Augusta's Jack Connell helped make history 66 years ago today and is one of the few still around to talk about it.
As a member of the 368th squadron of the Army Air Force, he was a lead bombardier-navigator during the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day, a turning point in the war in Europe during World War II.
The D-Day invasion was one of 79 missions the then-24-year-old Connell flew during the war. Two days before it began, his group received orders to return to the states to rest, but knowing D-Day was imminent, they voted unanimously to stay and participate.
"That's the real story of Jack," said his wife, Nan, his loyal companion and caregiver.
On D-Day, Connell's crew was ordered to take out a German gun emplacement that was pounding a U.S. battleship off the coast of Normandy. One of his jobs as bombardier-navigator was to secure the cotter pins, or keys, in the bombs and to remove them just before the plane reached the target, he said.
Time has dimmed his memory and ability to express the details, but in an earlier interview Connell gave this account of that historic day:
"We went right over that battleship at 4,000 feet, the most gorgeous sight you've ever seen," he said. "You could see the whole invasion right out in front of you. And we hit that gun emplacement dead on, and we busted them. Busted the fool out of them. I can see it right now. Oh, it was wonderful."
He said then he didn't think about those days much anymore but would never forget them.
"The articles on my walls at home tell the whole story," he said in a recent interview at the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home in Augusta, where he has lived for the past several months because of multiple falls at home.
Nan Connell said military ceremonies on anniversaries of World War II events, such as Memorial Day, make him proud for the part he played in keeping America free.
"Monday morning, as we were sitting there waiting for the ceremony to begin, Jack put his hand on my arm and looked at me -- it makes me want to cry," she said. "I get emotional over this place, these people that have given lives. But he said, 'Nan, I'm glad I flew those 79 missions.'
"I don't know what it is, but the last several years we talk about that war. He's been so open with me."
Then she turned to Connell and said, "You never spoke about it. You didn't talk about World War II for years, and I never questioned you. But you finally opened up, I think, on one of the big anniversaries of the war."
Then, she said, "I'm speaking for you."
"You're welcome to speak all you want to," he replied.
"There's nothing wrong with me," she said, drying her eyes. "I'm very happy today, but I get emotional when I talk about it."
"Some of it's on the wall," he said, referring to the pictures, newspaper articles and a resolution from the Georgia General Assembly on his 90th birthday last year.
State Rep. Barbara Sims and Connell's longtime secretary, Debbie Lynn, brought the resolution to him from Atlanta, where he spent 26 years as speaker pro tem for the Georgia House of Representatives, a record unmatched by any other state House speaker in the country.
"No one could say anything bad about Jack Connell," Lynn said during an earlier interview. She ran his second-floor office in the Capitol, where lobbyists, legislators and folks from home dropped in for free Cokes and coffee.
"All of his colleagues held him in the highest regard. They were always coming to him for his advice and counsel, and he was one that always took time to meet with all the members.
"I worked for him for 20 years, and it was a privilege. He is a true public servant."
Also on the nursing home wall is a yellowed newspaper photo of Connell when he was 5 years old. He is standing on the running board of a Studebaker Standard Six Phaeton at the Phinizy and Connell Motor Co. on Broad Street, the dealership for Studebaker, Cadillac, LaSalle and Pierce Arrow. The caption under the photo said he had driven the car from Wrens, as a demonstration of how easy it was to drive.
Connell owns several businesses on 10th Street in downtown Augusta, including Sandwich City. One of the most complimentary things ever said about him came from U.S. District Court Judge Dudley Bowen a few years ago.
"Jack has been in the corridors of power, and I think he has maintained his integrity throughout," Bowen said. "That in itself is a significant achievement."