As told to Ron Albers, Colonel, USAF - ret, for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.
William Bell was born December 29, 1923, mid-afternoon in a dust storm fifteen miles in the country northwest of Memphis, Texas. At six years old his father took over the management of a ranch located in the same Hall County north of the Red River. The ranch house sat on a slope just west of year-round Mulberry Creek.
Early memories were many: roundups, the branding of cattle, and the terrible castration process on most young male cattle. Most memorable was Indian Joe---a transient his dad befriended and allowed to camp out in a lean-to on the edge of Mulberry Creek. He helped Bill’s father with many things, and Bill sometimes tagged along with Indian Joe when he made his rounds of his snares and traps. Bill’s brothers Charles and Doug (both just older than Bill) loved to visit Joe in the evening by his campfire..
"He can read the future," Doug would say; and on one night Bill heard him do it. His imagery of both Charles and Doug was prophetic; and in Bill’s projection for the future, he was accurate, also. He ended Bill’s by saying he saw a rainbow in a circle. "Good omen," he said. Then he said, "What's this? A shadow in the rainbow circle. Not a bird, but it is shadow of wings." Bill had forgotten that prediction until almost 15 years later on the SS Anderson, when he saw the vapor in the heavy ocean swell - a circle rainbow surrounded the tiny flying fish soaring in the swells. Then again above the clouds at Anzio, when Bill and his crew were lost. It would be thirty years before Bill would ever see this miracle omen again.
Bill had five brothers and two sisters when he lived on the ranch. At seven years old they all moved into Memphis, Texas. Bill’s mother worked very long, hard hours in a laundry for twenty five cents a day, and a year later she died of pneumonia and malnutrition. The five youngest in the family were sent to a Presbyterian children’s home in Amarillo Texas. A few months later - when Bill was almost nine - an old sharecropping couple came to get a young farm hand, and Bill was sent with them to a sharecropping farm twenty five miles southeast of Canadian, Texas. A book could be written of Bill’s dramatic sharecropping experiences.
At 12 years old Bill informed the elderly that he was leaving and going to New Mexico to be a cowboy. With one change of clothing wrapped around his 22 rifle, he headed west. Stopping in Amarillo to check on two younger brothers at the orphanage, Bill was convinced by the home superintendent to stay and finish his schooling. At 15 he was having problems, including fighting the home bus driver when he was abusive to one of Bill’s younger brothers.. The superintendent then arranged for Bill to go live with an older brother in Pampa, Texas, 59 miles east of Amarillo. Three months later that brother was sent to prison for robbery, so Bill was on his own again. He earned his way through high school at a movie theater, working 40 to 50 hours a week. Living in a rented room, he could only afford one meal a day for two years. He usually ate a late afternoon meal at Mickey Conley's tiny restaurant across from the courthouse. Her tiny place was the preferred place of judges, clerks, and others. She gave a great plate lunch for 35 cents. Bill lifted weights to stay strong, was vice-president of his senior class, was elected “Most Likely To Succeed,” a member of the National Honor Society, and won his weight class in wrestling.
Pearl Harbor happened six months before graduation, and Bill fought the urge to drop out of school and fight for his country To volunteer, he had to have a parental signature; and Joe Gordon, county attorney who often came to Mickey's restaurant, drew up guardian papers free of charge. And Mickey became Bill’s legal guardian.
On June 4, 1942 Bill boarded a train at Pampa and was taken to Lubbock, Texas for swearing in. Following Airplane Mechanic school at Sheppard Field, he went to Nashville but was eliminated from the flying cadet program in the interview and pre-testing phase. After months at Columbus, Mississippi, Bill’s application for aerial gunnery school came through. Aerial gunnery schooling at Tyndall Field Florida was very demanding episode; and, after completion, he was sent to Boise, Idaho, where B-24 bomber crews were being assembled. Pilots were being checked out, flight engineers were being instructed, and radio operators were being oriented. Everyone was scheduled to fly daily in a unique training program. Bill would take his assigned period, come back and sleep 3-4 hours, go back out and get on another flight, come back, sleep a while, and then go back again. He flew around the clock in order to absorb as much knowledge as he possibly could. Not even realizing there would be a first engineer, Bill’s eagerness probably was why he - the youngest member of the crew - was named first engineer.
On a dreary Christmas Eve day in 1943, the troop ship SS Anderson sailed out of Newport News, Virginia into a very rough and stormy Atlantic ocean. The non-commissioned members of Lt. Arthur J. Clune's crew had been assigned quarters four decks down. The dark & crowded space, illuminated only with red light bulbs, was only about 20 feet from the nose of the ship. Bill was seasick before they reached the open Atlantic. No white lights were to be turned on at night for fear the German subs might have technology that could sense light through the metal hull. Bill’s seasickness lasted for six long days. Four days out to sea, an event took place in Italy that would decide most of the future for Bill’s crew. On a bombing mission to Vicenza, Italy, all 10 bombers from one squadron were shot down by 60 German fighters.
On January 3, 1944, Bill and his crew docked at Casa Blanca. Debarking, they were shuttled to a tent compound near the beach on the Mediterranean. The cold damp air off the ocean penetrated their bedding and clothes at night, but the sunny daylight hours were very pleasant. On their third day at Casa Blanca, they were moved outside of the city to a campsite in the desert. Waiting for assignment orders, they were on a two meal a day routine. In late January Bill’s crew was assigned to fly a late model B-24 Liberator to some base in Italy. They were extremely concerned when they arrived at the airbase and told that they were carrying 8,000 pounds of tools and equipment in their bomb bay. No time to chronicle that takeoff and flight - but it is covered in Bill’s autobiography. Landing in Bari, the crew received its orders to fly to San Pancrazio for duty with the 376th Heavy Bomb Group
Upon their arrival at San Pan, they learned for the first time of the December 28 disaster at Vicenza. The few remaining crews who had not flown that mission were very depressed and really not very uplifting for Bill and his fellow greenhorns to be around. He went to sleep that night on a homemade low table on a mattress cover filled with hay. The soulful sad sounds of a violin in the distance put him to sleep. It was a sound he would hear almost every night until he had finished his 50 missions. Replacement crews began arriving daily.
February 12 must have been a weekend, since many at the base had gone to Lecce for the day. Sergeant Jerry in squadron operations put out a call for volunteer crews to fly an emergency mission to the Anzio beachhead. Our U.S. troops on the ground were in danger of being pushed back into the sea by strong German forces. Bill volunteered as a waist gunner and felt it was a good way to observe what actually took place on a mission. The pilot of his bomber had already completed 13 combat missions, but this was to be Bill’s first combat sortie.
Following the afternoon takeoff, the crew quickly ran into bad weather. By the time they reached the vicinity of Anzio, the flight leader ruled out a pattern bombing approach. As the bombers flew in dropping their bombs, the dark clouds gave the beach and hills a dusk-like appearance. Bursts of ack-ack peppered the sky - but were fortunately ineffective. Pulling off the target, the navigator informed the pilot he could not give him a return heading because he had forgotten his charts. The pilot saw a lone bomber heading into the clouds and took off after him, hoping to find him in the clear above the clouds. The crew climbed up through the dark clouds into bright sunlight and discovered they were all alone; the aircraft they had tried to follow was nowhere to be seen. The B-24 Liberator pilot took a heading to the southeast. The bomber cast a shadow on the clouds just below and the shadow was surrounded by a beautiful circular rainbow (just as Indian Joe had forecast so many years before).
Letting back down into the dark clouds, the plane kept dropping lower, and the crew worried about crashing into the ocean. Suddenly, everyone heard the flaps’ hydraulic system sound and the noise of the landing gear dropping. Almost immediately their wheels touched the dark runway illuminated only by Jeep headlights. They had safely landed only thirty miles from home base. The pilot simply got a heading, the crew immediately took off again, and they were back home in a matter of minutes; thanks again to vehicle headlights pointing out the runway.
A few days later Bill’s assigned crew, with Lt.Clunes as pilot, flew its first mission. The 376th Bomb Group bombed the Prato rail hub and marshalling yard. Although the flack was heavy, they hit the area with precision bombing. A successful mission under their greenhorn belts raised the spirits of the 512th Bomb Squadron, which had almost been wiped out two months earlier.
Bill went to sleep that night--vowing to write his pen pal love--Nita Rose McCarty. Before heading for Casa Blanca they had written one another every day. Now that there was hope and progress Bill felt he could be uplifting again. Bill went to sleep that night on his hard bed to the soulful sound of that unknown violinist playing "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder"
Following breakfast the following morning, which consisted of powdered eggs and Spam and a terrible English coffee brew, Bill went back to his tent area. And there they were, these two ladies in fancy bath robes with purses and high heels. Two ten-year old boys accompanied them. "You want to have fun with my sister?" They said, closing one hand and running a finger into it. They left no mystery about what they were trying to sell. Bill and his buddies were repulsed and went back into their tent. The S-2 officer was alerted, and he sent MPs out who took them to his office. He told them never to show up again. They were from the neighboring small town of San Pancrazio, which was off limits.
They showed up again the next day, and the word got around that the S-2 officer had apprehended them, shaved their heads, stripped them, taken them out on the runway and chased them off in his Jeep. A few days later they showed up again, one in an ugly red wig and the other in a mangy-looking dead black hairpiece. With no takers, they never showed up again.
Four days after the Prato mission, Bill’s crew successfully bombed the German forces at Anzio and two days later went deep into Germany to hit Regensburg. Eight days later they hit the German concentrations at Anzio again. Bill’s crew was flying frequent missions, because Bill had talked to Sergeant Jerry in the Operations Office, telling him
he wanted to do his 50 missions quickly. When Bill informed Lt Clune of this, the pilot told operations to make it a crew assignment. He definitely wanted Bill to be his engineer on every mission.
Bill had had an almost tragic experience during training when he had flown cross country to San Antonio, hoping to see Nita Rose who was attending Texas University.
He also had confided to Sergeant Jerry about his phobia that the wings were likely to fall off, because they flexed so much when airborne The ugly duckling bomber on the ground turned into an elegant swan when airborne.
One day Sergeant Jerry called Bill in and said he needed a favor. Captain Woods had just been assigned the job of 376th test pilot and he had to flight test all major repairs when completed..
"Oh boy!" Bill said, as he looked at the sergeant.
"I asked several of the pilots," he said, "And your name was the only one mentioned"
"Okay, Jerry," Bill responded, wondering what he was really getting into.
Following his assignment as flight engineer for test pilot Captain Woods, this new crew quickly went to work. The first test flight was on a Liberator with a major tail assembly replacement. Captain Woods, a stocky confident man, and his co-pilot briskly ran through the preflight tests. Taxiing to the runway, he turned the bomber and rapidly pushed the throttles to full power. With no bomb load, the B-24 was quickly airborne. As soon as the gear and flaps were up, the pilot climbed to a thousand feet and headed down toward the heel of Italy. Dropping down to a fifty foot altitude he roared back up the east coast, buzzing sailing and fishing boats. Then he climbed to at least ten thousand feet. Bill was standing between and slightly behind the pilots. Captain Woods turned his head to Bill and said. "Put your chute pack on, Sergeant, and brace yourself." Bill quickly snapped the chute on.
Captain Woods pushed the control column forward, and the big bomber went nose down in a steep dive. The wind sound and the powerful roar of the engines were terrifying. Bill had no idea what the airspeed indicator was reading, but they were rapidly approaching Mother Earth. Thankfully, the pilot pulled back on the yoke and Bill’s knees started buckling as Woods pulled the nose up and pointed the bomber up into an almost vertical climb. The roaring engines kept pulling them up, and the bomber started shuddering. Woods guided the bomber into a clockwise turn and pointed the nose of the bomber earthward again. The second dive, climb, and stall were just as memorable as the first. When he pulled out of the second and headed for base, Bill was relieved and felt an exhilaration he had not felt for months. His paranoia that B-24 wings were going to fall off were erased, thanks to Sergeant Jerry and Captain Woods.
Early in the morning of June 26, 1944, Herky, Bill’s pilot, accomplished another scary takeoff in the B-24 named Besame Mucho. The beautiful color painting of the pin-up lady was admired by the whole squadron. They climbed and circled into their position in the formation. The 512th squadron commander, Major Gillette, and Captain Woods flew the lead plane. An aircraft factory at Schwechat Austria was today’s target destination.
They had great fighter escort - P-47s, P-51s, and P-38s. Normally the P-47s took the bombers part way and then P-51s, with wing tanks, took over to cover them to the target, Then the longer range P-38s arrived to escort the Liberators on the way back. At the target their bombing run went through very heavy ack-ack. The exploding shell fragments splattered their B-24 bomber, sounding like light gravel and sand hitting the metal. That meant the explosions were (fortunately) quite a distance away. The 500 pound bombs hit the target very accurately and quite heavily. As they pulled off the target Bill looked down through the bomb bay and observed heavy fires in the target area, wondering if some of the B-24s had been carrying incendiary bombs.
Arriving back at San Pancrazio, Major Gillette and Captain Woods led the bomb group in a low level buzz across the base. This was a tradition, a proud (but dangerous) one that showed the pride of the group, and it was especially appreciated by the support troops on the ground, who were always eager to see their aircraft and crews returning safely.
Once parked, they exited “Besame Mucho” through the open bomb bay doors, and a photographer was waiting for Bill. A picture for Bell’s hometown newspaper was the request. Although Bill had not heard of any photos being taken before, he thought it was a fine idea.
(“Besame Mucho” was shot down on a mission over Sofia, Bulgaria six weeks later, obviously with a different crew. Also the famous “Lady Be Good” bomber lost in the African desert and found many years later was from the 512th Bomb Squadron.)
The co-pilot, Bob Harper, was Bill’s favorite member of the crew. He had class and was a real gentleman; but, due to sickness, he had fallen behind the crew in missions. Bill talked to Bob and volunteered to fly extra missions with him as his flight engineer when his new crew was formed. The two pilots and Bill were scheduled for a checkout flight. When the three of them boarded the plane, the other pilot climbed into the first pilot's seat. He had not been one of Bill’s favorite officers. The checkout flight went fine until they came in for the landing. The pilot was way offline to the right of the runway. Rather than go around, he said he could sideslip the bomber to the left. He lowered the left wing and apparently crossed the rudders. The bomber slid rapidly to the left and, when he tried to straighten out, the big bomber gyrated back and forth. Lt. Harper took the controls and landed safely landed the craft.
On the ground Bill stated the deal was off unless Bob Harper was first pilot. Bob Harper, the gentleman, did not want to hurt his friend and released Bill from his promise.
A week later that crew (minus Bill Bell) was shot down over Romania and spent several months in a prison camp.
Upon returning to the U.S. Bill married his sweetheart, Nita Rose, on November 20, 1944. He was separated from service Sept. 18, 1945 at Ft Bliss at the rank of Technical Sergeant. He then attended Oklahoma University, graduating in 1949. They then moved to Albuquerque and went into the photographic business. Nita Rose and Bill worked as equals in this very demanding profession and achieved great financial and recognition rewards.
In 1980 Bill was honored to serve as the Professional Photographers Of America President in their 100th anniversary celebration, With a membership from 50 countries, it stands today as the model for a great professional trade association.
Bill and Nita Rose were blessed with three daughters: Leslie Jeanette, Lizabeth Elaine and Linda Rosanne. And they have five grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
As for philosophical advice to others, Nita Rose and Bill both found that the best way to keep uplifted is to make a hobby of trying to uplift everyone they met. Folks who knock people down can get a momentary satisfaction, but it never lasts, according to Bill. That uplift philosophy goes especially for spouses and family.
Bill is now retired in Mesa, Arizona; and Nita passed away in February of 2007, a terrible loss to Bill of his life’s partner and best friend. Even though he’s many miles from Groveport, Bill maintains his membership in Motts Military Museum. We all wish he lived closer and that we could see him more often, because Bill is a true member of “The Greatest Generation,” and we are honored to know him. Bill has recently finished writing his autobiography, which is presently being proofed and edited before being published. We look forward to selling copies of his remarkable life story, entitled “Shadows of Wings” in our Motts Gift Shop soon. Indeed, Bill Bell has led an incredible life.
Unfortunately, Bill died of cancer in October 2011 in Arizona. He remained the consummate gentleman to the end.