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Salesianum Pays Tribute to Forgotten POW hero

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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.

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.

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