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Bill Connell

Barbara La Valleur,

At 88, WWII vet from Edina gets to skydive again

  • Article by: NICK WOLTMAN
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • November 13, 2012 - 12:19 PM

A couple of months ago Bill Connell, 88, did something he hadn't done since he was 20 -- he jumped out of an airplane. But this time he wasn't being shot at.

"It was much more leisurely," he said.

Connell, who flew a Navy dive-bomber during World War II, was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire in 1944 over the small Pacific island of Chichi Jima. He would spend more than a year as a prisoner of war.

Connell, now living in Edina, was out to lunch with his friend Heidi Hoy in June when Hoy mentioned that she and her sons had gone skydiving a couple of days earlier.

"Bill said, 'I would love to do that. The last time I jumped out of a plane was when it was breaking up around me,'" Hoy said.

His first leap

The course of events that led to that terrifying first jump really began, Connell says, when he heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 17 years old and living in Seattle with his parents. They realized almost immediately that a war between the United States and Japan was inevitable.

"My dad just looked at me and said, 'You're gonna be in this one,'" Connell remembered. "I figured as much."

Rather than waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy's aviation program after graduating high school in 1942.

Following several months of training, Connell was commissioned an ensign and assigned to the USS Hornet in the Pacific Ocean.

He flew his very first mission on July 4, 1944. After a predawn takeoff, Connell and his gunner, Ben Wolf, approached the small volcanic island of Chichi Jima in their Curtiss Helldiver.

Their squadron was to bomb one of the island's two radio bunkers, but as they approached their objective, they spotted two Japanese freighters entering the harbor. They decided to attack them as targets of opportunity.

But before Connell had a chance to drop his bombs, an anti-aircraft shell exploded beside his airplane, tearing off the tail section. Once Connell realized that he couldn't regain control, he shouted at Wolf, who was seated behind him, to bail out -- not knowing whether he had even survived the explosion. Wolf was later listed as killed in action.

'Well, I don't like this'

After giving Wolf ample time to jump, Connell leapt from the side of the cockpit and opened his parachute. As he slowly descended into the ocean about 9,000 feet below, he began seeing machine gun tracers zip past him.

"They were shooting at me," Connell said. "I was thinking, 'Well, I don't like this.'"

He spent the next 14 months in Japanese prisoner of war camps, enduring beatings and receiving little food. Each day, Connell and his fellow POWs were forced to dig caves that would house Japanese military infrastructure.

Then, on the morning of Aug. 15, 1945, the prisoners were pulled out of the caves earlier than usual. They were being marched back to their barracks by Japanese guards when they met a truck full of POWs from a different camp.

"They were jumping up and down screaming their heads off that the war was over," Connell said. "That was the first notice that we had."

A couple of weeks later, he was on an American ship headed for home. The Red Cross allowed each prisoner to send a telegram to his family to let them know he was alive.

"Four words: 'Well. Happy. Flying home.' And that's all I got to say," Connell said.

In the years since the war, Connell married, had children, was widowed and married again. He returned to Chichi Jima several times -- once with President George H.W. Bush, who was also shot down near the island. But he always wondered what it would be like to make another parachute jump.

He finally got the chance to find out when Hoy put him in touch with Joe Johnson of West Side Skydiving in Winstead.

On Sept. 24, Connell made a tandem jump with Johnson from 15,000 feet. Three days later, he jumped again, this time from 10,000 feet. And he's not done yet. He hopes to make another jump soon.

"I really enjoyed it," Connell said. "It was just a really nice ride."

Nick Woltman is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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