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William (“Bill”) Bell

By Tim Hunt

 

Maybe we should call him the Elder Father Bell because he is dad to Father Pat of St. Luke’s, Mike of Spokane, and Lynn, who lives in Oregon.  Bill is a delightfully spry 88 years old (he will turn 89 on September 11, a somewhat ironic date for a Marine Corps. aviator) who claims to have slowed down in recent years.  I doubt that is true.  He has a quick smile and wry sense of humor which make it easy to see where some of Pat’s personality comes from.  He claims to get some stories confused these days but so do I, nearly twenty years his junior, and the stories seemed quite clear to me.  There are just so many of them!  I was overwhelmed by the details of this true gentleman’s life.

 

Bill was a farm boy who answered a newspaper ad run by Harvard College which determined, he told me, to enroll at least two men from each State about the time Bill was finishing at Rockford High School at the top of his class. After rigorous testing, he was admitted, perhaps as a token farm boy, he joked, and traveled cross country to study at the first college founded in this country.  He intended to pursue a career in chemical engineering though he soon decided that major did not suit him.  He played violin and trombone in the Pierian Sodality, later the Harvard Symphony, credited as the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States.  He also participated in swimming and generally loved collegiate life in the Ivy League.  But along came reality, in the form of World War II, and shortly after Pearl Harbor Bill left Harvard with one year of higher education under his belt to enlist in the Marine Corps where he was trained as a dive bomber pilot and commissioned a second lieutenant.

 

Before shipping off to the Pacific, Bill married Beverly Jean in Raleigh, North Carolina; he was nineteen and headed to more than seventy combat missions.  During his flying career, he logged more than 4,000 hours (military and civilian) and showed me his log books, still in excellent condition and quite readable.  He is modest about his many decorations which include the Distinguished Flying Cross with two gold stars, the American Campaign Medal, two Presidential Unit Citations, an Air Medal with one silver and two gold stars, The Asiatic Pacific Medal with two bronze stars, the Philippines Liberation Medal and several others but it is clear his contributions to the war effort have been well recognized.  Even yet, the process continues since he still has not received all the medals that were awarded him; some local Marines are working to right that oversight. And like so many World War II veterans, he has citations which are mysteries to him; he must have done something to earn them, he says, but has no idea what.

 

Bill was a farmer through and through and like most of his colleagues in that ancient and honorable profession learned to fix about anything, though he did deny having worked on his own planes in the Pacific Theater.  Most of his missions, he said, were to destroy roads and railway installations which may, in an ironic way, explain his later fascination with model railroading.  He showed me pictures of his railroad creations which were also featured in a Father’s Day article by Father Pat in the Coeur d’Alene Press.   All of the railroading modules were named for people from his past including his wife who has now been dead for ten years.

His planes were hit by enemy ground fire on several occasions and he was nearly killed in a Torpedo Bomber which had mechanical problems and ended up with its propellers in the water; several crew members died in that accident. But, he said, the closest he ever came to death was in a truck, hitchhiking from San Francisco to Spokane with some drunken hunters who passed him their gin bottle more times than he cares to remember. 

 

After the War, Bill returned to farming near Rockford and later on the banks of the Columbia River.  He became President of the North Pacific Grain Growers, a co-op, and later spent some time in Mexico where he associated with Dr. Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who has been called the father of the Green Revolution and the man who saved a billion lives; he later was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in the production of wheat and other grains.  Bill said he learned Spanish for that assignment.

 

Bill now resides in a delightful and sunny one bedroom apartment at North Star Retirement Community where he is very happy.  He says the food is great and we all know how hard it is to please a farmer in that department.  A picture of Beverly and Bill, in uniform, hangs on the wall where visitors cannot miss it. 

 

One last story:  at the end of the War, when it was time to be discharged, Bill’s CO summoned Bill and eight other aviators to tell them they were going to be sent to China.  All nine rather forcefully objected and said seventy missions were enough, the War was over, and they wanted to go home. The CO reluctantly conceded their point but did not furnish transportation, perhaps to punish them a little. Bill says he hitchhiked from Mindanao to San Francisco and after spending some time with this remarkable man, I have no doubt he did exactly that!  Hats off to Bill Bell, a true American hero I am proud to have met and interviewed.  Whether he was at Harvard, in the Philippines, on the farm, or in Mexico, he is a man who knew the meaning of hard work and how to accomplish all tasks, no matter how difficult, that were given to him.

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