I posted this article a few years ago on my old blog, 12 Months of Lent, but I thought I'd re-post it here on St. Patrick’s Day in honor of my Irish grandfather, Francis Stevens Joseph O’Connell. A World War II hero who fought in the infamous Battle of the Bulge, liberated 2 concentration camps, and was awarded 2 Purple Hearts, Frank, also known as “The Wild Irishman”, amassed quite the reputation while he was off fighting abroad. So much so that the Boston Traveler (what is now the Boston Herald), sent famed war correspondent Andrew Tully to Europe just to track him down for an interview, which is transcribed below.
Frank's famous quote from the article: “There are two kinds of people in the world—the Irish and those who wish to hell they were Irish”.
Happy St. Patrick's Day 🍀
Tully Meets Wild Irishman From Brockton
By Andrew Tully, Boston Traveler Staff Correspondent
A RIFLE OUTPOST ON THE EDGE OF NO MAN’S LAND, Feb. 12—I don’t know what the hell a timid civilian like me is doing here!
With a wild Irishman from Brockton named O’Connell and a couple of other infantrymen, I am in an attic room of a partially demolished house in Saarlautern, Germany, looking through a shell hole in the wall at the German lines, only 800 yards away. I don’t like it.
Outside is a partially flooded meadow as flat and unprotected as the top of a kitchen table. At the far edge of the meadow is the Saar River, which at this point is a little more than an oversized brook. And fronting on the far bank of the pipsqueak of a river is the part of the city of Saarlautern still held by the Germans.
We can see an occasional Jerry puttering about on some military odd job across that wide open space. Staff Sergeant Francis Stevens Joseph O’Connell of 124 Lawrence Street, Brockton, just told me: “Don’t think he can’t see you”. Good old Francis Stevens Joseph.
The staccato rattle of machine-gun fire can be heard plainly off to our left, where some of our men are harassing a couple of Kraut outposts. Occasionally, the Jerries return the fire from their Siegfried line forts which line the far bank of the river, and almost all afternoon enemy artillery has been drooping shells in and around our positions on this west bank. The noise is not deafening, but there are a few moments when there is not a shell exploding somewhere.
The view across the field is one of an assortment of dwellings and manufacturing buildings clustered at the foot of the high ridge. Standing out in the cluster is a tall powerhouse chimney and on guard before and between the buildings are the ponderous forts of the Siegfried line. Our 105 howitzers have been banging away and now you can’t see the puffs of dirty gray smoke practically within spitting distance where the shells have scored hits on the Jerry real estate. Two more shells bounce off the ridge behind the town and we fancy we can hear the thud of the shells falling.
We are, of course, well within both rifle and machine gun range and Lt. Phil Stanchfield of Milo, ME., cautions us to stay away from the windows on the left. “Look out the shell hole,” he counsels, “Jerry hasn’t put a bullet through that place yet.”
O’Connell is studying the tall chimney with a look of dissatisfaction. “You can’t tell me there ain’t something in that chimney,” he says. “Betcha they got an observation post there where they can see as far as Paris.” His pals are in sober agreement. “I should like to see a beautiful 105 cut that chimney in half, right in half,” says Staunchfield as he licks his chops in contemplating such a beautiful thing.
“What he needs is an all-Irish gun crew to do that job,” says O’Connell. “Now take my squad—”
I’ll take O’Connell’s squad any day. Every outfit has its colorful character and in this one, O’Connell just about fills the bill. The Brockton boy is leader of a squad of 12 men, all of them of Irish descent. Since the outfit went into the line last October this squad has killed an estimated 300 Germans! All of them—Rourke and O’Ryan and Duffy and Reynolds—are top fighting men. But O’Connell has that wonderful intangible thing called color, which made Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean and Shipwreck Kelly stand out in the sports picture.
Sgt. O’Connell was a molder of iron, steel, brass and copper back in civilian life. He carries a genuine shamrock and he says, “There are two kinds of people in the world—the Irish and those who wish to hell they were Irish”.
Short But Sweet
You can’t pin the Brockton boy down on how many Jerries he’s killed but his pals say “about 40”. Lt. Stanchfield, who does not go out on limbs, says that figure is not extravagant. Then he tells us about the time recently when O’Connell and his crew were out looking for trouble and picked up a couple of stray Germans. “They told the boys they’d just come from around the bend,” Staunchfield recalls, “So, O’Connell says ‘to hell with going to bed,’ and the Irish headed around the bend”.
Around the bend they found two tanks and perhaps 20 infantrymen. A few bazooka shots sent the tanks speeding into retreat but the infantrymen elected to fight. The Irish obliged. When it was over, there were 16 dead Krauts on the white snow and the other four men had fled.
The Irish squad takes all this excitement calmly. Being men of simple tastes who want of the world only a little bodily comfort. When Stanchfield ushered me into O’Connell’s grinning presence today the Brockton bushwhacker was lying on one of two beds in one of the houses four bedrooms, his stockinged feet resting on a cerise quilt and a radio giving forth swing on the bedside table. He’s a solidly built citizen with short but not clipped brown hair and seems perpetually abashed.
A Little Mistake
The rest of the squad was having around smoking and talking with the exception of one man, who was upstairs keeping watch. “We don’t work too hard,” O’Connell told me. “Makes you old before your time”. Frankly, the thing I’m interested in today more than Francis Stevens Joseph O’Connell is GROWING OLD. Back at the company command post, Stanchfield has offered to have O’Connell brought to me there but I said I’d go to him. Everybody makes mistakes, I suppose. Anyway, the brief trip to O’Connell’s bailiwick had me on the ropes.
You can’t go to this output in a jeep because you draw fire. So, we had to walk and as we started out, one of the boys in the CP gave me an owlish look and told me “Hope to see you again.” You know that tone of voice.
We had to walk only a few blocks but the last part of it brought us onto a street within plain view of Jerry across the river. We had to hug the buildings all the way down the street for a distance of perhaps two blocks to get to the outpost. I could see some Germans across that field on the other side of the river and if they can’t see me, Hitler is fighting this war with a fine bunch of myopic militarists. I scuttled along that sidewalk with my ribs scraping against solid brick and thought to myself, “When you are going to get that job selling vacuum cleaners?”
But you don’t get to meet guys like Francis Stevens Joseph O’Connell selling vacuum cleaners.