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.
General Timmons’ exemplary military career and local leadership were also lauded by dignitaries that included US Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons and Representative Lisa Blunt-Rochester. Timmons was one of the nation’s first female combat pilots and the first brigadier general ever in the Delaware Air Guard.