Mass. veteran to be honored for aid to France
By JESSICA HILL | Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. | Published: July 13, 2019
WELLFLEET, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Richmond Bell is a survivor.
The 94-year-old Wellfleet resident says he had many "close calls" during his two years and four months of service during World War II.
"The Army had three classifications of wounds: minor, serious and critical. I've enjoyed one in each category," Bell said earlier this week at the 200-year-old house on Main Street he has lived in since birth.
On Sunday, Bastille Day, Bell will be inducted into the French Legion of Honor for his service and his help to liberate France.
It will be the latest in a series of recognitions he has received for his contributions during the war, most of which took place while he was still a teenager.
Bell worked as a newspaper delivery boy for the Cape Cod Standard-Times as a child and as a cashier at First National Store. He graduated from Wellfleet High School in 1942 in a class of nine, when the total population of Wellfleet was about 825. He said his father was the first person east of Brewster to have a car in 1907, and Bell later bought it from him for $30.
He was drafted when he was 17 or 18 after his first year of college. Three days later, his father died of a heart attack, delaying his departure for 30 days.
Bell was a private in Company B, 116th Infantry Regiment, the 29th Division. He served in different roles, such as an infantry rifleman, radio operator and anti-tank grenade soldier, carrying two grenades and a launcher on his rifle.
Since the beginning of his service, Bell experienced a lot of "close calls," he said, from the antenna of the radio he carried getting shot off to having the stock shot off his rifle, forcing him to pick up another from a dead soldier.
While training at Camp Fannin in Texas, he once awoke in the barracks next to a soldier who had died overnight from an infectious disease. He and about 20 other soldiers were quarantined for six weeks. Luckily, none of them caught the disease, Bell said.
He made two friends during training who were assigned to his unit, and they went overseas together, taking 28 days to cross the ocean. Their contingent was sent to Normandy as replacements for D-Day casualties. Both of his friends were later killed in Normandy, Bell remembers.
Bell stepped onto Omaha Beach a day or two after the initial D-Day invasion, he said. Bodies of fallen soldiers were still on the ground, and damaged ships still floated in the water. He walked through a minefield single file with his unit and as a part of the larger division that began to recapture France from Nazi Germany.
About seven weeks after he arrived in Normandy, Bell and his unit captured "Saint-L", a commune in northwestern France. Throughout that period he wore the same clothes 24 hours a day, sleeping on the ground or in a foxhole.
As he and his unit were later on their way to Vire, France, a German plane dropped an anti-personnel bomb, and a piece of shrapnel lodged in the back of his leg.
He was treated at a battalion aid station and sent back to duty. On his return, he was wounded again while trying to locate his unit. He was walking in the woods when a German machine gun soldier shot him with a pistol.
Bell was in critical condition with a punctured lung when he was placed on a tank landing ship to be transported to England for treatment. While crossing the channel, a storm arrived that prevented the ship from moving. He lay on the floor of the ship for three days eating canned peaches, he said.
"I survived," Bell said.
He made it to England, where he recovered in the hospital for two months before being sent back to duty. He spent a month guarding a freight train filled with military equipment supplies, sleeping in an empty box car with C-rations for food. A soldier asleep on top of the box car was killed when the train went through a tunnel, he recalls.
The third time he was wounded, he and his platoon of about 40 men were crossing a beet field to capture a tiny village in Germany. He was designated scout and went ahead of everyone else. About halfway across the field, a German machine gun nestled in the church steeple in the village shot at them. Bell was hit in the right shoulder. He played dead on the field until it got dark.
He was the only survivor, he said.
He still has his jacket from that event – a dark green coat splattered with old bloodstains and multiple bullet holes.
Bell was honorably discharged and, at about age 20, returned home. He worked at Williams Market before going back to college and graduating from Boston University. Bell has held a variety of positions, from insurance investigator to firefighter. He still operates a Model A Ford parts business.
For his service, Bell received the Medaille du Jubile in 1994 for his help in liberating France, the Bronze Star Medal, three Purple Hearts and a Combat Infantry Badge.
Noah Ouellette, assistant to the consul general, said the consul general will honor Bell and two other soldiers for their sacrifices at the French Consulate in Cambridge. Ouellette said the French Legion of Honor, which was established by Napoleon in 1802, is the highest order the French government gives.
Bell's wife, Gail Bell, said the whole family is proud that he is being recognized for his service. Although Bell also is proud, he is happy just to be alive.
"I'm very lucky to be here," he said.