William “Bill” Connell’s first bombing mission in 1944 would also be his last. Shot down over an island in the Pacific Ocean, he would endure over a year in Japanese prison camps.
Connell was liberated at the end of World War II and lived a long life as a husband, father, naval officer and insurance salesman. A longtime resident of Edina and Bloomington, he died on April 25 at age 95.
William Laughlin Connell grew up in Seattle and enlisted in the Navy soon after graduating from high school in 1942. He trained stateside as a naval aviator for nearly two years before joining a divebombing squadron on an aircraft carrier.
At the controls of a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, Connell took off from the USS Hornet before dawn on July 4, aiming to destroy a radio transmitter on the Japanese island of Chichijima, about 600 miles south of Tokyo. He and his rear gunner came under heavy fire, a shell exploding close to their aircraft.
“It blew the plane right in half, so that me and the front end of the airplane went one direction, and my rear seat man and the tail went a different direction,” Connell said in a 2004 interview with Thomas Saylor, a history professor at Concordia University in St. Paul.
The gunner was never heard from again. Connell managed to deploy his parachute, descending into Chichijima’s harbor while accosted by tracer bullets. He was taken ashore and then hung from a tree by his arms — tied behind his back — for 12 hours.
For many months, Connell would be interrogated and beaten occasionally and would sleep on a board. When the war ended in August 1945, Connell was down to 110 pounds — 55 pounds less than when he’d been shot down — and his lower legs were swollen from beriberi because of a nutritional deficiency.
Freed from the prison camp, he sent a telegram to his parents back in Seattle with the message: “Well, happy, flying home,” said Laura Schue, one of Connell’s grandchildren. His parents had assumed he was dead, she said.
Back in Seattle with the Navy after the war, Connell met Mary Jane Bolstad, a Minneapolis native. They married and moved to the Twin Cities in the late 1950s when he took a post at the Naval Air Station in Minneapolis. Connell retired from the Navy in 1964 as a lieutenant commander.
He then started a career as an insurance salesman, working for State Farm in Bloomington for 23 years. Even after retiring from that job, Connell worked part-time until the mid-1990s in the pro shop at the Minnesota Valley Country Club in Bloomington.
Connell returned to Japan twice, most recently in 2015. On his first trip in 2002, he traveled to Chichijima with a group of veterans, all accompanying former President George H.W. Bush.
They were on a trip organized by CNN, which was doing a documentary on the former president’s World War II experience. Bush, a naval aviator, was hit by anti-aircraft fire while bombing Chichijima just two months after Connell went down. Unlike Connell, Bush was able to fly his burning plane far enough to be rescued by the U.S. Navy after bailing out.
For 58 years, Connell was a Mason and a member of both the Scottish Rite and the Zuhrah Shrine’s Legion of Honor.
Connell was preceded in death by wife Mary Jane; second wife, Winnie Lund; son Andrew Connell; and daughters Karen McFarling, Elizabeth Connell and Judy Flemmer. He is survived by five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Services have been held.
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