By Tim Harfmann
Catholics gathered in Belle Harbor, Queens, on Memorial Day to honor the nation’s greatest — the war heroes who lost their lives defending the country. This year, there is someone new to remember — Private Daniel Edward O’Connor.
“I had heard years and years ago about a boy from the parish who was on this ship, and the only thing I heard was that his name was O’Connor,” said Monsignor John Bracken, a former pastor of Saint Francis de Sales Church.
That boy Monsignor Bracken heard about grew up to be Private O’Connor of the U.S. Army. On February 3, 1943, he steamed across the Atlantic on the troop ship, the S.S. Dorchester.
A German U-boat stalked them. Off the coast of Greenland, torpedoes were launched and the Dorchester sank beneath the waves.
The World War II tragedy was made famous because of the four chaplains who died after giving away their life vests to save others on board the ship.
Few knew about Private O’Connor, even though he was from Saint Francis de Sales. So, Monsignor Bracken searched the parish’s archives to learn more.
Daniel received his First Communion and Confirmation at the church — and graduated from the parish’s elementary school in 1932. He was a good student with a 92 average and got an ‘A’ in conduct.
So that everyone will always know about Private O’Conner, a tree was planted in his honor. “To see a connection and say, ‘these are real people. They went to the same school that I did. Look at what they’ve done. I must never forget,” said Monsignor Bracken.
The four chaplains have already been saluted in a similar way, with a plaque outside the church dedicated to the Catholic priest, the rabbi and the two Protestant ministers who went down with their ship. “Why not single out these men as symbols of the contribution that was made by this community, in the great effort against the Nazis and Totalitarianism?” asked Monsignor Bracken.
Seventy-five years after Private O’Conner died in the sinking of the Dorchester, a Memorial Day parade stepped off in Belle Harbor.
“They served and tried to help us, and they protected us,” said Michael Noone, a 2nd grader in the parish’s Catholic academy.
And so they are always remembered, Saint Francis de Sales church installed a plaque — and planted a tree.