Here's a piece published in the Courier-Post in South Jersey about the Temple ROTC classroom naming ceremony.
A soldier returns to Temple, 50 years later
By Brian Wright O’Connor / April 18, 2018 / Courier-Post
My father left a teaching post at Temple University over 50 years ago on a journey to the jungles of Vietnam. He made his return, in spirit at least, over Easter weekend, when the Army ROTC classroom was named in his honor.
Mortimer L. O’Connor, a West Pointer and an Army brat, taught military science to Temple cadets from 1963 to 1966 in the ROTC center in an old row house off Broad Street while commuting from South Jersey. In addition to the classroom hours, he spent happy weeks with his charges during summer maneuvers at Fort Indiantown Gap, a garrison in western Pennsylvania dating to the French and Indian War.
The naming ceremony took place on Good Friday, two days before the 50th anniversary of Mort’s death on April 1, 1968. A lieutenant colonel in command of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry of the 1st Division, he was killed during a search-and-destroy mission in the Iron Triangle north of Saigon – one of six former members of the Temple ROTC “Red Diamond Battalion” to die in the war. Mort left behind a wife and six kids, and bonds with Temple that endure beyond the grave.
The family ties became even closer at the unveiling. When the draping was pulled away from the Ritter Hall classroom door, it revealed not just my father’s name but that of his son, Sgt. Maj. Brendan W. O’Connor, a Special Forces veteran who won the Distinguished Service Cross – second only to the Medal of Honor – for crawling through Taliban machine-gun fire to rescue trapped comrades in Afghanistan.
Brendan has always carried a strong resemblance to our father. But never more so than after the unveiling, when he gathered the ROTC cadet cadre in attendance to quietly set forth their solemn duty to honor their uniform, cherish their comrades and love their country.
He also spoke movingly of the quieter heroism of those left behind, like our mother, who had to raise a brawling Irish platoon on her own during an era when single mothers in suburbia were a rare species – and war widows even rarer.
Elizabeth Wright O’Connor – “My darling Betsy,” Mort called her – ran the household while helping to edit and type Mort’s graduate school papers as he studied at Penn for a Ph.D. in English during the Temple years. We lived back then in Willingboro, with the Rancocas Creek running through the woods behind our house and a neighborhood full of kids.
Brendan’s invocation triggered a memory of Betsy sitting on the couch, face flushed, telling us that Mort would not be coming home. The men who had come to the door were too late, she said. She already knew. While vacuuming in the living room, she’d heard a single shot and knew whose heart had shattered. Decades later, our family inscribed lines from a Robert Hayden poem on the West Point tombstone she shares with Mort: “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
How could any child fully understand a parent’s sacrifice or anyone who’s never served the bonds between those in uniform?
I think of the Temple cadets in their Army fatigues, preparing for war halfway around the world, in the hardwood forest of Pennsylvania, listening intently as my father plotted approaches to an occupied hamlet. For a 9-year-old, tagging along on the maneuvers was better than playing Army – it was the Army. He asked me to pick out the cadet camouflaged in the brush, but I saw no one until a smile revealed a friendly face. I crawled upside down on a rope suspended over a ravine, following the cadets, until Mort’s commander spotted the pipsqueak recruit and put an end to the misadventure.
For a moment there, I was one of them, an ROTC Owl, launching mortars, riding jeeps, a member of the corps so beloved by my dad.
As a further memorial to Mort, “Task Force Philly,” the Fort Dix spring field exercises for Philadelphia-area ROTC cadets, has been renamed “Task Force O’Connor.” Among others, it draws students from three schools with ties to my family – Temple, Penn and Valley Forge Military Academy, my brother Brendan’s alma mater.
Those like retired Capt. Marc Kantor, who actually was a Temple cadet, never forgot what they took away from Mort’s lessons in military history and warcraft. Lt. Col. Keith W. Benedict, head of the Temple Army ROTC unit, worked with Marc and the university’s leaders to christen the “O’Connor Classroom” and bring our family to the campus along with many of Mort’s West Point classmates and former students.
The day was rainy and the ceremony textured by Benedict’s moving tribute – shadowed by the ghosts of his own combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.
His breaking voice and flush of grief made me think again of that headstone and the words of Rudyard Kipling, taken to heart by Temple, inscribed beneath my father’s name:
Then it’s “Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Tommy ’ow’s yer soul?”
O it’s “Thin red line of ’eroes,” when the drums begin to roll.
Brian Wright O’Connor, a Moorestown High School graduate, is a communications executive in Boston.