Salesianum Pays Tribute to Forgotten POW hero

Thanks to the interest and curiosity of a fellow Salesianum graduate, James J. Connell (Sallies ’57), will be recognized by the school for his heroic deeds as a POW during the Vietnam War.

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. As a friend of former POWs and Delawareans 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, Salesianum class of 1957.

James “J.J.” Connell was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War

One of the elements that set the Vietnam POW’s apart from many of their World War II counterparts, was the length of their incarceration.

Jon Reynolds and Neal 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 US and western European prisoners, although conditions were certainly harsh.

The North Vietnamese declared US prisoners to be criminals and subjected our men to oppressive conditions, regularly forcing them to endure isolation, starvation, beatings and other means of torture. They attempted to use them for propaganda purposes, and rarely did they even acknowledge a prisoner was being held. Incredibly, most of the POW’s survived through sheer willpower, discipline and support of each other.

 

According to James J. Connell’s posthumously awarded Navy Cross (the second highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor), “Lieutenant Commander Connell experienced severe torture with ropes and was kept in almost continuous solitary confinement.”

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. And according to the website, hometown heroes/de.html, Connell’s Navy Cross was the highest award for valor presented to any Delawarean during the Vietnam War. Connell’s awards for service to his country can be found here.

J.J. Connell’s wife Jenny Robertson and their children, 1966

Although my POW friends were aware of Connell, they did not know he was from Delaware. His name appears on the Vietnam Memorial off Baynard Boulevard, and he received a brief mention in a News Journal story about the POW’s in 1973, yet when I checked with others in the military and veteran’s affairs, 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 resistor” had died at the hands of the Vietnamese guards January 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 Bill Coll (USN, ret.) drove 1200 miles roundtrip 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 6 ½ years of hoping and praying, the returning POW’s confirmed that Connell had died in captivity on January 14th, 1971. 

Connell’s remains were repatriated in March 1974, and he was buried in the Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, CA. 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 rear-view 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.

  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on LinkedIn

About the Contributor

John Riley

John Riley

A native Delawarean, John Riley is retired and lives in Greenville. In addition to grandchildren and golf he pursues a passion for writing and military history.

33 Comments

  • Thank you John. Jim was my sister in laws brother. I was very young when he became a POW. My only memory is of how proud we all were and what a wonderful man he was. I wish I had know about you honoring him. I know my family would have attended.

  • John – what a wonderful article about Jimmy. He was my sister-in law’s brother who I remember as being so handsome in his uniform. Jimmy will never be forgotten in our hearts.

  • John, thank you for a beautiful article written about my Uncle Jimmy. My mom, Ann DiBenedetto was his sister and my father, Anthony, graduated in 1957 with my Uncle. Growing up they shared many stories with my brothers and I about the wonderful brother, friend and hero that my Uncle truly was. My parents would have loved to been at the ceremony, but my dad is in bad health due to Agent Orange from his time in Vietnam. On behalf of my family, thank you again for a wonderful tribute.

  • Yes, JJ’s remains were returned in 1974 and now are at Rosecrans National Cemetery in
    San Diego, Ca. where his wife lives.

  • When I began research on JJ I was utterly astonished to find that he was a Salesianum graduate. As John stated I from that point was compelled to do something. The Hall of Fame induction at Salesianum is the first step- more to come. JJ was shot down July 15th, 1966- 52 years ago last Sunday. He was on an “Iron Hand” mission with three other A-4’s to protect a large strike group from surface to air missiles (SAM’s). This mission attacks SAM sites and suppresses their guidance and control. It is a very dangerous mission. JJ spent 1,645 days in captivity and he never broke nor turned to a propaganda source for the enemy to exploit. That statement should imply great duress because that is exactly what JJ endured-valorously- which cost him his life. His actions were above and beyond what could be expected of anyone held in captivity. He has made me very proud to be part of a community of Naval Aviators who flew off carriers -especially with high regard to the A-4 drivers who suffered more than their share.

  • Thanks Bill for bringing this to light – and thank you for your service as a Naval aviator.

  • Hi I’m Sharon Mcclafferty Heller! My
    Grandmother Nellie was your grandmother ‘s sisters! Is your Mom still living! Your family was always my favorite of Mom Mom sisters! Sure wish we could contact by email.

  • Awesome account and the detail. There is a story for everyone everywhere. Especially those who have served in our behalf!

  • Great work JOHN on our classmate JIM . I will forward this on to our class , thanks.

  • I knew Jimmy when I was in high school attending Ursuline Academy. I remember a particular Saturday night dance at Sallies(1959) when he was visiting from the Naval Academy. We danced several dances, the cha-cha, jitterbug, and slow dances. He was an excellent dancer and smiled constantly. Also, I remember that he was my Aunt Sara Joyce’s paper boy in Union Park Gardens.
    She was so sad when we found out that he died as a prisoner of war.

    Anita Ciconte Dauphin

  • They all tell awsome stories, about all the boys in here. They will not be forgotten. My twin girls who just turned 13, went to Washinton D. C.. Traveling class rooms. My brother, Joseph p. nolan jr. Shot down over Loas, pilot of UH- IH 419, MIA/POW, 4 48 yrs now not returned. Casuliety date May 16, 1971. No remains found, no dog tags. That day he altered our lives. It has never been the same. Thank you for letting me share.

  • They all tell awsome stories, about all the boys in here. They will not be forgotten. My twin girls who just turned 13, went to Washinton D. C.. Traveling class rooms. My brother, Joseph p. nolan jr. Shot down over Loas, pilot of UH- IH 419, MIA/POW, 4 48 yrs now not returned. Casuliety date May 16, 1971. No remains found, no dog tags. That day he altered our lives. It has never been the same. Thank you for letting me share.

  • My mom, Ann DiBenedetto, Jimmy’s sister, would love to send you a message. Is there a way to send you a private message?

  • Thank you, Bill Coll, for your painstaking research and thank you, John, for your wonderful presentation. If ever there is a Salesianum Hall of Famer it is James J. Connell.
    May he rest in peace.

  • James Connell always shared a great smile and exemplified the spirit of St Frances DeSales … Take Hold and Never Let Go! ….

  • John…thank you for bringing JJ’s story to our attention…I served two tours in RVN and have survivors guilt when I read stories like JJ’s…wish I had know him….He is indeed a true Delaware Hero.

  • I grew up and played with Jimmy and Ann on Sycamore Street in Union Park Gardens. I was so saddened when we found out he had died in captivity. A true Hero.

  • John Riley…..Thank You and the interest of Bill Coll CDR, USN (RET) for bringing this story forward. I read with great interest having three brothers and a son who are grads of Salesianum. Two brothers served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam Era. I will now keep JJ and Joseph p. nolan jr., those mentioned in this article in my thoughts and daily prayers. “Take hold and never let go”

  • http://legionofvalor.org/history/

    It’s so disheartening so few are aware of our Nation’s oldest military service organization, which is comprised of our Nation’s two highest awards for Valor, the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross. Someone needs to posthumously have this hero added to the ELITE and PRESTIGIOUS Legion of Valor (LOV).

  • Kelly, I am Bill Lynam and was Jimmy’s cousin as well as your mom. My mother is Eileen who is/was their first cousin. My mom has been trying to write to your mom and dad, but does not have current address. I still live in Wilmington if you can look me up and give a call.

  • So sad, but certainly worth knowing and remembering another great hero. Thanks John and Bill for bringing this story to light.

  • Never knew Jim personally but was two years ahead of him at St. Thomas and Sallies and served as an altar boy as well with him at St. Tommy’s.My wife and I married in 1960 and it was then I found out she was a distant cousin of Jim’s.Small world! Her last name is Montague and she is part of that Desmond Irish clan. Although having served in the USAF I was always a big Navy enthusiasts.What a truly remarkable Hero he was. I am certain he has a very high place in Heaven.God bless him and his family and cuodo’s to Bill Coll for sharing this remarkable hero’s Story with all of us.

  • Thank you for your great investigation in bringing the information on this hero to light! I had three brothers in Viet Nam at the same time and remember the daily worry about them. I cannot imagine what this Delaware hero endured. May he Rest In Peace!

  • Thank you for your great investigation in bringing the information on this hero to light! I had three brothers in Viet Nam at the same time and remember the daily worry about them. I cannot imagine what this Delaware hero endured. May he Rest In Peace!

  • I was an Academy classmate of J.J. and knew him well. I was not surprised to hear that he was killed by the N.V. as J.J. was a brilliant man and very well versed in the evils of Communism and I know he let his feelings be shown at every oportunity and knowing the cosequences. A true HERO!!

  • John,
    A true hero indeed. I still find it incredible that at this late date in the world of the American
    Vietnam era POWs we are learning about a comrade who was totally unknown during the years
    of our service and the years that followed. I am reminded of our efforts and memory drills to ensure that no one was left behind, and now we learn such was not the case. In any case, your paper on the
    matter is superb. What to do? The USN has named two USN Destroyers after Vietnam PW’s, Stockdale and Lawrence. They are now campaigning for a third (Denton). To me, JJ Connells’ case
    is special in many ways, and I would cast my vote for him. Best regards. Jon