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Pemberton, N.J., offers World War II veteran James O'Brien, 99, a hero's welcome after Normandy visit

Philadelphia Inquirer - 6/9/2024

Jun. 8—Before flying to America from Normandy after attending the 80th commemoration of D-Day last week, World War II veteran James O'Brien told his son Vincent that he'd like to come home to a parade.

Little did he know what was already being planned back in Burlington County.

"I was joking, but they took me seriously," said O'Brien, 99, as a flag-waving crowd of 150 family members, friends, neighbors, first responders, and fellow vets cheered his return to Pemberton Township on Saturday.

"The last week [I spent] touring Normandy and seeing so many crowds coming out and cheering and wishing us well, some with tears in their eyes," said the father of five, grandfather of 14, and great-grandfather of 24.

"And then I come home to this. This beats it all!

Organized in just a few days by a handful of volunteers, the welcome included a police escort, representatives of American Legion Eden-Stanley Post 294, an honor guard of American Legion Riders, members of the Pemberton High School JROTC, and remarks by Army Command Sgt. Major Travis L. Autry.

"I appreciate you for all you've done when you put that uniform on, because freedom is not free," Autry said.

Lilli Cook, 10, presented O'Brien with a box containing 200 handmade cards from students at the Pemberton Early Childhood Education Center.

"This is a gift from the kids ... and I want to say thank you so much for your service," she said.

O'Brien, who was born in Philadelphia, moved with his family when he was 4 years old to then-rural Pemberton Township. After graduating as senior class president of Pemberton Township High School, he was drafted into the Army in September 1943 and served in A company, 65th Armored Infantry Batallion, 20th Armored Division as a rifleman and ammunition handler.

He served in Europe, although not in Normandy.

He returned to the United States in August of 1945 and got married two weeks later. He and his wife, Sophia, raised five children: sons Michael, James, and Vincent, and daughters Joan Craft and Anne Poole.

"He's my number one favorite person in the world," said Missy Harner, O'Brien's granddaughter.

James established O'Brien & Sons Hardware in 1953, and the business is still going strong in the Browns Mills section of the township.

"It kind of makes you emotional because he has lived here all his life, and he loves Browns Mills," Michael O'Brien said during an interview last week. "The trip to Normandy has been amazing for him."

Customers at the store feel like part of the family, as well, said Denise Lang, a retired corrections officer, and her daughter Atisha, who were among the first people from the community to set up chairs on Four Mill Road across from the O'Brien homestead. Others nearby held handmade signs ("Welcome home n thank u," "You are a true hero") and gathered around the car that carried O'Brien home from Philadelphia International Airport.

His daughter-in-law Marlene O'Brien, who is married to Michael, did the driving. She said Vincent O'Brien suggested that his father apply for an American Airlines program that offered free round-trips for World War II veterans wanting to attend the 80th anniversary commemoration.

James O'Brien was one of about 70 who took the trip on American.

"We have to thank those who paved the way for us, and honor them," said Kevin James, commander of Post 294. "We need to keep that tradition going."

According to Marlene O'Brien, when we pulled up he said, "I really did get a parade."

"When we heard about it, we ran with it, and it became a big community event," said Hillary Vargas, one of he organizers.

"I'm just really happy that the community really pulled together to honor him, said Michelle Walker, another of the organizers.

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