helmet when all of a sudden, a flare went off.
Without hesitation, Bell jumped to his feet and dove for his nearby foxhole, but the sound of something
heavy and metal followed him.
Thinking it was a hand grenade, Bell prayed he would survive the blast.
“It was just my steel helmet,” said the Korean and Vietnam Wars veteran. “It scared the (expletive) out of
But the next day, another flare went off, and “this was for real,” Bell said.
Men in Bell’s unit blew a claymore mine and pelted the area where they suspected the enemy to be lurking
with M-79 grenade launchers.
The next morning, the unit saw that they were indeed under attack, but their barrage stopped two North
After searching the remains of the soldiers for weapons and intelligence, Bell’s unit also found a can of
Arrid, an antiperspirant with a slogan, “Don’t be half-safe - use Arrid to be sure.”
Bell and a lieutenant looked up the address for Arrid’s manufacturing plant and sent the blown-up can with
“We said, ‘This guy wasn’t very safe with your product,’” Bell recounted. “We never heard back from them
Bell, 82, retired since the 1970s and living in Hopedale with his wife and dog, came to the Daily News with
dozens of documents from his tours in Korea and Vietnam.
Among the documents Bell found while on patrol include what he calls North Vietnamese propaganda
urging American soldiers to surrender and they will be “given kind treatment and helped to return” to their
Another badly-worn document Bell has kept for more than 60 years after finding it on the battlefield
purports to be written by American POWs denouncing and demanding an end to the war.
The document is signed by Capt. Floyd H. Kushner, Warrant Officer Francis G. Anton, First Sgt. Richard F.
Williams, Pvt. 1st Class Frederick J. Burns, Cpl. Edwin R. Grissett, Cpl. Dennis W. Hammond and Spc. 4th
Class Willie A. Watkins.
Another document Bell has kept is a list of 11 soldiers’ names, which the Viet Cong claimed to have
released as early as 1962, which is confirmed via military records.
All 17 names on Bell's documents were released from prison camps and are accounted for via the
Department of Defense’s accounting service; a few died in battle but most returned to the States and lived
out their lives. There are, however, still 7,800 soldiers unaccounted for from the Korean War and another
1,600 from the Vietnam War, according to the Department of Defense.
Remains are still being found and sent back to the states for a proper burial with full military honors.
“Farmers are still finding bodies and are digging them up, trying to match the DNA with the families of the
missing POWs,” Bell said quietly as he pulled out a Life Magazine issue from the Vietnam War with six
pages full of faces of American soldiers who lost their lives in one week alone, bringing back painful
memories of the war.
Bell was wounded by an explosion, causing a pinched nerve in his back, and while in the hospital, learned
that his platoon was badly attacked.
Foxholes in a location his unit had frequented were rigged with mines, killing several men and wounding
others. When the medical helicopter landed, it landed on a mine, killing the men onboard.
While Bell only heard about that hell, he saw another in the hospital.
“I saw guys without limbs, guys without faces,” he said, adding that a man with one eye was pushing
another man – blind – in a wheelchair.
“In the hospital, I’ve seen the worst of it all,” he said.
When Bell was wounded, his unit took an enemy as prisoner, but Bell remembers the young face on the
Viet Cong soldier.
“The kid was only about 16 or 17,” he said.
The young soldier was shot through the stomach and died shortly after, but remained laying next to Bell on
an old door while being carried back to base.
“Just a young kid,” Bell said solemnly.
Zachary Comeau, Milford Daily News, November 17, 2015
I was born in Boston. At the time I went into the service I was living in Roxbury. I'm now living in
Hopedale. My first wife passed away back in 1974. I married again in 1979. My second wife had two
boys. We have seven grand-children and six great-grandchildren. I was in high school when the Korean
War began. About five months into the war I began thinking about joining the service.
I always thought I wanted to see the world. Being 17 at the time, I had to get my mother's permission to
sign up. She said I should go into the Navy, because you'd get three square meals a day, and a cot. My
sister said they probably wouldn't take me in the Navy because I'd had tuberculosis. So I thought, well,
the Army would be good. I went to Boston to take the physical for the Army. I asked the guy, "Did I pass?"
"Flying colors!" he said. Within the week I was at Fort Devens. It was January 1951.
From cold Devens we were told we'd be going to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where it would be nice and
warm. We went down by train, and it was warm there. The only thing we could see was armadillos. I'd
never seen one before. It scared me. We got to the 45th Infantry Division, which was a National Guard
outfit from Oklahoma. It turned out that most of the guys who were going to train us were World War II
vets who had joined the Guard to make a little extra money.
Some of the stories from the guys training us kind of blew my mind at the time. It wasn't just about
Europe, but also the Far East and Japan. They told some kind of tough war stories. They said they were
going to train us to be as tough as they were, and they did. We had the same weapons they had used
during World War II because they hadn't been upgraded since that time. We used the M-1s, the machine
guns, the 3.5 bazookas.
The National Guard guys were sent to Hokkaido, Japan, and we stayed behind for advanced infantry
training. Then we were sent to Hokkaido and put back in the same units we had been in when we were
at Fort Polk. We did some tough training in Hokkaido. Those guys weren't mean to us, but they were
The Korean War was still going on, and the whole division was sent there. When we got off of the ship,
they put us on a train, and it took us a day and a half to get up to the front lines. When we got there, we
saw Korean bodies all around. They did that to shock us, because that was what we were going to be
seeing. We had to bury them. The ground was frozen, but there were big holes all around from bombs
and shells. We had to pour gasoline and diesel on them and burn them. Then we had to get dirt that
was outside of the foxholes and bury them.
It was trench warfare, something like World War I. We were in our location, they were on another hill,
and each side had their own trenches. There was an attempt to get a truce, but during that time each
side wanted to gain as much territory as it could before a boundary was established. When the war
ended a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was set up between the two sides, and no one was allowed in there.
It was very cold in Korea. With the snow, it was hard walking. The clothes we had weren't bad, but the
boots weren't good. We called them Mickey Mouse boots. They were rubber, and we had a couple of
pair of socks. When we were on patrol, once we stopped the sweat on the socks would start to freeze.
You had to stay there all night, so you changed your socks and it felt a lot better...until you got cold again,
which was all the time.
One time after we came off patrol, we were told to check out a bunker, because the guys there hadn't
answered their phone. (The phones back then were connected by wire, of course.) We got to the outpost
and one of our guys went into the bunker. He found two guys in their sleeping bags, both dead. Probably
one guy was supposed to stay on watch but they had both gone to sleep. After that the company policy in
a situation like that was you'd take one sleeping bag with you; not two.
One night another guy and I were sent out. Suddenly down below us there was an explosion and we
heard a lot of yelling and screaming. We got a call asking what was going on. We said we thought
somebody had hit a booby trap. They couldn't send anyone down, so we waited and waited. It was
getting cold. I said to the guy with me, that the only way we could stay warm was to cut up the sandbags,
shake out the sand, and put the bags inside our coats. It helped a little, but it didn't help our feet. Doing
that sort of thing was called "field expediency." You did whatever worked.
They had searchlights that would shine up onto the clouds, and bounce back into the valleys. That
would help us see if there was anything there. One night we got a call on a loudspeaker, right up at the
front. A Korean guy got on and said that a guy had just come over and gave himself up. He said there
was another guy out there who also wanted to surrender, but he was afraid to come out, thinking he
would be shot. They wanted to let us know what section he'd be in and didn't want anyone shooting at
They put a Korean interpreter on the loudspeaker to tell the guy who wanted to surrender that it would be
okay. That went on for a half-hour or so. Finally the North Korean came up and surrendered. "Passes"
had been put out which included how to say "I surrender" written phonetically in Korean. The North
Koreans also put out such things telling us to surrender.
The North Korean prisoners were kept on an island. At one point there was a riot there, but it was put
down. Most of those guys, though, never had it so good. They were getting three meals a day.
After my first tour in Korea, I went to Germany and was there for about a year. That was in 1961. We were
always on alert there because of the Cold War. There was always something going on. One time we
went from Hanover in the American Sector, into Berlin. Everybody had to be counted. Every truck, every
jeep, everybody had to be counted before we went in. Counted by the Russians.
We were stationed in Manheim at that time, when we got an alert that we were going to Berlin to
reinforce the Sixth Infantry. Ammunition was given out to the NCOs on the back of the truck, which was
me. I was told not to issue any ammunition until I got the word from an officer. It was all rifle
ammunition. We weren't allowed to stop anywhere on the autobahn. We weren't even issued "piss
When we got to the outskirts of Berlin we had to stop, get out and be counted again. They couldn't find
one guy. They wouldn't let us go on to Berlin until he had been accounted for. We finally found him; he
was asleep in a trailer. We were there at that time because the Berlin Wall was being erected and they
wanted to reinforce the garrison, which would have just been cannon fodder if anything started.
We were right there and saw the wall as it was being built. The NCOs were told to go into every
restaurant, every bar, and get the phone number in case our communication broke down. There was
also an air-raid siren. If you heard it, you were supposed to go back to your barracks or wherever you
were assigned to be. We had it once to try it out, but never had it again. Before the wall was completed
they had a barbed wire barrier. One day a guy tried to get across it, but became caught in the barbed
wire. The East German police had their weapons out. They were going to shoot him or pull him back to
their side. Nobody knew what they'd do. An American soldier, a medic, went up to him and pulled him
out. The guy was all cut-up.
It was a scary time. They had tanks there; we had tanks. We were there for three months. Then another
unit went in and took our place.
After my year in Germany, I got out of the service. I enlisted again two years later. That time I didn't go
into the infantry. I went to Georgia for military police training, and then was sent to Korea, where I was
assigned to the Eighth Army stockade as a prison guard. Some of the prisoners had murdered officers.
They were there for a while before they got sent back to Leavenworth.
One day I was told that I was wanted down at headquarters. I talked to a captain there who told me that
they were going to start a vice squad and were interviewing people to be part of it. I told him yes, I'd be
interested in that. It would be good to get away from prisoners, and in the tower where it was cold. He
said the squad would deal with black market, vice, prostitution, and various other things.
The captain told me that he wanted me in the vice division. I asked what that involved. He said that they
wanted to get rid of some of the prostitutes that were giving guys venereal diseases. He told me that I
would go to the dispensary every morning and talk to the guys who came in there to find out where the
girl lived who had given them the VD. He told me I'd have a policewoman. She'd go along with me as an
interpreter. We'd turn the prostitutes over to the women's police. I'd go down to the women's police
station and let her do the talking. They said they'd keep her overnight.
I'd talk to the guys at the dispensary and find out if they knew where the girl lived. If they did I'd assign
them a time to come back, and we'd go to the women's police station. I had one girl I turned in, and then
went to pick up some more. I went to the club that night, and who did I see but the one we had just
arrested. I told my captain that once I left, they let the girl to. Graft was a big thing in Korea at that time.
Graft and black market.
I went to the police chief about it, who told me to go back and talk to her. When I saw her she said,
"What's your name?"
"John," I replied.
"Ah, Johnny-san. Johnny, get me ice cream."
So I got her some ice cream at the PX. I got on her good side.
Eventually I knew every hooker in Korea. We'd make raids on the houses. They had one called the
Kookadoo Hotel. It was right across from the railroad station. Every time we raided there, no one was
there. The girls, the guys, everybody was gone.
So what we did was, we took the company clerk, the typist, and sent him to the Kookadoo Hotel to have
a good time. When he came back, he told us that they had two houses with a tunnel in between. They
had people looking out for raids. When they saw a raid coming, they'd scurry like rats over to the other
We went back to the Kookadoo, but nobody was there. The company clerk said "Follow me." We went to
the house next door. There they were, still partying. We arrested them all.
We raided the place again, later. The guys didn't hear the alarm. We found out that they were all field
officers. Majors and above. The guy who was in charge of the MPs went up to them and said, "What are
you guys doing here?"
They said, "We're here on a religious retreat." There must have been about 25 of them.
The MPs called the head of the vice squad. "What should we do?"
"Forget about it. Come on back." So we let that go.
I didn't get up to the DMZ until my third tour in Korea, which was in 1970. They sent me back because
that was getting to be a basket case. They were firing green tracers over our heads, they were playing
loud music, and they had a phony village they'd light up. I was thinking, "What a place." I was talking to
the sergeant about it, and he recommended that I be sent to the psychiatrist. When I finished with him,
he recommended that I get out of the DMZ before I killed myself.
There was some rioting going on during my second Korean tour. We got a call t the NCO hut about a riot
in the compound, and a bunch of blacks going around breaking into huts, stealing money and beating
up the whites. They had ended up in the Army because of a program of "go into the Army or go to
prison." There were some black guys in my platoon. I told them they could go, no hard feelings, but if
they stayed they'd have to help us. I told the platoon to get their trenching tools out. We didn't have our
weapons or bayonets. The black guys went out and told them that Sergeant Bell's platoon was ready
and waiting for them. They just went by us.
Almost the same thing happened in Germany as what happed in Korea, but it happened on pay day.
The guys would get their money and some would go to the EM club. Black guys were robbing white guys
on the street, or coming out of the club. There were a few white guys involved in it also. Guys robbing
guys they slept next to in the barracks at night. We had to call out the MPs to help us. We finally got it all
quieted down and I had to account for all of my men. There was one I couldn't find. It turned out that he
was hiding in a Dumpster.
I thought that was the end of the military. It couldn't continue with that sort of thing going on, but they
discharged the guys involved. They weren't dishonorable discharges. That would have involved court
martials, but they just wanted to get rid of them.
Not long after that they ended the draft and started the all-volunteer Army. They were giving a bonus of
$5,000 to anyone who went into the infantry and passed infantry basic. That was in 1973. You'd never
see some of them again after they got the bonus. They'd go out and buy a car, stereos, whatever. I only
saw one guy come back, and that was because the police had him. He had gone into a bus station and
a guy was in a stall in there. He kicked open the door, pointed his 45 at him, and said, "Give me your
wallet!" He got arrested.
At one time I was sent to Monterrey, California for Vietnamese language training. I didn't learn a damn
thing. I had a ball in those eight weeks. We had no extra duties. There was one guy in a bunk near mine
who wanted to go to Vietnam. He told the commander that he wasn't learning anything and he wanted to
go to Vietnam. The commander told him, no, there was a contract signed for him to be at the language
school for twelve weeks. I didn't want to finish there either.
I finished the school, got a diploma, and flew to Vietnam. We got assigned to our companies. You could
hear the B-52s off in the distance. I thought it was lightning and thunder. You'd see the flash up in the
sky, and then hear the explosion.
In 1969 we were attacked while we were on what was called an LZ; a landing zone. We weren't always
in the jungle. They'd rotate us to different areas. We'd guard the artillery, but every once in a while, we'd
get attacked ourselves. One time we had a bunker near the artillery, and the North Vietnamese were
around us. They threw a dynamite satchel into the back of our bunker. Luckily it landed under the roof,
which diverted a lot of the explosion. It was enough of an explosion, though, to throw me up in the air,
and I came down on my back. My back started hurting, but all except one guy got out alive. They took me
to the dispensary where they had a doctor. He told me that I had a pinched nerve, and they'd have to
Before they evacuated me to Cam Rahn Bay, they x-rayed me, and said I'd have to have an operation.
They took me to Cam Rahn Bay in a small ambulance aircraft. While I was at Cam Rahn Bay, they
brought a guy in on a stretcher. I looked at him and said, "Hey Johnson, is that you?"
He said, "Yeah." He was all cut up with shrapnel. He told me that they had been moving up to the hill we
had been on before. One of the guys jumped into a foxhole, and there was a mine in there, which blew
up and killed him. They brought in a helicopter. When it came down, it hit another mine, which blew it up.
Everybody that was around it was killed. Half of my platoon was there. I would have been with them.
What I used to do - I don't know if this would have worked or not in that case, but when we went back to
an area where we had been before, there was a good chance they would have mined it while we were
gone. I'd tell the guys to take off their helmet and throw it into the foxholes. It might go off. It would take a
lot more pressure to set off a mine that was designed for a tank. If you were over a tank mine, you could
be sitting on it and it wouldn't blow up. The mines for individuals were called Bouncing Betties. They'd
come up a few feet into the air and then explode.
One time my platoon and another got together for what was called a "pinch." We'd be at the north end of
an area and they'd be at the south. We'd do patrols to see what we could get. We'd captured a guy. We
were near the South China Sea. The North Vietnamese would build bunkers there and send some of
their guys there for R&R. At night they'd go out swimming and taking it easy for a while before they had to
go back. We captured a few of them there.
We had a patrol going out. One guy had just come out of NCO school. They called them "shake and
bake." If you passed NCO school they'd automatically make you a sergeant. So this guy, when they told
him where to go, he didn't go there. He went out like going on patrol to get to the hill they just got off, and
stay there until daytime. These guys had to go miles. You didn't want to go even ten feet once you got off
that hill. On the way out they had to go through a village. On the way to the village they got ambushed.
They lost four guys. We had to pick up the rest of them. One of the guys who got killed had just gotten
there. He was from Ireland, and he'd gotten drafted. The guys had wanted to kill the company
commander. They told him not to go there, but he went anyway. He thought he was doing his job.
When we were on patrol in Vietnam, we'd sometimes come across propaganda pamphlets. Some of
them would have the names of prisoners of war on them. Later I got wondering if some of them were
still alive, so I went to the newspaper office in Milford and asked if they could help me find out. I showed
them the pamphlets with the names and units of the guys. They said they thought they could, and a
couple of weeks later I got a call from them. They had contacted the Department of Defense and were
told that all of them whose names I had had come home. I had also found some in Korea.
When I was in the hospital I was thinking about the guys who were still there, and decided I should write
the names down. I'll never see them again. I made a long list. Some died. Some were wounded.
In 1960 or 1961, John Foster Dulles, who was the Secretary of State at that time, was dying and was in
Walter Reed Hospital. A lot of VIPs would go over to visit him. They knew he didn't have much time left.
When Winston Churchill came to the U>S. for a visit, he went to visit Dulles. President Eisenhower was
there too. I was serving as an MP at the time. When there were VIP visits they like to have some military
around. That was just for show. We weren't going to do anything. The Secret Service was of course
there with Eisenhower.
One time when Eisenhower was leaving Walter Reed, he was headed for his car which was just a few
feet away. All of a sudden a woman started yelling, "Ohhhhh, the president!" She wanted to shake his
hand. The Secret Service, the other MP and I started drawing our weapons. Then the Secret Service
men grabbed her and put her in their car. She just wanted to shake his hand, but I thought to myself,
In recent years I've been to the Vietnam Memorial twice. One guy especially I wanted to find. He was a
young guy, 22, from Cambridge. We were buddies because I was from the Boston area also. I had a
small radio, and one day in Vietnam the two of us were listening to a Celtics/Lakers game. The game
was tied a lot, but finally the Celtics won. He was one of the guys who was killed in that explosion of the
helicopter that I mentioned earlier.
These memories of John Bell are from a video recording done by the Bellingham-
Mendon Veterans Oral History Project. The interview was conducted by Marjorie
Turner Hollman. The picture of John above was taken from that recording. John's
medals and insignias can be seen beside him.
Below - A Milford Daily News article about John.
Below - "Passes" collected by John in Korea and Vietnam.