Local man receives French Legion of Honor medal

There were times during World War II when Francis Xavier O’ Connell wasn’t sure he’d live to see another sunrise.

To this day, the 93-year-old feels certain it was his mother’s prayers that kept him alive during dangerous times on the battlefield and through his captivity as a prisoner of war.

He still has the rosary beads she gave him, and some of the letters she wrote to him during the war.

Francis Xavier O’ Connell had just graduated from high school when he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. He was recently honored by the French government for his contributions during the war. (B.C. Manion)

Recently, he was inducted into the French Foreign Legion of Honor by the French government for his contributions during World War II.

The distinction is France’s way to express gratitude to American veterans who fought alongside France during the Second World War.

French Brig. Gen. Thierry Ducret presented the award to O’ Connell during a July 14 ceremony in St. Petersburg, said Carolyn Matthews, O’ Connell’s niece.

Ducret, France’s representative to MacDill Air Force Base’s Central Command International Coalition, was just one of several high-ranking military officers at the event, she said.

O’ Connell graduated from Brown University after his stint in the U.S. Army, and then rejoined in 1949, going on to have a lengthy military career.

The Lutz man was astounded when he heard the French government wanted to honor him.

Like so many others during World War II, O’ Connell joined the Army in 1943, right after graduating from high school in Cranston, Rhode Island.

It was the thing to do, said O’ Connell, the youngest in a family of six boys — four of whom served in the Army.

After enlisting, O’ Connell trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and then was shipped to Casablanca where he joined Company F in the 179th Infantry, the 45th Division.

From there, his division went by ship to Sicily to be part of an amphibious assault landing.

O’ Connell worked as a forward observer — scouting out enemy locations and reporting the targets he found.

After Sicily, the 45th Infantry moved into Salerno for another assault. His unit then was pulled offline briefly before heading to Anzio for another amphibious assault landing.

The Battle of Anzio was a bitter campaign — with fighting nearly all of the way to Rome.

Francis Xavier O’ Connell holds a medal he received as an expression of gratitude from the French government during a July 14 ceremony in St. Petersburg.

After a brief rest period, the unit was shipped to Southern France, where it went ashore at St. Tropez and fought its way inland to Meximieux.

In the heat of the battle, his unit relieved another forward observer group and got too far ahead of the battalion. They were captured.

Despite being a prisoner of war, O’ Connell considers himself fortunate. “Two-thirds of the regimen were killed,” he said, noting there are 1,800 in a regimen.

After he was captured, he and the other prisoners were moved in boxcars from Frankfurt Germany, over to Munich. And, while that was happening, he said, “our own (American) aircraft would bomb and strafe everywhere the Germans moved.”

They were taken to a prisoner of war camp in a town called Moosburg, about 40 some-odd miles north of Munich, he said.

In the morning, he and other prisoners would be trucked to Munich to fill in bomb craters in the railroads, he said.

The Germans would make sure the American prisoners saw the civilian casualties of war.

“They had their bodies lined up on either side of the street. Then they would march us through the streets to see them,” O’ Connell said.

He said he caught a lucky break when he and group of men were chosen to go to a work camp at Vilshofen, a small town in northern Germany, near the port town of Passau.

“We worked in a forest, cutting down trees,” O’ Connell said.

The prisoners slept on straw-lined mattresses in a barn, and there wasn’t much to eat.

“We ate boiled cabbage and potato dumplings. It was just two meals a day,” he said.

He was at the work camp for several months before the Germans forced the prisoners to begin marching toward Austria.

“They knew the Americans were coming,” O’ Connell said. “They were trying to clear us out of there and bring us somewhere else.”

They were liberated during that forced march.

“We were freed by the 16th armored division,” O’Connell said. “They were coming through southwest Germany.”

After being freed, O’ Connell and the other soldiers walked to Bremerhaven where they were processed at a tent city before catching a ship back to the United States.

At the time, O’ Connell weighed 80 pounds.

He was sent to a country club that had been converted to a medical facility, to recuperate. It was three months before the Army would allow his family to see him.

Reuniting with his mother is a moment that O’ Connell will never forget.

“You won’t believe how happy it was,” he said. “She almost fell over, when I put my arms around her.”

A plaque with this quotation hangs in Francis Xavier O’ Connell’s apartment in Lutz:
45th Infantry Division
“Whatever destiny may hold for our great country,
however long that great country’s military history may continue,
readers of the future will search long before finding a chapter
more brilliant than that written by the quill that was dipped in the blood of the Thunderbirds.”

Brig. Gen. H.J.D. Meyer, Dec. 7, 1945

Published August 16, 2017

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