Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Staff Sergeant Alfred Bell served as a Tank Platoon Sergeant during World War II. He fought in the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as a member of the famous Spearhead Division.
In this episode, he recounts the Battle of the Bulge. During the battle, Bell commanded all five tanks in his platoon. When the company-wide radio communications weren’t working, he left his tank on foot and fought across the battlefield to the aid station where they had battalion-wide communications. Bell still wasn’t able to contact his company with that radio, so he fought tooth and nail to protect the aid station as it was evacuated. By nightfall, Bell had lost an eye, a large portion of his left hand, and most of his fingers. Due to his severe injuries and massive blood loss, he faded in and out of consciousness, and woke up a few days later in a hospital in France. Bell spent the next two years recovering in a hospital in Texas, where he underwent many reconstructive plastic surgeries.
To learn more about the evacuation of this aid station, and Sergeant Aurio Pierro, who was mentioned in this episode, listen to our interview with Pierro.
Alfred Bell was born to an impoverished French Creole family. He was forced to quit school in the 8th grade due to the great depression, and left home at 16 to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Yosemite National Park.
After the war, Bell’s injuries left him unable to work with his hands. His mother was able to send him to college instead, which was previously unimaginable.
If you like listening to Warriors In Their Own Words, check out our other show, the Medal of Honor Podcast. The link is in the show description.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Staff Sergeant Alfred Bell. Bell served as a Tank Platoon Sergeant during World War II, and fought in the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as a member of the famous Spearhead division. In this interview, Bell recounts the Battle of the Bulge where he lost his eye, a large portion of his left hand, and most of his fingers in order to successfully evacuate an allied aid station.
S/Sgt. Alfred Bell:
My responsibility was also as a Platoon Leader, because we had lost our Platoon Leader, and I was assigned as Platoon Leader, and Platoon Sergeant. And the fellow you just spoke with, Mr. Pierro, was the squad leader of the second squad, and I had the first squad.
I was commander of all five tanks. It was a Stuart with a 37 millimeter, the lightest tank and the fastest vehicle they had in the tank. What we lacked in gun power, we made up in speed. The gun power was the most important, but the armor was fine. We couldn't touch them unless we got them from the rear. And if we could get five tanks on one Tiger tank and surround him, we could work on him like yellow jackets on a bumblebee, from hit him on all side. The only way we could get him is from the rear and it was hard to get behind him.
Well, most of the platoon that I had were reserves or draftees, and most of us at that time were regular Army. I was regular Army when they came in. So, they respected the regular Army guys and we had no problem with the recruits that we had. I don't recall at any time or any incident with anyone, as far as them taking orders and directives as they were told to do. And throughout the war, after six years in the Army, I found that they were ready when they got to us, they were put to training prior to being sent to combat. And we replaced our platoon, I guess, once or twice during, or maybe more than that. Not quite a hundred percent at each time, but we lost quite a few men during, had the replacements would come in. And you were talking about relationships with them, they were all very good. Compatible. understanding. We went there to do a job and I would tell them that. "Don't take any chances. If you now when you can see it and you've got a chance and you see an opening, then take it. If you need help, call for it. But don't turn your back." I said, "The worst thing a soldier can do is to be hit from the rear. If you're going to get it," I say, "get it going forward, going to the enemy, not running from him." And that was my philosophy and they usually accepted it.
Young guys, had one in there, 16, had falsified his age and his parents had signed his paper and he was killed in a tank in the second platoon, wasn't our platoon. And I told him that, he was from Tennessee. But he was one of my best soldiers, best drivers. He was a driver of the tank and he was a good one, but he was killed in there, at Bulge. And I'm using that to illustrate how they were afraid. There's a 16-year-old, the rest of them were 18 to 21 and so forth that were drafted in and called in. But this one volunteered at 16 but falsified his age and came in and died for his country. But he was a brave, good soldier.
Well, while I was there, I was offered a battlefield promotion to become an Officer, a Platoon Leader, a Lieutenant or a Second Lieutenant. They wanted to send me to OCS and I'd been married two weeks when they decided they wanted to send me to OCS. And so this was at Fort Polk, prior to the invasion. And I told them there wasn't enough rank in the world to separate me from my bride, which I just lost five months ago after 59 years, one month and 18 days, she passed away. She was just at convention last year. And a rank didn't mean anything to me, but I enjoyed my platoon leadership. And I have nothing against officers but the relationships between enlisted men were different and between officer and an enlisted man. Because I respected the rank of the officer, but there was a closer relationship and camaraderieship between the enlisted men and the stripers with the mark of... I guess that's the reason, I had close contact with my men. They never did desert me or leave me and they supported me the whole six years I remember being in.
The greatest maneuver I think we pulled as a light tank outfit was doing the Falaise gap. We encircled the Germans, the British on our left and we were on the right. And we were in the lead, there was a recon man back there and the only thing in front of my tank and the British, when we circled and connected the gap. But prior to the gap being encircled, it had been bombed by our Air Force, all the middle of it. And we met up with the Canadians in the center when we entered. And we had one recon vehicle in front of us. But that was the most important, I think, maneuver that we actually did was to be the spearhead of the Falaise gap, the largest area that was ever covered and more prisoners captured in that area than any time during the war, I think, in that gap.
We had been assigned a road to block a bridge and a battalion aid station was set up there, which had one doctor in it, a captain, I think, in the aid station. And we had a group of wounded were brought in there throughout the regiment, were brought back there to the aid station. And when the German troops came over this hill that we were speaking of, you asked about that, and they had bazookas with them and it was all infantry, black garb, Hitler troop Youth. Some of them were 16, 17 years of age. This was a last resort, but they were the Nazi youth corps, the last groups that they had to send in, and they would sacrifice their life. And they had no stopping in them, they were always going forward. I never did see one of them run or turn his back and go the other direction. And they were coming over that hill fast.
The aid station was 30 feet from my tank. The other four tanks were scattered out. We were circling, facing the hill that they were coming over. And so I got on my radio to get infantry support. We were there, five tanks with 20 men with no infantry support and no artillery except our 30-millimeter cannons. These guys were coming in with tank bazookas. So, we called and I couldn't get out on my radio, which was a very small type radio with a platoon and company probably distance. So, I knew they had a large radio, battalion-wide, at least we could reach out beyond that and the aid station. I told my driver then and my gunner in the turret, I said, "Now if I'm not back in 20 minutes, you guys take off." I had a .45 Thompson machine gun and a .45 pistol on my hip, automatic. And I took my Thompson gun and two clips, and I had my pistol and I got out. I said, "I'm going into the aid station and see if I can call for support and get those wounded out of there if we can and get them going down the railroad track," which was about a half a mile, "and try to get them across that bridge. And if I'm not back, you go and set up a defense in this side of the river and try to hold those people back, in 15 minutes," I told them.
And then I went in the aid station and I told them to go down into this basement. There was a basement that they had the old bakery in, this building. The aid station was on the first floor and the basement area was a bakery. They had a big oven down in there where they baked the bread. And so I got on their radio and the captain was there at the time and I couldn't get no answer from them.
Now, I thought our radios weren't working, but I've been told since I've been to coming to these meetings, I was told at the last... I haven't been but two of these meetings in 57 years, and this is the second one. Last year, I found out that my radio and my tank and the aid station was working, but they were so occupied fighting themselves along that line that they couldn't give me or release any help back there with that platoon.
So, I went into the bakery and the captain, he left the bakery, he went out of the bakery, commandeered my tank, my tank, and took off for the river. And there I was, with that .45 Thompson and a .45 pistol on my hip. And there were those guys coming in with bazookas and about 12 wounded and about 12 corpsmen in there. And I said, "Get them in the basement." We got them down there and there was a back door. I said, "That railroad track leads right to the bridge, so take all you can and get down there as fast as you can because that's where our tanks are going to be." And they left. And I went back up the stairs and here they were coming in. And my tanks had already headed for the bridge, I guess, because they were there and they turned loose on me and I turned loose on them.
And when I came out of it and later on that evening, I was the only one standing, except a young German trooper, dressed in black, about 18 years old. And he put his gun down his burp gun, he carried one of those, we call them burp guns, that they had. He put it down and he tried to help me because I had been shot up. I had used everything we got. And I said, "We've got to hide down in the basement," I said. So, he took his bayonet and he tried to take this hand off that was hanging loosely because everything had been shot away, the bone and the ligaments from the top, and tried to cut this off. You can see the scar here where he tried to saw it off. And I said, "Well, now, you're good." But he tried everything he could to stop my bleeding.
I was shot here and then I was shot out and these hands were shot and I shot was shot in the hip here, all that. And I was crippled with it and I couldn't use my gun, I'd run out of ammunition anyway and it was all over with. Because I asked Pierio when he came down there and found me 18 hours later now, 18 hours later, I had bled there and that German kid there with me in that cellar. We had gotten all the corps out of there, and just me and the German. And when Pierio came in that night that it was dark, I think. Was it dark? Yes, I believe it was. Well, everything was dark to me then because my eyes, every time I'd try to wipe my eyes, I'd just... These hand and in my right eye was okay and I'd get to get blood in them from these fingers were shooting like a little faucet. So, there I was.
And Pierio came down, he said, "Here's one of those German boys!," and he didn't call him that. He called him a name, what a GI called him in those days, and he called him what he thought he was. I said, "Pierio," I remember this, this is the last thing I remember now before I got back to Paris, France. I remember telling him, I said, "Pierio, if you shoot that fella, if I live and I get out here, I'm going to try to get you court-martial." I said, "That young guy tried to help me and tried to stop my bleeding and I passed out." Next thing I knew, Pierio had me, or the next thing that was the next day, he told me, the next day, they had burned the upstairs of this building had been on fire and had burned out.
And there I passed out from lack of blood then. No shot, no nothing in me, no penicillin. And he had brought a half-track. Pierio got some kind of vehicle, I don't know what, and they put me on there and got me back to an evac hospital. And that was Christmas Eve night. And this happened the 22nd or 23rd. And this was Christmas Eve night before. Then, a doctor looked at me. And the nurses there, the lady nurses corps were there and they worked on me. And they were being shelled in, we had shells coming into that evac hospital, I recall that. When I'd come to, I would come to every now and then I had bled so much, but they were shelling the hospital and we were in tents there just back from the lines, I guess maybe five miles if that far. But those big guns were shelling that evac hospital. And then I passed out there, they must have given me a shot.
The next time I opened my eyes, I was in Paris, France in a hospital, a general hospital. And there were reporters there, same as you fellas. I don't know how and why and who got the story out, and wanting to interview me in there and my doctors wouldn't let them. And they performed surgery. And when I did come to, I remember the only antidote they had for me, they put a fifth of bourbon whiskey there by the bed that the guy had two hands next to me. They said, "If he starts hollering too much, he said give him a shot of that whiskey."
And so I was pretty much in voice then to receive the reporters and they came in and they had the story. This was in January, they had gotten me find... No, yeah, first party of January, Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve around New Year's, they got the story and they spread it in the Stars and Stripes, New York Herald Tribune. And so they put me on a plane with 12 other guys, old cargo plane in 12 litter cases. How they got us on there, I don't know.
Well, we got over to the Azores, I think, someplace down in there, in one of his old twin engine deal. And one of them went out, so we had to go down there. And they worked on it and got it going the next morning and they flew us into Bermuda. Is that it? Off of the coast. And the other engine went out. And I recall saying this when they kept us so doped up to them, I said, "I believe if we can make it one more hop without being drowned and survive, we'll survive this war."
And so the next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital in New York City there someplace. And they let me call my wife and she had already received three telegrams. The first one was that I had died in action. The second was I had lost my legs. The third one was that I was blind and had lost both arms. Three telegrams, and so she was frightened to death. After three weeks in the hospital in New York, these were, I don't know, recall the hospital name, but it was a military hospital. And they sent me to William Beaumont General Hospital. And they said, "William Beaumont," I assumed it was Beaumont, Texas, but it's in El Paso, Texas. And I spent two years in there for plastic surgery replacing, in all. And after that, it's all history. And here I am today.
Those medics had gotten the story that I had gotten out of there and they'd gotten back. The medics that they were in the aid station there and we had gotten them out and they had carried the wounded out the bed. That was a story, that they had spread the story of what happened there and how many. Because there were civilians killed there. There were three or four... When they came in that house, they just opened up with their burp guns. And there were one little boy looked like he had polio was in there, too, and a couple of older people. I understand that some of them were killed there. You might verify that with Pierio, because I never did get back upstairs after I was shot. And he said there were dead people up there and dead Germans as well as civilians. And these medics had got gone down the track. They got the story, aired the hospital out, what had happened.
Did the army recognize you as a hero?
S/Sgt. Alfred Bell:
No, they had mentioned it. But the heroes are still over there in Normandy, they didn't come home. I don't think... Only thing I have is a Purple Heart. That's all I expected, and it runs in my family.
I guess my youngest brother was at Schofield Barracks when Japanese bombed it and he was there and he was wounded four times. Had been offered every medal, he turned it down and said, "All the heroes are there." And he came and I held his funeral myself last year. And he was in Army same time I was, but he went through the entire Japanese war. And so the medals don't mean a thing and I wouldn't take one and I refused them and he did, too. Because the heroes didn't come home. I was a volunteer and I volunteered to fight for my country for myself.
Not a regret I have, unless it was a hurt that I caused my wife. No, I don't feel sorry for myself. I'm a very fortunate person. Since then, the Lord has been good to me and provided ways that I got an education from it, which was more in payment back that I would've never gotten. I went on, worked on a doctor's degree at University of Texas. And I became superintendent of schools of about six different school districts for 35 years, and retired in 1979. And the wife and I became missionaries. And I lost her five months ago. And so, that's about the end of the story and I'm just waiting my time, enjoying every bit of it now as much as I can under the circumstances.
What does it mean to you to be able to gather with your friends in places like this for these reunions?
S/Sgt. Alfred Bell:
Well, for 50 some odd years I didn't. But I think the story had to come out. I mean, I have enjoyed this more in meeting the fella face to face that got me out of there, coming back. A lot of times in battles like that over there, if you see it's a total loss, you usually don't go back. But he came back, Mr. Pierio, Sergeant Pierio. And if he hadn't have come back, I wouldn't be here tonight to talk to you fellas. And I appreciate him, I guess as much as any man that I've ever known.
What's that friendship mean to you?
S/Sgt. Alfred Bell:
It's indescribable. Close as a brother, which I was very close to my younger brother that died a year ago. But he's as close as his brother that I've had.
Why do you think it's so strong, the bonds that you guys feel for each other?
S/Sgt. Alfred Bell:
In during combat or during the war? Well, you know that alone, you have your strength comes from being together as a unit. But if you try to fight a battle by yourself, it's lost before you even started it, against outnumbered, being outnumbered. But your friends there, there's brothers in the kinship that they're... in combat now I'm speaking of. Because while we were in England for two years prior to invasion, about that, 18 months or something like that. No, maybe it wasn't that. I was gone 18 months, that's right. But there's a bond and a friendship that develops there. I don't guess unless you've experienced it yourself if you could describe it. If he's in trouble and you're there, you're going to give him a hand. There's a brotherhood there in combat that develops. It doesn't come about just from regular walk of life here at home. But you know that your life depends on him or that group you're with, your life. And I think that's what it is that binds us together. And once you've experienced that, you have a brotherhood there that's stronger than anything I know of. And I've lived 82 years. Why? I don't know, but I'm still here for a reason. Maybe just to tell you this story.
That was Staff Sergeant Alfred Bell. To learn more about the evacuation of the aid station, and Sergeant Aurio Pierro, who was mentioned in this episode, listen to our interview with Pierro. The link is in the show description.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.