JAMES J. CONNELL, LCDR, USN

From USNA Virtual Memorial Hall

James Connell '61

Date of birth: May 6, 1939

Date of death: January 14, 1971

Age: 31

Lucky Bag

From the 1961 Lucky Bag:


Obituary

1961 Connell 1.jpg

From Veteran Tributes:

J.J. Connell was born on May 6, 1939, in Wilmington, Delaware. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy on June 7, 1961, and was designated a Naval Aviator on June 18, 1962. After completing additional training, Connell was assigned as a flight instructor at NAAS Whiting Field, Florida, from December 1962 to November 1963, when he joined the Replacement Air Group at NAS Lemoore, California. He next served with Attack Squadron 55 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14), at NAS Lemoore, and aboard the USS Ranger (CVA-61), from August 1964 until he was forced to eject over North Vietnam on July 15, 1966. After spending 1,645 days in captivity, LCDR Connell died at the hands of the North Vietnamese on January 14, 1971. His remains were returned to the United States on March 6, 1974.

Loss

1961 Connell 2.jpg

From Virtual Wall:

James J. Connell was graduated from the United States Naval Academy with the Class of 1961 and proceeded into the flight training program, qualifying in the A-4 Skyhawk light attack aircraft. On 10 Dec 1965, Lieutenant Connell deployed as a pilot in Attack Squadron 55 embarked in USS RANGER (CVA-61). On 15 July 1966, LT Connell was flying A-4E BuNo 151024 as one of four aircraft conducting an "Iron Hand" mission along the Red River south of Hanoi. The flight encountered heavy conventional antiaircraft artillery and SAM fire as they attacked an SA-2 surface-to-air missile site. As the flight pulled off target one of the pilots saw a parachute on the ground and realized that Connell had been shot down. Shortly thereafter, Connell established radio contact with his squadronmates and advised them that he was OK, having sustained only minor injuries during the ejection. Rescue efforts were impossible in this high threat area and it was taken for granted that he would be captured. He was.

When the POWs were repatriated in February 1973, Jimmy Connell was not among them; he had died in captivity, reportedly on 14 January 1971. His remains were not repatriated until 06 March 1974.

Lieutenant Commander Connell's Navy Cross Citation speaks to both his treatment while a POW and his response to that treatment. He was kept in solitary confinement for several years and was subjected to repeated and severe physical and mental abuse by his captors. His fellow POWs were in a position to judge LCDR Connell's response, and it was their judgement and first-person testimony which led to the award of the Navy Cross.

The point-of-contact for this memorial is his wife, Jenny Robertson, jennyr1@cox.net
27 Nov 2002

Remembrances

From Wall of Faces:

Dear dad,
I wish I had gotten to know you. But I was only about a year old when you left, so I have no memories of you. All I know of you is what others have told me. Even so I miss you so much. I know my life would have turned out very differently if you had survived the war. I hope you can forgive all the mistakes i have made over the years. I am only now coming to gripes with the pain of your death. It took the death of a loved one to open up the grief I had buried inside for so long that I did not know I still carried with me. I will always love you and miss you.
With Love Your Son, James J. Connell III JAMES J. CONNELL III, 6/10/14

From Wall of Faces:

Though 45 years have passed since you departed on that last cruise, it could be just 45 minutes. Your children and I miss you terribly. You would be so proud of them and your grandchildren. JENNY CONNELL ROBERTSON, JENNYR1@COX.NET, 1/2/11

From Delaware Online, July 18, 2018:

Remember Delaware hero James Connell, who died a POW in the Vietnam War

A lifelong Wilmington resident, John Riley served in the administration of then-Gov. Tom Carper and recently retired from Ashland/Hercules as director of governmental relations. He is co-author with former Philadelphia Eagle Kevin Reilly of Reilly's popular autobiography, "Tackling Life."

I was surprised when I heard that a Vietnam prisoner of war (POW) had been proposed for election to the Salesianum High School Hall of Fame. Being friends with Delaware residents who were former POWs, Jon Reynolds and Neal Jones, and having read several books on the subject, I assumed I would have been aware of any POWs, particularly one who attended my high school.

I encountered more surprises as I began to look into the life of James J. Connell, class of 1957, who died in North Vietnamese captivity in January 1969. I now know he was an American hero, and I want the people of his home state of Delaware to know his story.

Connell was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross — the second-highest award for valor, after the Medal of Honor. Here's how the official citation for the medal describes his heroism:

"Under constant pressure from the North Vietnamese in their attempt to gain military information and propaganda material, Lieutenant Commander Connell experienced severe torture with ropes and was kept in almost continuous solitary confinement. As they persisted in their hostile treatment of him, he continued to resist by feigning facial muscle spasms, incoherency of speech, and crippled arms with loss of feeling in his fingers. The Vietnamese, convinced of his plight, applied shock treatments in an attempt to improve his condition. However, he chose not to indicate improvement for fear of further cruelty. Isolated in a corner of the camp near a work area visited daily by other prisoners, he established and maintained covert communications with changing groups of POW's, thereby serving as a main point of exchange of intelligence information."

In a biography on the life of Colonel Bud Day, one of the most decorated veterans of the Vietnam War, Day singled out Connell for his resistance under constant pressure from his captors.

According to research by David Call, a retired Master Chief Petty Officer and naval science instructor at Delaware Military Academy, Connell’s Navy Cross was the highest award for valor presented to any Delawarean during the Vietnam War.

Connell's story is a reminder of the brutality Vietnam POWs suffered.

One of the elements that set them apart from many of their World War II counterparts was the length of their incarceration. My friends, Reynolds and Jones, were held seven and six years respectively; WWII incarcerations were typically far shorter.

While the Japanese treatment of POWs was by most accounts extremely inhumane, the Germans generally followed the Geneva Conventions with regards to treatment of U.S. and western European prisoners — although conditions were certainly harsh.

The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, declared U.S. prisoners to be criminals and subjected our men to oppressive conditions, forcing them to endure isolation, starvation, beatings and other means of torture. They attempted to use POWs for propaganda purposes, and rarely did they even acknowledge a prisoner was being held.

Incredibly, most of the POWs survived through sheer willpower, discipline and support of each other.

Connell's story is a reminder of the sacrifices our soldiers make. Unfortunately, too few Delawareans know about him.

Although my POW friends were aware of Connell, they did not know he was from Delaware. His name appears on the Vietnam Memorial off of Baynard Boulevard, and he received a brief mention in a News Journal story about the POWs in 1973. Yet, when I checked with others in the military and veterans affairs community, no one remembered Connell or realized that any Delawarean had been a Vietnam POW — let alone one recognized with the nation’s second highest award for valor.

Thanks to the interest and curiosity of a man from Maine — 1964 Salesianum graduate and retired Naval fighter pilot Bill Coll — James J. Connell’s hometown would become aware of him.

Coll recalled hearing about Connell through classified readings before deploying to the Western Pacific on the USS Midway, late in the Vietnam war. Then, about a year ago he learned from Robert Coram’s biography of Bud Day that Connell, whom Day referred to as a “hard resister,” had died at the hands of the Vietnamese guards Jan. 14, 1971.

While reviewing information about Connell on a Naval Academy website, Coll was shocked to learn Connell was from Wilmington. He then decided to contact his widow, and during the course of their discussions he learned Connell was a fellow graduate of Salesianum.

“I was stunned, and from that moment I was determined to see him recognized by our school and community for his heroic deeds while a POW, so I submitted his name for the Salesianum Hall of Fame,” said Coll.

Commander Connell’s name is now listed in the Salesianum Hall, but his story of resistance, endurance, and courage is a story that will make every Delawarean proud.

Connell’s immediate family members do not live in Delaware and were unable to attend the Salesianum induction ceremony. But, to ensure he was properly remembered, Commander Coll, who retired from the U.S. Navy, drove 1,200 miles round-trip from Maine and spoke on his behalf.

With two children at home who would never know their father, Connell’s wife, Jenny, worked with the other POW wives, including Sybil Stockdale, (wife of Admiral Stockdale, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor) to determine the status of their husbands. After six and a half years of hoping and praying, the returning POWs confirmed that Connell had died in captivity on Jan. 14, 1971. His remains were repatriated in March 1974, and he was buried in the Rosecrans National Cemetary in San Diego.

Jenny Connell endured what many could not.

The story of the POW wives and their relentless efforts to confront U.S. political indifference was recently well told in Alvin Townley’s book, “Defiant.”

As Bill Coll and I tried to understand how Delaware lost track of one of the state’s true military heroes, we could only conclude that Vietnam was an experience that the country wanted to put in the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, in the effort to forget the war, the country forgot too many of those who served faithfully and heroically and those who supported them at home.

Navy Cross

From Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander [then Lieutenant] James Joseph Connell (NSN: 0-64738), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam from April 1968 to June 1969. Under constant pressure from the North Vietnamese in their attempt to gain military information and propaganda material, Lieutenant Commander Connell experienced severe torture with ropes and was kept in almost continuous solitary confinement. As they persisted in their hostile treatment of him, he continued to resist by feigning facial muscle spasms, incoherency of speech, and crippled arms with loss of feeling in his fingers. The Vietnamese, convinced of his plight, applied shock treatments in an attempt to improve his condition. However, he chose not to indicate improvement for fear of further cruelty. Isolated in a corner of the camp near a work area visited daily by other prisoners, he established and maintained covert communications with changing groups of POW's, thereby serving as a main point of exchange of intelligence information. By his exceptional courage, determination, and resourcefulness in this most difficult line of resistance, he reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces.

General Orders: Authority: Navy Department Board of Decorations and Medals
Action Date: April 1968 - June 1969
Service: Navy
Rank: Lieutenant Commander
Division: Prisoner of War (North Vietnam)

Legion of Merit

From Hall of Valor:

(Citation Needed) - SYNOPSIS: Lieutenant Commander James Joseph Connell (NSN: 0-64738), United States Navy, was awarded the Legion of Merit with Combat "V" for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States while serving as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam.

Action Date: Vietnam War
Service: Navy
Rank: Lieutenant Commander
Division: Prisoner of War (North Vietnam)

Distinguished Flying Cross

From Hall of Valor:

(Citation Needed) - SYNOPSIS: Lieutenant James Joseph Connell (NSN: 0-64738), United States Navy, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight in Southeast Asia.

Action Date: Vietnam War
Service: Navy
Rank: Lieutenant

Prisoner of War

From Hall of Valor:

Lieutenant Commander James Joseph Connell (NSN: 0-64738), United States Navy, was held as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam from July 15, 1971 until his death in captivity on or about January 13, 1972.

Action Date: July 15, 1971 - January 13, 1972
Service: Navy
Rank: Lieutenant Commander
Division: Prisoner of War (North Vietnam)

The Order of the First State

From Town Square Delaware:

He suffered unimaginable brutality yet kept faith in our nation.
He died in captivity yet his spirit remains strong.
He is a hero that Delawareans should never forget.

Sunday’s annual Veterans Day Ceremony in New Castle was, as always, a beautiful but somber tribute to those who have served our nation so courageously in the armed services, and the lost patriots among them who gave their lives for our freedom.

This year’s event took place at the precise moment when the entire world bowed its head in centenary remembrance of ‘the war to end all wars:’ the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one hundred years to the signing of the armistice that ended World War I.

For Delaware, the occasion was doubly special because of two great citizens who devoted their lives to military service and the country itself: Lt. Commander James J. Connell, a Salesianum (’57) and US Naval Academy (’61) graduate who perished in a Vietnamese POW camp in 1971, and Carol A. Timmons, the outgoing Adjunct General of the Delaware Air National Guard who is retiring after 42 years.

Referencing the Navy Cross citation Connell was awarded posthumously – the highest award for valor presented to any Delawarean during the Vietnam War – Governor John Carney said, “This Delawarean, this veteran, this hero fought for his country until the very end. Those who were imprisoned alongside him brought home reports of his steadfast dedication to his country, even under unthinkable conditions.”

Carney quoted from the citation, “Lieutenant Commander Connell experienced severe torture with ropes and was kept in almost continuous solitary confinement … Isolated in a corner of the camp near a work area … Connell established and maintained covert communications with changing groups of POWs, thereby serving as a main point of exchange of intelligence information.”

Retired Air Force Colonel Murphy Neal Jones of Magnolia, himself a former Vietnam POW, spoke movingly of the rare bond he shared with “JJ” Connell. Jones was shot down and captured near Hanoi seventeen days before Connell met the same fate in the summer of 1966.

Paraphrasing William Shakespeare – Henry V, ‘he who sheds his blood with me shall forever be my brother,” Jones remarked. “J.J. is our brother.

…The North Vietnamese would take new POWs to the Hanoi Hilton where they were tortured and interrogated for several days. Then they were moved to another camp nearby, where the torture and interrogation would not stop. You were in solitary confinement 24 hours a day with no view to the outside… We could not see or talk to other prisoners.

J.J. and I would end up at the same camp, the Zoo. The Zoo was a notoriously harsh camp. Although severly injured, solitary for me would last five months. I don’t know how long J.J. was in solitary confinement, but I know it was much, much longer. I spent four years in the Zoo until I was moved to another camp with several other prisoners due to overcrowding. J.J. did not move with us. During those four years, I never talked to J.J. During those four years I never saw J.J. But I did hear stories through our tap code about his harsh treatment.

We don’t know why he was singled out. But we do know one thing for sure — J.J. was a strong and brave man… He honored his oath to uphold and defend the Constitution until his last breath.”

Until this year, Connell’s incredible story of strength and resistance in the face of unimaginable brutality had received little to no attention in his home state. TSD contributor and US Army veteran John Riley wrote here this summer that it was “thanks to the interest and curiosity of a man from Maine, 1964 Salesianum graduate and retired Naval fighter pilot Bill Coll, James J. Connell’s hometown would become aware of him.”

Riley explained that “while reviewing information about Connell on a Naval Academy website, Coll was shocked to learn Connell was from Wilmington. He then decided to contact his widow, and during the course of their discussions, he learned Connell was a fellow graduate of Salesianum.”

Coll’s intervention ensured Connell was enshrined in the Catholic school’s hall of fame, and this recognition helped lead to Governor Carney presenting Delaware’s highest honor, the Order of the First State, to Connell’s widow Jenny Connell Robertson who traveled from San Diego to join other family members in accepting it.


Class of 1961

James is one of 23 members of the Class of 1961 on Virtual Memorial Hall.