LISTEN to Francis O’Brien on Hometown Heroes
91-year-old Francis O’Brien of Modesto, CA appears on episode #371 of Hometown Heroes, debuting June 13, 2015. A native of Philadelphia, PA, O’Brien was an only child, raised primarily by his maternal grandmother while his single mother worked long days in a textile mill.
You’ll hear him remember some of his childhood adventures, including the creative method he employed to get out of school and sneak into Philadelphia Phillies games to watch Hall of Famer Chuck Klein launch some of his 300 career home runs. He became an accomplished high school swimmer, even earning a scholarship to compete in the pool for St. Joseph’s College (now University). O’Brien has quite a story about where he was and how he found out the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, a story that involves basketball legend Stanley “Stutz” Modzelewski, and a bizarre mispronunciation of “Oahu,” as you’ll hear on Hometown Heroes.
You’ll hear some colorful stories from his training days, how his Marine Corps determination was tempered by a budding rivalry between officers and recruits, and how the timing of his grandmother’s passing changed his military destiny. In January, 1944, he headed overseas, experiencing his first taste of combat as part of Operation Flintlock in the Marshall Islands. “In 24 hours it is either ours,” he remembers a Lieutenant saying of their planned invasion of the tiny island of Namur. “Or we’re all dead.” That “pep talk” put things in perspective. Nearly 200 Marines from the 4th Division were killed in the capture of Roi-Namur, and O’Brien came extremely close to adding to the total. Listen to Hometown Heroes for his description of how he was wounded in action, and how those injuries suffered on Namur left him short one finger but plus one navel.
An enemy bullet had entered above his right hip, exited near his navel, and left a 4″ x 4″ hole in his abdomen. “It didn’t hit anything!,” you’ll hear O’Brien exclaim with regard to all the vital organs that went unharmed. “It is a miracle!” You’ll enjoy the clever comment on doctor shared as a synopsis of why the marine was able to avoid further injury. The pinky finger on his left hand was also damaged, hanging limply until its eventual amputation. CHECK OUT THIS VIDEO on the Hometown Heroes facebook page to see O’Brien explaining his injuries.
He insists he felt no pain, aside from the mental anguish he experienced when learning his friend D.B. Kellenberger had been killed while trying to get help for the wounded marine. After recovering for more than three months, he rejoined his company for the Battle of Saipan, where he would be recognized with the Bronze Star for risking his own life in two separate efforts to rescue wounded marines. After Saipan, the 4th Marine Division moved on to Tinian, where again O’Brien was wounded, this time ending his overseas service. He didn’t want to go home, but is thankful today that he did not participate in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Listen to Hometown Heroes to find out why O’Brien is convinced he would not have survived Iwo Jima. After returning home, O’Brien married Anna, or “Babe” as you’ll hear him call her, and the couple would enjoy 57 years together before her passing in 2003. Listen to Hometown Heroes for a few thoughts from the youngest of their 14 children, John, sharing his perspective on the man he calls “my hero.”
Also discussed are a run-in Francis O’Brien had with football legend (and WWII Army Air Corps veteran) Chuck Bednarik while playing post-war football for Dartmouth, as well as his experience with Central Valley Honor Flight on a 2014 journey to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
John served as his guardian on that flight, and says he’s continually amazed at his father’s story of service and survival. “Had that gone an inch to the left,” you’ll hear John say of the bullet that almost his killed his father. “No one would be here right now.” It will be another memorable Father’s Day for a decorated Marine whose descendants may soon outnumber his age. If you encounter this spirited nonagenarian, please thank him for serving our country, and ask him to show you his best hidden finger tricks.