CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
John “JJ” O’Connell, the eldest of five children, was born in September, 1942 in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Irish-American parents. O’Connell’s father and uncle both served in World War II. The father was assigned to a unique unit responsible for observing and shielding Manhattan Project testing. Following World War II, the elder O’Connell was assigned to the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor organization to the CIA. Much to John’s dismay as a child, his father was often not around due to the nature of his work. After the mother expressed her dissatisfaction, however, the elder O’Connell resigned from the OSS and settled down with his family in Queens, New York, taking a job with an insurance company.
After finishing high school, John O’Connell attended the University of Virginia, where he majored in Psychology and enrolled in the Navy ROTC program. While not overly inclined to the academic life, as well as not a fan of being cooped up in classrooms, he found psychology interesting. During his naval ROTC training, O’Connell studied historical naval battles. While in his junior year, he decided to exercise the Naval ROTC’s “Marine Corps Option” to become a Marine officer on graduation. He thought that, as a Marine, he would see more of the world than he would while confined on a ship.
O’Connell met some resistance from family members when he decided to join the military. His veteran father approved, yet would rather have seen him serve in the Navy than the Marines. Two of his brothers later joined the military, one as an Air Force Traffic Controller and another as a Marine. Upon graduation from college, O’Connell was commissioned as an artillery 2nd lieutenant. After officer basic school, he was assigned to the Army’s Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma for branch training.
Following Fort Sill, O’Connell was assigned to Camp Pendleton, California, pleasant duty due to its proximity to the beach. That was to end, however, when he was deployed first to Okinawa, Japan and then to the Philippines for further training with a unit which landed south of Chu Lai, Vietnam, in January, 1966. O’Connell served in South Vietnam as an artillery forward observer assigned to the First Marine Division. His formal unit designation was the Eleventh Marines, which is the USMC Artillery unit. O’Connell served in the I Corps area on several operations, including Double Eagle I and II. Operations were conducted in cooperation with United States Army, Korean and South Vietnamese forces. Double Eagle I was the largest Marine amphibious operation since the Korean War Inchon landings. As a forward observer, he traveled with the infantry to coordinate, when needed, artillery fire support as accurately as possible. O’Connell was well versed in cartography and the practical use of maps, an absolute necessity for such an assignment; as, due to the dense vegetation in much of Vietnam, visual landmarks were often difficult to find.
Throughout his thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam, O’Connell endured numerous hardships beyond the obvious one of enemy fire. He commented that even when not being shot at, life was “not pleasant.” Insects and snakes were everywhere, including omnipresent leeches in every body of water. On one occasion, O’Connell was roared at by an unseen lurking tiger.
O’Connell commented on the widespread enemy use of “booby traps,” including the primitive but effective “punji pit,” in which sharpened bamboo spikes were set in a hole in the ground which was then covered with vegetation to camouflage it. He knew this particular danger quite well, as he had the unfortunate luck of falling into one of these traps and slicing his foot. Despite the painful injury, O’Connell refused to be evacuated, as he knew his brothers in arms would need his expertise in providing the vital artillery support.
One of the tactical innovations of the Vietnam War was the massive use of helicopters, especially the Bell UH-1 “Huey,” which facilitated incredibly fast troop insertion and exit from combat zones, as well as rapid resupply in the field and transport of wounded men to rear area hospitals. Helicopters also provided needed fire support on demand. On one operation, O’Connell and his unit were inserted into a “Hot LZ,” a term used for heavy enemy fire on the landing zone. The helicopter behind his was shot down by heavy machine gunfire from a nearby hilltop. As O’Connell’s helicopter landed, and the door gunner was yelling for the men to hit the ground as fast as possible, a mortar round exploded. The door gunner, blown to the ground himself, stood up and started walking around in a daze. He looked at O’Connell and said “Lieutenant, did you see that?” O’Connell’s protective instincts kicked in, and he tackled the man to save him from incoming fire.
Today O’Connell reflects on those moments of intense combat, and he sometimes wonders how he got through those days. He credits his faith, and a strong belief that he was meant to do good things, to be a productive member of society, to help people, and that he was destined to live a long and good life; in order to do so, he needed to survive the war.
O’Connell returned to the United States and fulfilled the remainder of his four-year active duty commitment, leaving active duty as a captain. He considered staying in the Marine Corps Reserve, but decided that he had had no desire to return to military service, not even on a part-time basis. O’Connell adjusted to civilian life rather well. He was fortunate enough to initially settle in Jacksonville, South Carolina, where the growing disdain for Vietnam veterans in the era was not as pervasive as it was in some areas like Washington DC or Berkeley, California. O’Connell had arrived home as the anti-war movement was gathering steam. He was thankful that he was spared the mistreatment many veterans faced in the wake of the collapse of public support in the war.
O’Connell eventually married and fathered three children, two of whom he helped put through law school. He moved to New Jersey, where he founded a chapter of the Marine Corps League. Although O’Connell reflects on his service with pride, having traveled through hell and back in the long ago, he is grateful now to live a quiet and peaceful retired life on the Jersey Shore.