COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Bill Bell flew more than 60 combat strike missions in the Pacific theater during World War II, and most were in the face of enemy fire in 1945.
Bell, who is now 89, struck places with names like Mindanao and Luzon, and spent time serving in places like Guadalcanal, Bougainville and Peleliu.
On Monday, nearly 70 years later, Bell received three Distinguished Flying Crosses and nine Air Medals for that service. On paper, he has always had them, but Monday was the first day he held them in his hands.
“It’s quite an honor,” said Bell, who described feeling overwhelmed by the awards ceremony.
“If you get out of the air-flying business with one Flying Cross you’re doing great,” said Don Glovick, of the Marine Corps League’s Pappy Boyington detachment, which has 186 active members. “He’s got three.”
The Flying Crosses were awarded for operations against the Japanese forces in the Philippine Islands area in June and July of 1945.
“Completing his 60th mission during this period, First Lieutenant Bell contributed materially to the success of his squadron,” according to a medal citation. “His airmanship, courage and devotion to duty in the face of hostile anti-aircraft fire were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Glovick and member Scott Legaard made the effort to ensure Bell received his medals.
“These second World War veterans we have are rapidly slipping away,” Glovick said in an interview.
Detachment Commandant James Flowers, a Marine Corps colonel, presented the medals during a surprise ceremony for Bell at North Star Retirement Community in Coeur d’Alene where Bell currently lives.
Flowers said servicemen like Bell were eager to get home to loved ones after battle and were no longer in the service when their medals would have caught up with them.
Flowers said Bell was responsible for initiating some of the early years of “close-air support,” in which pilots had to determine who was the enemy on the ground and who wasn’t when troops were engaged in battle.
“Everything looks the same when you’re doing 300 knots,” Flowers said after the presentation.
After the United States entered WWII, Bell enlisted on his 18th birthday.
In December 1942, Bell entered a pilot training program, and trained in Montana, California, Kansas and Florida.
Bell was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer and designated a naval aviator on Dec. 31, 1943.
In his memoirs, Bell writes about strikes on the Philippines island of Luzon.
“The Japanese placed large-caliber guns in caves in high rock cliffs overlooking the valley leading to Manila,” he wrote. “I was in the flight assigned the caves as a target.
“This could not be done with a vertical dive and the approach had to be low and fast, aiming at the base of the cliff 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,” he wrote. “As I came in, hot and low, flashes of gunfire showed at the cliff base.”
He sprayed the entire area with a hail of lethal .50-caliber bullets.
“The weapons directed at me were eliminated,” he wrote.
After the war, he returned to the Inland Northwest and farming.
Bell was born near Rockford, Wash., and attended a one-room school, graduating from Rockford High School in 1941. He attended Harvard College from 1941 to 1942.
He married his wife, Beverly, on Aug. 7, 1944, in Raleigh, N.C. They were married for 58 years, and had three children, including Lynn, Mike and Pat. Beverly died in 2003.
“When I returned home from the service I wanted to hide out,” Bell wrote. “It could have been what we still called shell-shock at that time.”
The only thing he could do was start farming, he wrote.
“My one year at Harvard before the war had not prepared me for anything else,” he wrote.
With money he had saved from his service, he purchased some property in Rockford.
He was at the forefront of cultivation and marketing of bluegrass.
His farm became large and successful, with his family and partners farming several thousand acres.
He became the director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, Farm Credit Board, and North Pacific Grain Growers.
Bell said: “I ask all of you to please lend a hand, a supporting shoulder and a compassionate listening ear to families, spouses and relatives awaiting return of someone in the service and to those returning from that service wherever they served.”
AP Photo/Coeur d’Alene Press, Shawn Gust United States Marine Corps 1st Lt. Bill Bell stands with his son Mike Bell, far right, as Col. James Flowers reads a list of Bell’s accomplishments as a World War II pilot during a ceremony at North Star Retirement Community in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.×