Lt. Col. Tom O’Connor still involved after 73 years in Civil Air Patrol
Under legislation signed this year, a Lakeville man is one of three Minnesotans to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award, for their service in the Civil Air Patrol during World War II.
In honor of his service that spans seven decades, Lt. Col. Tom O’Connor was recognized by state and local officials at an Aug. 26 Civil Air Patrol ceremony at Lakeville’s Airlake Airport.
U.S. Rep. John Kline presented O’Connor with a framed copy of the legislation signed in May ordering the award; he said the Congressional Gold Medal takes a year to be minted.
CAP spokeswoman Renee Belina said O’Connor is the longest-serving CAP member in Minnesota, fourth to join the first squadron started in the state.
O’Connor, 86, said he signed up with the CAP on Oct. 28, 1942, when the country was in the midst of World War II.
The organization said he was 14 when he joined, but O’Connor said he had just turned 15 years old when he went with a friend to join the CAP.
He was the 38th cadet nationally to register for the CAP, which had been established on Dec. 1, 1941, a week before the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The organization was established because civil airmen desired to mobilize using their own equipment to assist in the nation’s defense against Operation Drumbeat, the German Navy’s submarine attack against American ships carrying oil and critical supplies to support the war effort.
Germany had torpedoed and sunk many American ships, often within sight of civilians on shore, including 52 tankers between January and March 1942.
Military leaders resisted using civilian pilots, but finally relented to CAP leaders’ pleas as submarine attacks increased. The CAP Coastal Patrol began serving in the effort in March 1942.
After joining the CAP, O’Connor quickly rose in rank, becoming a cadet commander in 1944 and then, when he returned from military service in 1947, became a unit commander.
While stationed in California in 1951, he began the Merced Squadron, having his wife Loretta sign the charter because he needed more senior members for its start. O’Connor said she remained active for 50 years until her death in 2002.
During his years of service, O’Connor has held many leadership roles with titles that include emergency services director, assistant operations officer, director of administration and personnel, cadet program director and director of operations.
He has been involved in CAP encampments in five states, earned master ratings in four speciality tracks and is a recipient of the coveted Gill Robb Wilson certificate, the highest professional development award a senior CAP member can receive.
Kline described O’Connor as a “real hero” for his service, and noted his appreciation to the work of the CAP.
“The freedoms and liberties we and so many around the world cherish are owed to the sacrifice of countless Americans like Lt. Col. O’Connor and the members of the Civil Air Patrol who answered our nation’s call in pursuit of freedom and a safer world,” Kline said.
Kline recounted the organization’s tireless efforts in 2012 to search for his close friend Mike Bratlie, a Lakeville veteran and experienced pilot whose plane disappeared near Lake Superior and has never been found.
“CAP stepped up, mounted up and flew hour after hour after hour doing everything they could, pushing every way they could, to try to find my friend Mike Bratlie,” Kline said.
He called their efforts heroic, tireless and relentless.
“I’m forever grateful, as is Mike’s widow Diana Bratlie,” Kline said.
Elected officials, including State Rep. Maryliz Holberg, City Council Members Bart Davis and Doug Anderson, joined Mayor Matt Little and a large audience in giving O’Connor a standing ovation.
Little said he and O’Connor worked together at a retail store a decade ago; O’Connor was in the electronics department.
“I knew he was a veteran, but I never knew he started that early,” Little said. “The guy was a work horse. … We all loved him.”
He called O’Connor’s amount of time in service to America “incredible.”
“It’s a number I personally cannot fathom,” Little said.
Belina said it is exciting to recognize O’Connor for his service.
She said O’Connor remains active in the organization that meets monthly at Lakeville’s Airlake Airport.
O’Connor, who is slated to be recognized by Gov. Mark Dayton on his Oct. 28 anniversary with the CAP, called being chosen to receive the Congressional Gold Medal “mind boggling.”
“I never expected anything like this,” he said.