Medal of Honor sought for JP war hero

(Photo Courtesy Robert Lessard) This undated photo shows what appears to be the original Thomas Street location of American Legion Post 76, clearly named for Michael O’Connell.

FOREST HILLS—A Middleboro man is spearheading the charge to gain the American Legion Post 76’s namesake an upgrade to a Medal of Honor.

U.S. Army Cpl. Michael O’Connell, who lived at 79 Carolina Ave. in Jamaica Plain, joined the military in World War I. Along with Sgt. Simeon Nickerson of Middleboro and Pvt. Thomas Ryan of Boston, he was killed in action on July 23, 1918, near Epieds, France, while scouting for machine guns in an open field.

O’Connell, Nickerson and Ryan, serving with the Army’s 26th Division, were originally recommended for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. But they were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest honor, which had just been introduced earlier that month.

Robert Lessard, a member of American Legion Post 64 in Middleboro, named after Nickerson, has been fighting for the medal upgrade for the three men for over two years. He believes that because the three men volunteered for the mission that killed them, and in so doing, protected the lives of many other men, they deserve the Medal of Honor.

Lessard explained to the Gazette that they were not awarded the Medal of Honor only because of military politics.

“If they deserve it, they should get it. That’s why we’re asking [Congress] to review the facts,” Lessard told the Gazette.

U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano and Barney Frank are among the officials assisting Lessard with researching whether the soldiers should get the Medal of Honor.

“It’s always a good thing when we can call attention to the tremendous sacrifices veterans have made for us, and I am grateful to Bob Lessard for advocating on behalf of these Massachusetts heroes,” Brown told the Gazette in an email.

Medals of Honor are rarely given out. According to military guidelines, to qualify for consideration, a service member must distinguish himself or herself “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his [or her] life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy.”

Medals of Honor can only be granted following recommendations up the military chain of command or nomination by a member of Congress. Lessard first heard about the three heroes after a basement cleaning of the Middleboro post’s basement yielded a box full of information.

Lessard said that since the Cross had just been introduced, there was confusion at the time as to what medal was appropriate.

The recommendations also were revised before the medals were awarded, toning down the language describing the action, a fact Lessard believes compounded the error.

Further, there was significant dissention from two generals involved in the decision, who many now believe were prejudiced against the 26th Division, Lessard argued.

After the war was over in 1919, many soldiers received upgrades to their medals, but Lessard believes these three men were overlooked.

Lessard is not related to any of the three men, though he said O’Connell’s remaining family in Ireland is “very interested in getting it done.”

JP’s Legion post, founded around 1919, was named for O’Connell. It was originally on Thomas Street. It later moved to South Street, where the South Street Apartments complex now stands. Today, it is in a modern building at 280 South St. across from the Forest Hills T Station.

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