LAS VEGAS — The story of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh has stirred memories for a Las Vegas man who earned a Bronze Star investigating a treason case during the Korean War.
Unlike Lindh, who is said to have been driven by a commitment to Islamic fundamentalism, the man John O’Connell helped catch appeared to be selling U.S. military secrets to North Korea for money.
O’Connell called Lindh “a misled American.”
“I think he fell for the Taliban’s claims that they were getting back to the fundamentals of Islam,” O’Connell told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I don’t think when he joined up with them he ever had the slightest idea that he would be fighting against the U.S. military.”
Lindh, the 20-year-old captured by U.S. forces after a prison uprising in northern Afghanistan this month, could face charges such as providing support to terrorists, which carries a 15-year sentence, or treason, which carries a maximum sentence of death.
O’Connell, 82, has a home display case with various medals and the Bronze Star he got in 1953 as an investigator with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, or OSI.
Maj. Mike Richmond of the Air Force OSI at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland verified that a John O’Connell was with the OSI in Korea during the war. Richmond said an investigator received a Bronze Star in 1953. No additional information was available.
O’Connell, who has written an unpublished manuscript about his life, showed the Review-Journal a document citing the actions that earned him the Bronze Star.
It says he was “instrumental in the investigation, apprehension and conviction of an individual engaged in black-marketing and seditious acts.” The man’s name was not provided.
O’Connell, a 27-year Air Force veteran who had been a lawyer in civilian life, was a lieutenant colonel in Japan when he was assigned to investigate a black marketing scheme.
He said the postal service noticed an Air Force tech sergeant in Seoul, South Korea, was sending unusual amounts of U.S. cash to America.
O’Connell said soldiers at the time used military script, so any movement of cash could mean someone was selling items like American cigarettes on the black market.
“You could buy a carton of cigarettes for a dollar from the military exchange and sell it for $14 or $15,” O’Connell said. “They could make a killing whether they smoked or not.”
O’Connell said a pilot reported that the sergeant wanted to be flown back and forth between Korea and Japan, and the pilot agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
O’Connell and OSI investigators followed the sergeant to Tokyo and watched him and the pilot meet with a young airman.
The pilot and tech sergeant then returned to Seoul, where O’Connell learned that the sergeant was going to another meeting at an abandoned hut outside the city.
When the pilot gave a signal, O’Connell said he and other OSI investigators and South Korea intelligence agents stormed the hut and found the tech sergeant with two North Korean agents.
The sergeant had a confidential document detailing air operations of the Fifth Air Force. The North Koreans had U.S. cash.
O’Connell said that without a word, the South Korean intelligence officers led the two North Korean agents outside and shot them. O’Connell said he was stunned.
O’Connell said he and the pilot testified at a Tokyo court martial in which the sergeant was sentenced to 20 years in a military prison.