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91-year-old vet dies 2 days after hundreds gather for surprise bagpipe salute

by Alexandra Zaslow / / Source: TODAY

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If you ever needed anything, James "Jim" O'Connor was there for you — no matter if you had known him for decades or if you'd just met.

So in the final days of the 91-year-old's battle with pneumonia and other illnesses, his community of Antioch, Illinois, returned the favor.

 Hundreds of people from around Antioch, Illinois, gathered to honor war veteran James O'Connor on the front lawn of his home on Sept. 14. Rick Myslinski

Earlier this month, knowing he had just days left to live, O'Connor requested to come home from hospice so he could be with his family. He died on Sept. 16.

The three-time war vet was well-known in his neighborhood. He liked to sit in his garage and offer a friendly wave to people as they went past.

Rob Briggs, a neighbor of 13 years, often joined him so he could hear O'Connor's stories from his service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

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"Jim is the greatest American I've ever met," Briggs, 45, told TODAY. "I would sit in his garage for hours and he would impart knowledge on me. I took advantage of every opportunity to spend time with him as I could."

 Members of the Northern Illinois Pipes and Drums, who played for O'Connor two days before he died. Rick Myslinski

On Sept. 13, Briggs was over for a visit when a hospice nurse began a conversation about music. Briggs asked O'Connor what he liked to listen to.

"You wouldn't know how to play my favorite music," O'Connor replied.

Briggs said, "Try me."

O'Connor said he liked bagpipe music. As a kid, he'd played the bagpipes for fun, and his favorite song was "Danny Boy," the Irish ballad.

Within minutes, Briggs was on the phone with the Northern Illinois Pipes and Drums band.

 Antioch community members honoring James O'Connor at his home. Rick Myslinski

Meanwhile, thinking a handful of people might show up, Briggs asked a friend to create a Facebook post to get the word out about a surprise event honoring his old friend.

RELATED: Military dad has emotional reunion with family at Florida Gators game

The next day, the bagpipers showed up at O'Connor's home to play in front of his house. Briggs was blown away when 400 people came to pay their respects.

Everyone from old co-workers to people who remembered seeing his smiling face at the local grocery store to complete strangers came to honor Jim.

 The bagpipers played "God Bless America" to honor O'Connor and his war service. Rick Myslinski

The mayor even made an appearance to declare Sept. 15 as Jim O'Connor Day in Antioch.

"Jim is no doubt my hero," Briggs said. "I mean, he illegally enlisted in the Army at 16 years old the day after Pearl Harbor. That's a true hero."

As the bagpipers played the national anthem and "God Bless America," O'Connor bowed his head and started to cry.

 O'Connor died on Sept. 16. Rick Myslinski

After five or six songs, community members lined up to shake his hand and thank him for his service.

"I've always been very proud to be his son," Robert O'Connor, 64, told TODAY. "But that day was the most unbelievable thing I've ever witnessed."

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