After being drafted in 1942 during World War II, James O’Donnell recited the oath of allegiance alongside two dozen fellow soldiers at a North Carolina Army base. At 20 years old, O’Donnell became a citizen of the United States, the country he’d called home since emigrating from Ireland at age 4—or so he thought.
Within two years, O’Donnell was digging foxholes as a U.S. infantryman on the frontlines in France, Belgium and Germany. He thought little more of the hasty citizenship ceremony.
When O’Donnell left the Army in 1946, with a Bronze Battle Star in hand, he filled out his discharge papers and checked yes on a question about citizenship. It didn’t even occur to O’Donnell to ask for citizenship papers. He remembered saying the oath before a judge, and that was that.
But things didn’t turn out to be so simple. Forty-six years later, upon retiring from his job as a Connecticut factory supervisor, O’Donnell applied for a passport, only to learn that he never really was a U.S. citizen.
O’Donnell contacted immigration officials and the Department of Veterans Affairs, anyone he could think of. “Nobody seemed to know anything,” he says.
It appeared it was all a bureaucratic screwup. But without citizenship papers, O’Donnell was stuck. It didn’t seem to matter that America is the only country he’s ever known.
O’Donnell was just a boy when he traveled with his mother, brother and sisters from Belfast to meet up with his father in Chicago. “I remember a few little things, like getting my picture taken with my mother and all the family, and I remember being on the boat,” he says of life before he came to America.
O’Donnell says he always felt like an American, no matter what the paperwork may say. He went to first grade in Chicago and graduated from high school there before being drafted into the Army.
Still, none of O’Donnell’s efforts to sort out his citizenship status paid off. Inquiry after inquiry went unanswered, and soon enough he decided to back off.
Life went on. O’Donnell moved to Beebe, Ark., to care for an ailing sister, but he always wondered.
“It wasn’t urgent or anything, but every once in a while I’d think about going over to Ireland,” O’Donnell says. He didn’t know what he’d find there, without any addresses for the relatives he had left behind. But it would just be nice to look around and get a feel for the place, he says.
In 2009, at age 87, O’Donnell decided to make one more attempt. He went to the Memphis, Tenn., immigration office to speak with Officer Kimberly Williams about getting a green card, at the very least. “She said, ‘What do you want a green card for? You should have your citizenship,’ ” O’Donnell recalls.
At last, he had found his angel.
In just three months, O’Donnell sailed through the required paperwork, which immigration officials rush for veterans. And on Dec. 10 he returned to Memphis, this time to take the oath of allegiance.
“I thought there would be me and 20 other guys becoming citizens, but I got down there and it was a special ceremony just for me,” O’Donnell says. “It was wonderful.”
Now there’s just one thing left to do. O’Donnell is applying for a passport so that he can finally take a trip to Europe.
Michelle Diament is a frequent contributor to the AARP Bulletin and AARP Bulletin Today.