ship's deck plates once it was soaked in a storm. The ship limped into a Christmas day hurricane in the Caribbean, barely surviving to drop anchor within sight of the Bermuda channel light. O'Neal was granted leave to return to New York where he met his wife and travelled together back to Birmingham. After a month's leave he reported back to the Decatur at Philadelphia. After three weeks in port he was granted his discharge papers and took a job at a U. S. Steel shipyard in Chickasaw (Mobile County).
Southern Steel Works
O'Neal took charge of scheduling the facility's fabricating shop. His recommendations for improving operations were ignored, prompting him to resign and return to Birmingham to find other work. He took a position as an assistant to R. I. Ingalls at Ingalls Iron Works and charged with finding ways to improve operations. He conducted time studies and recommended improvements that greatly increased production. Knowing that his value to the company had been expended, he left in 1921 and borrowed $2,000 from the American Trust Bank to invest in the Southern Steel Works, a small fabrication shop in West End.
Most of the capital he brought to the company was consumed as soon as it arrived in payment of debts the owners had not divulged. He managed to keep the shop open and filled an order for a coal conveyor for Erskine Ramsay's Pratt Consolidated Coal Company. Needing another loan to purchase steel for the order, he eventually secured $1,500 from the North Birmingham Bank. The shop's next job was a bridge for the County Coal Company, which spurred disloyalty between the partners. O'Neal kept control of the shop and took on a new investor. They soon managed to win business from the LeHigh Portland Cement Company by supplying their agent with aged corn whiskey. Additional business came from a competing cement plant and, with friendships established with sales agents at Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company, the small shop was able to compete with Ingalls for fabrication work.
As the shop's business grew, O'Neal hired Ernest Butler, a veteran of Ingalls, as structural engineer and Like Fahrubel from the Chattanooga Boiler and Tank Company as shop foreman. O'Neal and his then-partner Clarence Zastrow got involved in a bitter disagreement with a manager at Truscon Steel. O'Neal went to Truscon's plant and got involved in a fistfight that resulted in an assault charge and a suit for damages. O'Neal was acquitted and settled the suit for $200.
During the Great Depression the shop survived with minimal orders and a skeleton crew of workers. The next big job was a casting shed for American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO), an innovated vibration free design that would be Butler's last. The company later took on a great deal of business in New Orleans, Louisiana with Clifford Favrot, son of architect Charles Favrot, as their sales agent.
In 1940 O'Neal began planning for a large new steel plant. When the United States entered World War II O'Neal made the decision to modify the design for war work and to apply to the War Production Board for permission to order materials to expedite construction. He signed a contract to produce 3,000 to 5,000 general purpose bombs per month beginning in October 1942. In January 1943 the plant was awarded another contract for gun platforms, ship superstructures for destroyer escorts and landing ships. In 1944 the plant began producing 110 pound chemical bombs at the rate of 16,000 per month and 20 pound fragmentation bombs at a rate of 100,000 per month, on a new line employing primarily women workers. In 1944 the company agreed to produce a 260 pound fragmentation bomb to a design smuggled out of Germany. In January 1945 with the company's ship contracts set to expire, O'Neal agreed to increase bomb production by 60,000 per month, twice as many as any other factory in the United States. The continuous three-shift work was halted abruptly on midnight of V-J Day. The plant spent three months in reconversion to civilian fabricating, but were hobbled by a low ration of post-war steel based on production levels established before the new plant had been completed.
O'Neal was one of the founding members of the organization that became the Southern Structural Steel Board of Trade and later served as vice-president of the American Institute of Steel Construction.
- O'Neal, Kirkman (1974) O'Neal Steel: Memoirs of Kirkman O'Neal. Birmingham: private printing
- Kirkman O'Neal profile at the Alabama Academy of Honor