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WWII veteran is awarded long lost medals at age 99

News & Advance - 8/27/2017

RICHMOND

Richard Bell Jr. made the 12-hour, overnight hauls by starlight.

A driver during WWII in the famed Red Ball Express, he was one of a group of primarily African-American servicemen responsible for speeding supplies to the front lines in France after the invasion of Normandy.

"No lights, period," he said. "You took the fuse out of the truck. That's the way you did it."

After the war, Bell was honorably discharged and returned home to Baltimore where he worked 30 years at Bethlehem Steel.

Now 99 and living in Blackstone, his great-nephew was preparing a family history when he discovered that Bell had been awarded a series of medals but never received them.

"When I saw that he had these awards, I asked to see them," said Benjamin Sessoms Jr., an Ettrick resident. "He looked at me and said he didn't have them. I said, 'Did you lose them? What happened?' He said he just didn't have them."

Bell said he'd never been that concerned about it: "To tell you the truth, I wasn't worried about any medals at the time. I was worried about getting home."

Undeterred, Sessoms made it his mission to see that his great-uncle received the honors he had earned.

And on Saturday, it happened. Decades after those long, 12-hour hauls, Bell, surrounded by generations of family members who'd gathered for a family reunion at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, received six service medals. They include the American Campaign Medal, American Defense Service Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII, Sharpshooter Badge and Rifle Bar, and the World War II Victory Medal.

In attendance was U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, whose office helped facilitate efforts to get Bell his medals, U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Jeffrey W. Drushal and a full color guard from Fort Lee.

In remarks to the room, Drushal explained the Red Ball Express served as a lifeline for the 28 Army divisions advancing across France and Belgium in the summer and fall of 1944. Convoys of vehicles hauled fuel and ammunition and, while it lasted only three months, the constant supply lines to U.S. troops left the Germans little or no time to regroup.

Brat called Bell "an inspiration for future generations" and said "when I meet veterans like Mr. Bell, I see an individual who understands sacrifice and service far better than most of us can fathom."

Upon receiving the wooden box filled with his medals, Bell just shook his head in acknowledgement and thanked those around him. He was prompted to share a few words and when he did, the room fell silent.

Bell recalled how he was in a Washington, D.C., movie theater on a date when an announcement was made that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. A solider for little more than a month, Bell said he got up, walked outside and found a cab, which took him back to Fort Belvoir where he immediately shipped out to Germany.

"Seven o'clock in the evening till seven o'clock in the morning," Bell said slowly, referring to those overnight shifts, "and no lights."

He stopped as if to remember, then added humbly, "the Lord was good to me."

 
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