BLACKSTONE, Va. (Aug. 31, 2017) -- Remembrances of World War II are quickly fading with the passing of those “Greatest Generation” military members offering the last firsthand accounts of the struggles, horrors, triumphs and personal sacrifices marking a war that killed millions, including 600,000 Americans.
Those who made contributions to the 20th Century’s greatest event – nonagenarians if they are still alive – offer unique insights that are sometimes forgotten or dismissed by history books as either inconsequential or insignificant.
Still, many have downplayed their wartime roles, declining to make mention of their experiences or brushing it off as a civic responsibility – what one should do when duty calls.
Count 99-year-old Richard Bell Jr. as one of those holding true to what journalist and author Tom Brokaw defined the “Greatest Generation” – those who embraced values of service and humility along with an understated sense of pride.
The Blackstone native earned several medals during the war, to include the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and Bronze Star attachment (double). For whatever reason, however, he was never presented with the awards upon returning home in 1945 and never claimed or even mentioned them. That is a statement, more or less, about who Bell is as a person, said his great nephew Benjamin Sessoms Jr.
“He is a very humble and spiritual person,” he said.
Bell was drafted into a segregated Army in which blacks wore the same uniforms as whites but were pushed into menial jobs, endured poor living conditions and issued subpar equipment. Only a few black units were ever used on the frontlines. Nevertheless, many willingly donned uniforms with the intent of proving they were worth the rights and privileges granted to whites.
On the other hand, many were oblivious to the political climate and simply did what they thought was right and did their best to represent themselves, their families and their people, said Sessoms.
Bell, part of the Army months before the U.S. entered the war in late 1941, remembered when it came crashing into his consciousness shortly after the Japanese stormed Pearl Harbor. He was sitting in a Washington, D.C. movie theater with a girlfriend. What happened next is something today’s generation of Soldiers are not likely to experience.
“They come over a (loud) speaker and told all the Soldiers to ‘return to camp immediately,’” recalled Bell. “I got up, got a cab and took her home … and he (the driver) took me to Fort Meade (Md.).”
Bell, who was 23 years old when he arrived in the European theater of operations, was eventually assigned to an all-black unit whose members were later called upon to drive trucks to supply advancing troops in northern France.
Called the Red Ball Express, it was a 1944 logistical effort making use of mostly African American Soldiers who were not assigned critical war roles. The three-month operation, however, proved critical to the Allied victory.
“I drove from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day,” said Bell. “That was my shift.”
At its peak, Red Ball Express convoys consisted of nearly 6,000 vehicles carrying more than 12,000 tons of supplies daily to the frontlines.
When the war ended in 1945, Bell returned home to Blackstone, eventually married Catherine (his wife of 58 years) and settled in Baltimore. There, he worked at Bethlehem Steel as a millwright and retired after 38 years. He returned to Blackstone in 2003 after Catherine died.
Today, Bell is the single occupant of a trailer sitting in a quiet neighborhood located on the outskirts of downtown. Looked after by another nephew who lives across the street, he passes time caring for his cats and watches TV in a living room surrounded by wood-paneled walls filled with family photos, newspaper clippings of President Obama’s first-term election and certificates from his many church activities.
Those walls feature no war mementos and no photos of him in military uniform or with any of the people he served. Although Bell’s military service has been known by other family members, he does not talk much about his experiences, said Sessoms, and does not remember much.
Furthermore, Bell did not have children who could convey his service to others. His military legacy could neither be promoted by any of his seven siblings, all of whom have passed with the exception of one – his 103-year-old sister who resides in an assisted-living facility.
From all that is known about Bell, the war has all but faded from his memory.
“It was in the past and something I never thought about,” he said.
Bell’s wartime achievements were discovered by Sessoms, who, in the process of gathering information for a 2016 family reunion, came across his records and began an effort to formerly recognize his great uncle for his service to the nation. The medals were secured with help of Bell’s congressional representative, Dave Brat.
“It’s been an honor just to help him get those awards,” said Sessoms, “knowing that it wasn’t something he was hurt about or something he was remorseful about. Receiving them, I thought, would be something that would make him feel proud and help him understand his family supports him and his country is behind him as well.”
Brat presented Bell his medals Saturday at a family reunion event in Henrico County. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Drushal, Chief of Transportation, provided an overview about the Red Ball Express prior to the presentation. He said he was excited about meeting someone who took part in such a historic wartime event.
“To meet someone who participated in what is really a legendary transportation operation during World War II is just a great honor,” he said.
Bell, who uses a walker and cannot stand for long periods, sat at a table as his medals were presented. Members of the media took his picture, and 30-40 onlookers – mostly family members – applauded. Some shouted “Hallelujah” and “Praise God.”
Bell’s military service, now brought to light and validated as family history, has given generations of his family a treasure to behold, share and inspire, said Sessoms.
“A lot of African-American families don’t have good records of their family members or history,” he said. “Having a documented history helps you to look toward the future and helps you understand the past. Generations of my family can now look back and see their great, great uncle Richard Bell Jr. was there during World War II. He was there as a part of the Red Ball Express and served under Gen. (George) Patton.
“It will give them a sense of pride and let them know that if he did this, they could do it as well and be proud of their service.”
Following the presentation, Bell beamed with the medals sitting before him. He was clearly proud of his service. Excited family members encouraged him to speak, but Bell’s hearing loss made it difficult to hear questions and what he did say was mostly unintelligible.
Bell’s words, however, probably would not express the sentiment of someone who answered his country’s call without complaint; who did not expect much for his deeds; and who lived through the Great Depression and 18 presidents – including the first African-American to take office.
Maybe, articulation is not necessary for a man who bore witness to the strife of a great war and other historical events. Just maybe, his mere presence, along with the knowledge of his journey as a citizen and Soldier, says much more than words can express.