The Greatest Act of Courage

By Terry Jeffrey

The Greatest Act of Courage

Master Sergeant Leo P. Day, who had served 16 years in the U.S. Army and was then stationed at the Presidio, went out that evening after dinner.

He stood on the cliff overlooking Baker Beach and surveyed the scene with his binoculars.

To his right stood the Golden Gate Bridge and the majestic headlands of Marin. To his left, the posh neighborhood of Sea Cliff spread along the shore.

It had been an unusually hot day for May in San Francisco, and now, not surprisingly, two teenagers were swimming in the blue ocean waters just off the beach that sits just beyond the bay.

Then it happened.

“I trained my glasses on them and saw the boy thrashing about madly in a large circle of red, foaming water,” Day later explained in Family Weekly Magazine.

But this story, which happened in 1959, did not start on the beach. It started at a San Francisco State fraternity dance where Leslie O’Neill met Albert Kogler. They were both 18-year-old freshmen.

She later recounted the event in a speech to students at Mercy, the all-girls Catholic high school that was her alma mater.

“I was wearing this (she fingered the gold cross on her necklace), and he asked me if I was Catholic,” she said, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

“I said yes, and asked him what he was, and he said ‘I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.’

“He said he didn’t need religion. ‘I have myself.'”

“I didn’t try to convert him,” she told the Mercy girls, “and even though he wondered about things like life after death, he really wasn’t too interested, I guess.”

Kogler and O’Neill both lived in the Sunset District. He lived with his mother, who was divorced from his father. She lived with her parents — across the street from St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church.

It was Thursday, May 7, 1959, when Kogler asked O’Neill if she wanted to go swimming — after a class they both attended. She said: “Okay.”

They went to Baker Beach, the most scenic in the city.

“We spread out a blanket and sunned for a while. Then we went in the water,” she told the Examiner the next day.

“We’d been in for about 15 minutes,” she said, “and were out maybe 40 or 50 yards when he said: ‘We’re out pretty far now, let’s not go any farther, it would be too dangerous.’

“We were just about to start back, and I was looking away from him, toward the Golden Gate, when I heard him scream,” she said. “I turned around and saw this thing flap up into the air. I didn’t know if it was a fin or a tail. I knew it was some kind of fish. There was a thrashing in the water, and I knew he was struggling with it. It must have been pretty big. He screamed again: ‘It’s a shark… get out of here.

“I started swimming back,” she said. “I swam a few strokes, but then I thought to myself: ‘I can’t just leave him here.’ I was scared. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t leave him. I turned around and took a few strokes back.”

“All I could see was blood all over the water,” she said. “He was shouting: ‘Help me, help me.’

“I grabbed his hand,” she said. “But when I pulled I could see that his arm was just hanging on by a thread.

“So I grabbed him around his back, but it was all bloody and I could see the insides,” she said.

Even so, she was able to calm him down and tow him into shore.

In the meantime, Master Sgt. Day had jumped in his car and driven down to the beach.

“Now she knelt beside her stricken friend, who was struggling for air, and breathed her own breath directly into his lungs,” he recounted in Family Weekly Magazine.

“When a police officer relieved her, Shirley still did not quit,” he said. “Sensing that Albert was near death, she recalled a conversation she’d had with him in school one day. He believed in God, but he belonged to no particular faith. She bent low and whispered softly to him.

“Okay,” he responded. “I love God. I love my mother and my father. Oh, God, please help me.”

“Quickly, Shirley ran to the edge of the surf, scooped up some sea water and returned,” said Day. “The crucifix she wore around her neck dangled significantly as she leaned over and let the water trickle out of her hands onto Albert’s head, baptizing him in her own Catholic faith.”

“‘Is that all right?’ she asked him softly,” according to Day.

“The boy tried to nod. Then she slowly recited the Act of Contrition,” said Day. “Albert repeated it. When he finished it, he lapsed into unconsciousness.”

These proved to be his last words.

A Coast Guard truck rushed him to Letterman Army Hospital, where desperate efforts were made to save his life. They failed.

“Captain Sterling Mutz, an Army surgeon, said the nature of the youth’s wounds indicated he was attacked by a fish of tremendous size and power,” the Examiner reported.

“Dr. Earl S. Herald, curator of aquatic biology at Steinhart Aquarium concurred in that opinion after hearing the wounds described and surmised that the attacker was ‘a great white shark,'” the paper said.

The Rev. William Baker, a Lutheran pastor, conducted Kogler’s funeral and, as reported by United Press International, “expressed ‘appreciation and admiration to Miss Shirley O’Neill for her action.'”

“The Rev. Mr. Baker said Kogler had come to discuss religion with him several times at his home,” said UPI.

“He was seeking,” Rev. Baker said. “Now he has won the fulfillment of his faith and the victory of life itself.”

Sergeant Day shared with the Examiner his own observation about the actions of Shirley O’Neill. “It was the greatest exhibition of courage I have ever seen or am likely to see in my life,” he said.

Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of To find out more about him, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at

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