A Memorial Day Tribute for Two American Heroes Connected by Delaware

The 152nd consecutive observance of Wilmington’s traditional Memorial Day parade takes place Thursday, May 30th. (Parade kicks off at 6 pm on Delaware Avenue at Woodlawn Avenue.) TSD Contributor and Army veteran John Riley has been tapped to offer the event’s keynote address, and he will be telling the story of an unlikely Delaware connection linking two heroes with First State ties. 

Below is an excerpt of his speech.

It is an honor to speak to you this Memorial Day about the life of one of Wilmington, Delaware’s greatest heroes, James J Connell.

Lt. Commander Connell’s short and extremely challenging life would intersect with a future Delaware resident, Murphy Neal Jones in July 1966 in the squalor of a Hanoi prison and again this past November. Colonel Jones was asked to speak about his comrade in arms and fellow prisoner of war, JJ Connell, when Connell was posthumously awarded the “Order of the First State” by Governor Carney in a ceremony at the Delaware War Memorial Plaza.

Fourteen years after graduating from Salesianum, Lt. James J. Connell died in a POW camp in Vietnam

As Jones rose up to speak this past Veterans Day, he began by saying that his speech was going to be the hardest he ever had to deliver. The fighter pilot who had served 2,421 days as a prisoner of war worried he would not be able to properly honor Connell whom he referred to as “this brave man.” He said it was not because he could not find the words but because of the emotion that he felt.

Shot down only 17 days apart in 1966, Col. Jones described the circumstances that made him a “brother” to a man he would never see. Circumstances were grim for all POW’s at that time but particularly brutal for JJ Connell who before his death due to maltreatment, would spend 1,645 days suffering at the hands of his captors.

Colonel Murphy Neal Jones, USAF, spoke at the Delaware Veterans Day ceremony on Nov 11, 2018. Jones was captured in Vietnam 17 days before Connell and was held for 4 years in solitary confinement.

In Colonel Jones words:

JJ and I would end up in the same camp, known as the Zoo. The Zoo was a notoriously harsh camp. Although severely injured, solitary for me would last five months. I don’t know how long JJ was in solitary confinement but I know it was much, much longer. I spent over four years in the zoo until I was moved to another camp with several other prisoners due to overcrowding – JJ did not move with us.

During those years I never talked to JJ – during those years, I never saw JJ. 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 – JJ Connell was a strong and brave man! Only the North Vietnamese or maybe four Cuban interrogators who were at the Zoo for over a year know how he died.

 

Jimmy Connell and his sister Ann grew up in St. Thomas parish at 403 Sycamore Street, in Union Park Gardens. Their father, who served in the Seabees during WWII died suddenly when Connell was only 15 years old. Jimmy stepped up to help his mother who had to return to work to support the family.

Aspiring to follow his uncle, City Council President Woodie McClafferty, into politics, Jimmy Connell spent time as a Congressional page. The 1957 Salesianum School Yearbook referred to him as “a good little Democrat.”

In 1956 Connell joined the Delaware delegation for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. According to a newspaper account that August, Jimmy Connell set an eating record on the train returning to Wilmington.

Although James J Connell had aspirations to go into politics, a visit to the Naval Academy changed him in a profound way. It was a life-altering experience for the young Wilmington lad and he became determined to serve his country in another way. Since there was another James Connell in his Academy class, friends there began to refer to him as “JJ.”

 

During his time at the Academy, Connell started the Foreign Affairs Club, today referred to as the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference. The conference brings together 150 scholars from the United States and over a dozen foreign countries. In 2009 the Conference recognized JJ Connell by naming the keynote address in his honor.

The Naval Academy biography of JJ Connell states that he graduated on June 7, 1961 and was designated a Naval Aviator on June 18, 1962. After serving as a flight instructor he joined Attack Squadron 55 aboard the carrier USS Ticonderoga before serving on the USS Ranger beginning in August 1964. On July 15, 1966 LT Connell was flying an A-4 Skyhawk on an “Iron Hand” mission along the Red River south of Hanoi when he was hit. Iron Hand missions were very high risk and designed to attack SAM missile sites to suppress enemy fire and clear the way for the pilots that followed. 

In the early ’70s, in recognition of JJ Connell’s Vietnam service, his name was enshrined on the wall of Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy along with 23 members of the class of 1961. He was the only member of his class awarded the Navy Cross, our nation’s second highest honor for valor.

But while the nation and the Naval Academy did not forget Connell’s service and his name could be found on the Delaware Vietnam memorial, little attention was paid to this Delaware hero until Bill Coll, also a Salesianum graduate and Navy fighter pilot noticed his name in a biography about Medal of Honor recipient Colonel Bud Day—Day was the last man to see JJ Connell alive. Coll, who served late in the war decided to investigate the story behind the man Bud Day referred to as a “hard resister.”

Coll was soon surprised to learn that Connell’s hometown was Wilmington Delaware. He also learned his widow, Jenny was living in San Diego. When he spoke to her, he received a further surprise when he found out JJ had graduated from Salesianum School. Determined to see Connell recognized by the school, Bill Coll nominated JJ to the schools’ hall of fame. This event would lead to Connell being nominated for the state’s highest honor.

The ceremony at the Delaware Memorial Bridge this past November was an emotional one. JJ’s widow, Jenny, now in her 80’s made the journey to Delaware from California and was joined by JJ’s sister Ann and brother-in-law Lt. Col. Anthony DiBenedetto. Anthony is a decorated veteran who served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and in 1974 escorted LT. Commander Connell’s remains back to the country. Ann and other family have joined us today.

 

The Naval Academy biography of JJ Connell states that he graduated on June 7, 1961, and was designated a Naval Aviator on June 18, 1962. After serving as a flight instructor he joined Attack Squadron 55 aboard the carrier USS Ticonderoga before serving on the USS Ranger beginning in August 1964. On July 15, 1966, LT Connell was flying an A-4 Skyhawk on an “Iron Hand” mission along the Red River south of Hanoi when he was hit. Iron Hand missions were very high risk and designed to attack SAM missile sites to suppress enemy fire and clear the way for the pilots that followed.  

The ceremony at the Delaware Memorial Bridge this past November was an emotional one. JJ’s widow, Jenny, now in her 80’s made the journey to Delaware from California and was joined by JJ’s sister Ann and brother-in-law Lt. Col. Anthony DiBenedetto. Anthony is a decorated veteran who served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and in 1974 escorted LT. Commander Connell’s remains back to the country. Ann and other family have joined us today.

At Delaware’s Veteran’s Day ceremony last November, Governor John Carney presented Jenny Connell (far left) the Order of the First State. JJ’s sister Ann and brother-in-law Lt. Col. Anthony DiBenedetto accompanied Connell to the ceremony.

Jenny Connell’s own heroic efforts to gain better treatment for our Vietnam era POWs has been recognized in books such as “In Love and War” by the medal of honor recipient James Stockdale and his wife Sybil and the recently published “League of Wives,” by Heath Lee. JJ and Jenny’s children were ages 2 and 3 when he went to war and they would never have the opportunity to know their father.

Having only recently moved to Delaware, a determined 80-year-old Col. Murphy Neal Jones arrived at the War Memorial Plaza for the Veteran’s Day ceremony prepared to honor JJ Connell. Requiring oxygen and a walker to make his way to the podium, his words were delivered with power and passion.

Looking back, it seems clear that he understood this would be his last public act. He took the time to explain the POW flag that would a few months later follow his own casket to a gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. He then said this about JJ Connell and a special group of men.

“There were 496 POWs in North Vietnam and 28 would not return. The North Vietnamese tried their best to force us to go beyond name, rank, service number, date of birth and branch of service. They would not accept total resistance. We all broke to some degree—except for 28. They resisted until death. JJ Connell was one of those 28 heroes.”

In six days, we will turn our attention to the sacrifices of another generation who 75 years ago fought to free an enslaved European continent. We will hear the words of General Eisenhower who called that effort a “Great Crusade.”

“The eyes of the world are upon you,” he said. “The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

With only his hopes and prayers James J Connell of Wilmington, Delaware fought on alone. He could have accepted better treatment from his captures who thought they could break him, but like the men of D-Day, JJ’s bravery and devotion to country were stronger than the enemy. 

I want to thank Governor Carney, Salesianum School and the Wilmington Memorial Day committee for embracing the memory of Delaware’s most highly decorated hero of the Vietnam War. But what about future generations—will Jimmy Connell’s name and story fade away again? I hope our community and public officials can soon come together and consider a more permanent recognition for one of the state’s greatest heroes so that future generations never forget his sacrifice.

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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.