The scuttlebutt was true: something big was happening on the USS Baltimore.

On July 21, 1944, Seaman First Class William “Willie” F. O’Connell watched with awe as President Franklin President Roosevelt was piped aboard in San Diego harbor. The U.S. Navy’s heavy cruiser escorted him on a secret mission to Hawaii, where he conferred with Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur on plans for the invasion of the Philippines later that year.

“It was exciting,” recalls the World War II veteran, who turns 100 on May 23. “We had MacArthur, FDR and Nimitz all on our ship in Pearl Harbor.”

O’Connell, a Dorchester native who now lives in Plymouth, will be honored for his upcoming centennial birthday and military service with a special celebration. A motorcycle drive-by is planned for 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, past his daughter’s home on Sushala Way, off Matthews Trail.

Willie O’Connell as a Navy seaman during World War II.

Nicknamed “Okie” because of the “O’C” in his last name, O’Connell enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17 by lying about his age. He joined the USS Baltimore in Boston in 1943 and sailed with her through the Panama Canal for combat operations against the Japanese in the Pacific Ocean. The ship saw action at Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and other naval engagements, earning nine battle stars.

O’Connell served as captain of the number two center turret in charge of a crew firing one of the 8-inch guns on the ship, which often protected aircraft carriers. When asked if he was scared under fire, the Navy veteran stated he relied on his training to get through tough situations.

“You just did your job,” he says.

O’Connell was a “plank owner” as an original crew member of the USS Baltimore, which was built at Fore River Shipyard in Quincy. He also earned the title of “shellback” for crossing the equator. He was discharged in 1946 and later worked for the telephone company. O’Connell and his late wife, Mary Joyce, had four daughters. He has 14 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

“Dad remains a proud veteran of World War II and a true American patriot,” says his daughter Teresa Hurley. “His service to his country is a testament to his character and a legacy that continues to inspire us all. He always had an American flag hanging from his front porch.”

The USS Baltimore, on which Willie O’Connell served.

To show his pride during World War II, O’Connell got a large tattoo of a bald eagle and a shield with the Stars and Stripes on his left arm. He is still delighted to bare his bicep and display that symbol of American freedom to visitors.

“It only cost me $10,” he exclaims. “Kids today pay more than that.”

The motorcycle drive-by is being organized by the American Legion Post 40 of Plymouth. Up to 50 motorcycle riders are expected to participate in the ceremony honoring O’Connell.

“When I was contacted to help the O’Connell family celebrate their father’s 100th birthday, I immediately knew we had to help out in any way,” says Post 40 commander Brad Freeman. Its color guard and American Legion Riders group will participate in the event with the Rolling Thunder motorcycle club.

“It is a great honor to be a part of celebrating such a milestone for a World War II veteran,” Freeman says.

Dave Kindy, a self-described history geek, is a longtime Plymouth resident who writes for the Washington Post, Boston Globe, National Geographic, Smithsonian and other publications. He can be reached at

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