It has been 70 years since Johnny Bell has seen Normandy, France or forced himself to examine in detail the events of June 6, 1944, which still today haunt his dreams.
At the end of the month, the 92-year-old will make his final trip to Normandy, a journey that will take him approximately 4,348.42 miles from Corinth.
The former pilot, along with his son-in-law Rodney Bond and friends Greg and Debbie Moore will spend two or three days visiting the once war-torn region.
Their trip will include a stop at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial where row by row, the graves of American World War II casualties are marked with white crosses or Davidic stars, each representing a life prematurely severed.
“I’ve been back to England several times, but I never thought I’d return to Normandy,” said Bell. “I know going there will bring it all back, but it’s something I need to do ... to remind me of what it takes to preserve the country we live in.”
Bell, who is one of the few remaining members of the 8th Air Force and the lone survivor of his crew, described the view from his four-engine B-17 bomber during the Normandy invasion.
“We were bombing inland behind the beaches in France. I didn’t have time to do much observing, but it looked like chaos and I’m sure it was very disorganized,” said the Corinth resident as he conjured up the painful memories of D-Day. “There were ships everywhere from horizon to horizon. Afterward, it looked like a tornado had hit.”
“We were shot down in Normandy well after D-Day,” he added. “The airplane crashed and we were forced to parachute out."
Emotions ran high as he recalled the faces of his lost crew members, men who perished far too young.
“There were only ten in a flight crew. So, we spent a lot of time together. We fought together, ate together and took leave together. We were more than friends, we were a family,” said Bell as he shed fresh tears for his lost comrades.
Bell was barely of age at the time he joined the military.
“I had always wanted to fly, so I enlisted at the Columbus Air Force Base right after Pearl Harbor,” said the Airman who got his pilot’s license in 1943 while training in Maxwell Field, Ala. “It was the happiest moment in my life next to my wedding day and the birth of my first child.”
He added that piloting alone and slicing through the clouds his first time out was the greatest feeling in the world.
The World War II vet said he finds the country to be very different than the one he fought for over half a decade ago.
“I think about what America was like in those days with everyone fully involved in the war effort and 100 percent of the country’s population totally dedicated. It’s so different now. Back then we knew who our enemy was. We were fighting because our lives had been attacked. There was one goal and one goal only – to destroy German industry,” said Bell who can’t understand how anyone could become a home-grown terrorist, in the country he calls the greatest God ever created.
Apart from his military career, the Columbus native also founded the WCMA radio station in Corinth where he served as the host for 43 or 44 years of his life.
“I always thought I was too busy for hobbies, but I do love to read," said Bell who studied briefly at Mississippi State University.
In his spare time, the father of four enjoys reading everything, but especially fiction.
His son Eddie Bell is the owner and operator of Lee Highway Florist.