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Carnegie native's war diary becomes rare piece of history

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 8:58 p.m.
James O'Connell with his two best friends during a holiday season in Carnegie years ago. Submitted photos
James O'Connell as a U.S. Marine during World War II. He served in the Guadalcanal campaign kept a diary, which was a rarity during wartime in combat zones. Submitted photo
Part of a letter from James O'Connell to his mother in Carnegie during World War II. It is one of a few such letters in the U.S. Marine archives in Quantico, Va., as soldiers in combat zones were prohibited from keeping a diary. Submitted photo
Alisa Whitely with the donated materials at the U.S. Marines archives room at Quantico, Va. Submitted photo
James O'Connell, at left, with a squadron buddy during the Quadalcanal campaign in 1942-43. Submitted photo

James O'Connell, a Carnegie native and U.S. Marine who served in World War II, did something most Marines were not allowed not to do during the war. He kept a diary.

That diary, and much more, has now made its way into history.

Jim O'Connell had the diary in his possession for years, following his father's death at the age of 63 in 1986. He also had pictures of his father from the war and a letter he sent to his mother, Emma, from overseas.

In late October, he contacted the Gray Marine Corps Research Center in Quantico, Va., to see if they would be interested in taking possession of these keepsakes.

It didn't take too long before he heard back, Jim O'Connell said.

“It was two days, as a matter of fact,” said O'Connell, 65, a resident of Mansfield Avenue in Carnegie and a former business teacher at Bishop Canevin High School. “I was a bit surprised.”

O'Connell transported the diary, letters, several dozen pictures, and his father's Presidential Unit Citation ribbon to Quantico. They will be processed by the research center and will be placed on display.

James O'Connell's diary is unusual for several reasons.

First, Marines were given a small book during World War II, which essentially was a leather-bound, zippered diary. This usually was taken away from Marines once they were placed into combat for security reasons, Jim O'Connell said.

Very few of the Marines broke that rule. James O'Connell did, his son said. And the research center in Virginia is happy he did.

O'Connell served in the Third Barrage Balloon squadron attached to the First Marine division during the Guadalcanal-Tulagi campaign. This unit was unusual during the war.

Alisa M. Whitley, an archivist with the Marine Corps History Division at the Gray Marine Corps Research Center, said that diaries from the war are very rare. In James O'Connell's case, however, it was even more unusual, she said.

“I did a search of our holdings and we only have one other collection from a Marine who served in the Third Barrage Balloon Squadron, but his collection consists only of love letters written to his wife,” Whitley said.

For O'Connell's son, it was important to get his father's diary somewhere that would take care of it.

“I knew this would be a tremendous loss to the country if we didn't get this donated to some museum that would respect it the way it needs to be respected,” O'Connell said.

The diary entries show a range of emotions, from boredom to an “overall desire to get home,” Jim O'Connell said.

O'Connell began writing in his diary on Jan. 14, 1942, at Parris Island, S.C. He kept a regular diary throughout February and March of that year. James O'Connell kept track of furloughs; on April 18, O'Connell was happy to get back home (“home for 15 hours, had wonderful time”).

On June 23, 1942, he wished himself a happy birthday (“happy birthday sweet 19 at Parris Island South Carolina. Who knows where I will be on my 20th?”).

He wrote about sick Marines who came down with malaria, which he eventually contracted, and having a beer or two with his fellow Marines (“all the boys went down the tavern and got drunk. What a night”).

On Nov. 3, 1942, an entry details a raid at a Japanese radio station on the island of Malaita.

“We ambushed them early in the morning and killed 21 and brought back one prisoner,” the entry states.

At times, James O'Connell would go three or four days without consulting his diary. He continued to write in it until July 23, 1943. He was discharged in 1945.

James O'Connell was born and raised in Carnegie. He graduated from the old St. Luke's High School in 1941.

He never talked much about the war when he came home, said his wife of 40 years, Mae.

“The war back then was terrible,” she said, “but I don't think we had the feeling (during World War II) among the people that there is now. It was a different time.”

Jim O'Connell misses his dad but could not be happier that history has been preserved.

“That is very special to me,” he said.

Jeff Widmer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5810 or jwidmer@tribweb.com.

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