Jo Lavelle recalls military life with her husband, John Lavelle ’38.
By Susan Curphy
You might call it divine intervention. It was her parish priest that led Mary Josephine (Jo) McEllin to General John (Jack) Lavelle ’38 shortly after he graduated from John Carroll University. They met through the Catholic Youth Organization with a little help from Fr. Murphy of St. Aloysius Church in Cleveland.
“He made a bet with Jack that if he beat him at golf, Jack would have to take out the girl he chose for him on a date,” Jo Lavelle says. “Well, Fr. Murphy beat Jack and told him, ‘You have to take out Jo McEllin.’”
The couple married the day after the general graduated from the Army Air Corps flying cadets in 1940 in the chapel at Randolph Field, Texas.
“It was rumored the men may not be able to get married until they returned from the war, and they were starting to ship out, so there was virtually a wedding every half hour that day,” Jo Lavelle says.
The young bride from Bratenahl Village, who previously had never been outside her home state, began the journey, alongside her husband, to numerous military assignments that would take them throughout the world during the general’s 33 years of service in the Air Force, which included World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. (Click here for more information about General Lavelle).
Managing multiple duties in Europe, Asia, and the U.S, the general and his wife raised seven children and lived in 36 different homes. Jo Lavelle enjoyed their time in Europe when the general served as deputy chief of staff for operations, Headquarters Fourth Allied Tactical Air Force, NATO and later commander of the Seventeenth Air Force at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, because they were able to visit many countries.
“It was a terrific opportunity to be able to drive to Italy and France, or wherever we wanted to go,” Jo Lavelle says. “I loved it [military life], and the kids adjusted to the moves very well.”
Jeré Lavelle Enloe agrees with her mother.
“We kids would not have changed that life for anything,” she says. “We had a wonderful time.”
Years later, in 1972, when the four-star general was falsely accused of violating the rules of engagement and creating false reports when he ordered air strikes into North Vietnam, Jo Lavelle recalls her anger and frustration.
“I just knew it wasn’t true,” she says. “It made me boiling mad. It was heart-piercing, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”
“Mom was angry, but Dad really wasn’t,” Enloe says. “Dad always told us he was under orders, he had done the right thing, and he had saved lives. He held his head up high. He was proud of his military service.”
Thirty five years later, in 2007, when lawyer Patrick Casey and his father, Aloysius Casey, discovered evidence exonerating the general (read “Truth of the matter”), Jo Lavelle was amazed.
“I didn’t think the truth would ever come out,” she says.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1972, General Lavelle worked to rejuvenate the then-struggling resort Bryce Mountain in Virginia and built a home there. He also was instrumental in building the area’s first Catholic church, Our Lady of the Shenandoah, which sits on the side of the mountain.
“Bryce Mountain was a God-send because he could go there to get away from all the controversy and the press,” Enloe says.
The general died of a heart attack at age 62 in 1979. Jo Lavelle finds comfort when visiting his gravesite at Arlington Cemetery.
“When it rains, you can only read the first two letters of his name, John, so instead you see my name, Jo,” she says. “I like to think it’s his way of saying he’s waiting for me.”
To read more about General Lavelle and the controversy surrounding his command of the Seventh Air Force in Vietnam, visit www.mbklaw.com/events/Lavelle.