Originally published March 25, 2014
Nearly 70 years after William Bell flew combat missions during World War II, the former Marine received his medals.
Bell was a 21-year-old pilot during the Philippines’ liberation from Japanese forces in 1945, flying more than 60 combat strike missions. In the space of four months, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times for courage, flight skills and devotion to duty in the face of enemy fire.
“I knew that I’d been awarded medals, but I’d never seen them,” said Bell, 89.
When the war ended, he returned home to Rockford. Getting his military medals took a back seat to the demands of establishing a thriving Kentucky bluegrass farm and raising three kids with his wife, Beverly.
But when a member of the Marine Corps League’s Pappy Boyington detachment in Coeur d’Alene heard about Bell’s wartime experiences, he decided it was time to honor Bell. Don Glovick worked with several others to track down Bell’s Distinguished Flying Cross with accompanying stars and nine other medals. They were presented at a formal ceremony earlier this year.
Without the sacrifices of Bell and other World War II veterans, the world would be a much different place, said Tom Miller, a Spokane attorney who was also involved in honoring Bell.
“During World War II, people went for the duration. They didn’t know if or when they’d be home,” Miller said. “They were battling the greatest powers in the world.”
The medals now hang on the wall in Bell’s assisted living unit in Coeur d’Alene.
“I think he found the output of support humbling,” said Bell’s son, Mike. “It was the attitude of the people there that touched him.”
Bell was a farm boy from Rockford who spent a year at Harvard University before enlisting in the Marines on his 18th birthday. Had the Japanese not invaded Pearl Harbor, his dad might have continued his studies and become an engineer, Mike Bell said. Instead, he was accepted for pilot training.
A picture from that time shows Bell as a jaunty, dark-haired first lieutenant. But memories from the Philippines haunt him still.
Bell flew a Douglas SBD Dauntless, the dive bomber used during the war. He and others in his unit provided air support to protect U.S. troops on the ground.
“My plane was hit at least twice that I remember,” Bell later wrote. “It shook me up a little. One time a shell tore a hole in the wing. Another time the top of the lower cylinders were shot off.”
Bell flew strikes on Mindanao and Luzon. He was also assigned to taking out large-caliber guns that the Japanese had placed in caves overlooking the valley leading to Manila.
“This could not be done with a vertical dive,” Bell wrote. “The approach had to be low and fast with an abrupt pull-up (to clear the top of the cliff) at the last minute to release and fling the bombs into the caves.”
The loss of civilian life from the bombing still weighs heavily on Bell. The Japanese placed troops in small towns, trying to shield themselves with civilians.
“We had to clear out the Japanese by bombing them,” he said, but “we killed hundreds of people bombing small towns.”
His unit was also ordered to bomb a hospital that the Japanese were using as a headquarters. Years later, he met a Filipino woman from that region, who asked him why the Americans had destroyed her town’s medical center.
“They bother me more as I get older,” Bell said of the civilian deaths. “It’s a sad thought at this age.”
Bell wrote about his wartime experiences. But until recently, he rarely discussed his combat time with his family, Mike Bell said. His children heard other stories.
How Bell won $7,000 in poker games with other Marines. He sent the money home to Beverly, who put in the bank. The young couple later used the money to purchase their first farm equipment.
How Bell built a model tractor in the South Pacific with scrap metal salvaged from Japanese plane crashes.
How he hitchhiked home from California after the war ended. One of his rides came from two hunters who kept passing him a bottle of whiskey. “Here, lieutenant. Have a swig.”
Bell returned to farming after the war, finding solace in the solitary nature of the work.
“When I came home from the service, I wanted to hide out,” he wrote. “It could have been what we still called ‘shell shock’ at that time. The only thing I could do was start farming.”
Bell was one of the region’s pioneers in planting Kentucky bluegrass. He was active in the leadership of several agricultural organizations, including the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, the Farm Credit Board and North Pacific Grain Growers.
And he continued to fly. He was part of a charter service that operated out of Felts Field. He also worked as a pilot for the Forest Service during fire season.
“He was a good pilot, meticulous with the controls,” Mike Bell said.