Francis Xavier O’Connell — a former prisoner of war and decorated military veteran — had been scheduled for a special moment during the most recent session of the Florida Legislatures.
State Rep. James Grant, from House District 64, sponsored a tribute for O’Connell’s “exemplary military service and his unwavering dedication to the United States of America.”
The tribute was scheduled to be delivered in the gallery of the House of Representatives in Tallahassee, according to O’Connell’s niece, Carolyn Matthews.
But, that’s just one of the things that hasn’t happened in recent months because of COVID-19.
Instead, a ceremony was arranged at Angels Senior Living at the Lodges of Idlewild, in Lutz, Matthews said, via email.
Because senior care facilities remain in lockdown, members of two veterans groups stepped forward to help create a dignified event to honor O’Connell.
Members of the Assisting Veterans of America Support Team (AVAST) provided an Honor Guard. Luis Anjurjo, an AVAST member, sang the National Anthem.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Reginal Williams, of the Tampa Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), said the invocation. Retired Army Col. Charles Dalcourt, president of the chapter, presented the tribute to O’Connell, who retired as a U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4. The group also provided a photographer for the occasion.
Because of social distancing requirements, O’Connell had to stay inside the center.
He was able to see what was happening, though, through the Lodges’ glass front doors. Other residents also were able to attend the ceremony.
State lawmaker Grant’s tribute outlines highlights of O’Connell’s military career.
In part, it says that O’Connell began his service with basic and advanced military training in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before a deployment to Casablanca, Morocco, where O’Connell joined the 45th Infantry Division of the United States Army and trained for battle alongside the first appointed United States Special Forces.
In 1943 and 1944, he took part in three hard-fought but ultimately victorious amphibious assault landings in Italy.
During his fourth amphibious assault landing in southern France, O’Connell fought with his unit inland, where, in September of 1944, the unit was surrounded by Panzer tanks and German infantry. They were taken prisoner, and sent by trucks and trains to Germany, experiencing frequent strafing by United States aircraft along the way, the tribute says.
O’Connell was a prisoner of war for nine months.
“He and his fellow captives were subject to extreme temperatures, near starvations, and brutal forced labor at a work camp in Vilshofen, Germany, until Allied forces took control of the area, and upon being freed, his unit made the journey on foot to Bremerhaven, over 520 miles away,” an excerpt from the tribute says.
O’Connell went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Brown University.
After that, he reenlisted in the U.S. Army, in 1949, and served in an Intelligence Division at numerous duty stations in the United States, and in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Brazil.
He retired from the Army in 1984, and continued to serve in the United States Army Reserves until 1989.
During his 42 years of service, O’Connell received the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge. He also was inducted into the French Foreign Legion of Honor by the French government.
In an interview with The Laker/Lutz News, conducted in August, 2017, O’Connell shared some of his war-time memories.
He recalled there were times during World War II when he wasn’t sure he’d live to see another sunrise. He talked about being a prisoner of war and recalled being so thin at one point, he only weighed 80 pounds.
He credited his mother’s prayers for keeping him alive during dangerous times on the battlefield and through his captivity as a prisoner of war.
Despite being captured, O’ Connell said he was one of lucky ones. He survived; two-thirds of a his regimen, made up of 1,800 soldiers, were killed.
He also shared the joy he felt when he was finally reunited with his mother.
“You won’t believe how happy it was,” O’Connell said. “She almost fell over, when I put my arms around her.”
Published July 22, 2020