MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — William Laughlin “Bill” Connell, 95, is being remembered for how he endured tragedies – both in World War II and years later in his personal life.
“They are just made of something different than the rest of us,” smiles Connell’s granddaughter, Laura Schue.
Under the graceful spires of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, the World War II aviator would forever slip the surly bonds of earth. Using lines from the famed poem of John Magee, Jr., Connell was eulogized as a man of deep character, faith and endurance.
“A survivor, truly a survivor to the core,” Schue said. “He never would surrender.”
Lieutenant commander Connell easily could have. On July 4, 1944, he was shot down over the Pacific island of Chichijima during a bombing run off the carrier USS Hornet.
Connell was captured by Japanese forces and endured the next 15 months of torture inside a prisoner of war camp.
It was there he would later learn of another famous prisoner later known for the horrific treatment endured at the hands of a prison camp commander, known as “The Bird.”
“Bill would see from his barracks through slots in his cell this gentleman being beaten,” Schue said. “This guard had it out for him in the worst way. Come to find out decades later, it was Louis Zamperini.”
Zamperini’s story was later featured in the novel, Unbroken, by Laura Hillebrand. Connell’s story was also featured by James Bradley, author of Flags of our Fathers and Fly Boys.
Years later, Connell’s own prison guard wrote him a letter begging for forgiveness. In that letter, Bill would learn that of the eight Navy pilots captured at Chichijima, he was the only one not executed.
The trials of being a POW helped him survive tragedies later in life. Connell was preceded in death by two wives and all four of his adult children.
“I think it was his time in camp,” said Schue. “The one think that would resound in his character was he never would give up.”
In 2002 Connell would return to Chichijima and Japan to accompany former President George H.W. Bush. Two months after Bill was shot down and imprisoned, Bush’s plane was also downed– but the young pilot was rescued by American forces.
In the summer of 2018, the 94-year-old Connell was honored by raising the flag at Target Field prior to a Twins baseball game.
Monday at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, a memorial rifle squad presented the American flag to Bill’s family. In a ceremony of full military honors, Connell was laid to rest.
A proud and enduring Navy aviator is once again destined for heavenly flight.