History of James Thomas O’Connor
Born in 1894, and raised in Phoenixville, James Thomas O’Connor left his family, and moved to West Chester at the age of 16. From a very young age, he was a determined young man with a purpose. “Jimmy” – as he was known by his many friends, made his home with the West Chester family of Irwin Shearer on East Gay Street. A barber by vocation, he quickly made a name for himself, and was one of the most ambitious, and popular men in town.
Deeply religious, Jimmy was a faithful member of St. Agnes Catholic Church. He was also an active member of West Chester Council No. 1833, Knights of Columbus; West Chester Aerie, Fraternal Order of Eagles; St. Agnes’ Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Division No. 4, Ancient Order of Hibernians; and a Past Director of West Chester Lodge of the Loyal Order of the Moose; and First West Chester Fire Company.
After Company I returned from the Mexican border, Jimmy talked with the men, and gave serious thought to enlisting. After seven years of toying with idea of military life, during the summer of 1917, he finally made the decision to volunteer. He made a comment to a friend that he wanted to “help drive back the devastating Huns.” After his enlistment, he went to Camp Hancock, Georgia, with Company I. He remained in training all winter, sailing for France with the American Expeditionary Forces, 111th Infantry, American Expeditionary Forces, on May 4, 1918.
Barely two months after his deployment to France, on July 25, 1918 at 10:15 P.M., James was killed in combat during the Battle of Chateau Thierry by an explosive shell. Another soldier who remained at his side, reported that James maintained consciousness, and that his last words were “Doc, give me a chance to give them a comeback.” He died while being placed on the operating table. He was 24 years old. He was buried in France the following morning.
Corporal Charles A. McCormick of Headquarters Company, 111th Infantry was a friend of James’, who fought beside him, and held him as he died. Since he and James lived in the same town, he was tasked with notifying their West Chester families of the devastating loss. Once notified, a contingency of men, who knew and loved Jimmy during the 7 years lived in West Chester, went to Phoenixville to personally notify his mother and sisters of James’ death. Mrs. O’Connor, James’ mother, did not receive the Official Notification from Washington, D.C. until September 23, 1918.
James was survived by his mother, Mrs. Mary O’Connor of Phoenixville, where he spent his childhood. His father James B. O’Connor of Minnesota, two sisters, and a brother, serving our country in France, also survived him.
Jimmy O’Connor was memorialized at a High Mass of the Requiem on August 26, 1918 in West Chester. The very large group of friends from a variety of faiths attending the service made quite an impression on his mother and sisters. The Phoenixville Church of James’ youth held a second High Mass that same afternoon, with all of his West Chester extended family and friends in solemn attendance.
Remembered by friends who were in combat with him, he was described as being prompt, obedient, a genial companion, and a faithful guard always attentive to duty. Not a native son, but James was the first soldier to have died in action, who departed for war from West Chester, Pennsylvania.
On July 12, 1921, Mrs. O’Connor received a telegram notifying her that the body of her son had arrived at Hoboken, New Jersey from the original interment in France. Arrangements were made to ship the body to Phoenixville. Once notified, members of Bernard Schlegel American Legion Post of West Chester, and other friends of the deceased soldier, went to Mrs. O’Connor’s home to help organize the final funeral arrangements.
On July 25, 1918, the funeral was held at Mrs. Mary O’Connor’s residence, followed by Solemn High Requiem Mass was held at St. Mary’s Church. The military funeral was in charge of Post 482, American Legion of Phoenixville and Bernard Schlegel Post of West Chester. Lieutenants T. Thompson and S. Harrop of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces provided Color Guard of Honor. Other organizations represented included the Grand Army, the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the Knights of Columbus, all of which sent large delegations. Quinn’s Fife and Drum Corps provided the music.
Private James T. O’Connor was laid to rest on Monday, July 25, 1921, following full military honors, in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
Coincidently, the date of final interment was the third anniversary of his death.