James L. O'Connor, 85, served in Navy aboard sub during World War II

May 14, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

James L. O'Connor, a World War II submariner and retired electrician who founded the Delmarva chapter of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II, died Tuesday of pneumonia at Good Samaritan Hospital. He was 85 and a longtime Parkville resident.

Mr. O'Connor was 27 when he enlisted in the Navy's "silent service" in late 1943. An electrician second-class, he was assigned to the submarine Quillback, which operated in the Pacific.

One of his favorite stories was how the Quillback and its crew survived a direct hit by an enemy torpedo that crashed into its steel hull but failed to detonate.

The Quillback's crew participated in the invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

Later in the war, the submariners were called on to rescue a pilot shot down off the coast of Japan, with one Navy plane for backup. Running on the surface and vulnerable to enemy attack, the Quillback picked up the downed aviator.

"That made us a little shaky, but we got by all right," Mr. O'Connor told The Evening Sun in a 1971 interview.

Another tale he told was of Stinky, a skunk that had been a gift to the sub's crew from the Wisconsin Fish and Game Department. For a brief time, Stinky was the Quillback's proud mascot.

Sailing out into the Atlantic in 1944 from Portsmouth, N.H., the Quillback surfaced a few days out of port and Stinky - who had been "de-skunked," said Mr. O'Connor - was taken topside for some fresh air.

"He ran away and got lost in the superstructure. We looked for him, but we couldn't stay up forever in the daylight, and that was the end of Stinky," he said.

There were other stories of good times spent on liberty with shipmates in Panama, Pearl Harbor and Portsmouth, relieving the tedium of war with cold beers and other adventures.

In 1955, three sub vets established the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II; in 1969, Mr. O'Connor established the Delmarva chapter of the organization. He held state, regional and national offices with the organization, and served as national commander in 1979.

A modest yet proud man, Mr. O'Connor told The Evening Sun in the interview, "Write about the organization, not me."

Through annual reunions and newsletters, the organization was able to remember departed comrades, foster camaraderie among surviving veterans and "pledge loyalty and patriotism to the United States Government."

During World War II, 52 U.S. submarines carrying 3,505 officers and enlisted personnel were lost.

"We liked to think we were something special. We like to think the people we meet at the reunions are still something special," Mr. O'Connor said in the interview.

For years, Mr. O'Connor and other veterans of the Delmarva chapter participated in the annual Pearl Harbor Day services aboard the submarine Torsk docked at the Inner Harbor. The ceremony included a reading of the Roll Call of Lost Boats and was accompanied by the ringing of a bell 52 times, once for each lost vessel and crew.

Mr. O'Connor had also served as a volunteer and guide aboard the Torsk, which is credited with sinking two Japanese destroyer escorts in the closing hours of World War II. They were the last Japanese vessels sunk in the war.

Born and reared on Holbrook Street in East Baltimore, he was a graduate of Polytechnic Institute.

After being discharged at the end of World War II, he worked for 23 years as an electrician at the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay until retiring in 1978.

He was a communicant of St. Ursula Roman Catholic Church in Parkville, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered Friday.

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Ruth A. Heagey; three sons, J. Larry O'Connor of Freeland, Michael M. O'Connor of Bel Air and Patrick J. O'Connor of White Marsh; a daughter, Elizabeth A. O'Connor Mihm of Glen Arm; and two grandchildren.

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