RIPON — The French government is expected to bestow the “Knight of the Order of the Legion of Honor” later this year upon five Ripon residents who took part in the Liberation of France in World War II.
It is France’s highest military award first established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
The period of history involved began with the D-Day operations in June of 1944. First Vice Commander of American Legion Clinton McCausland Post 190 Ernie Tyhurst has taken the lead in his group’s effort to identify the service men participated in the military assault on Hitler’s occupation nearly 70 years ago.
Tyhurst said only a handful of deserving veterans have actually received their medals which are not awarded posthumously with ever increasing numbers passing on before their 80s and 90s.
The five Ripon men include Anthony “Tony” Bell, 88, who was assigned to the Army Air Corps 467th Bomb Group – 791st Bomb Squadron – flying out of England as a radio operator/gunner. One of his 36 bomb runs was actually on D-Day, June 6, of 1944.
George Krause was in the U.S. Navy, assigned to the Attack Transport USS Charles Carroll on D-Day. He was a crewman on a landing craft putting units of the 29th Infantry Division ashore on Omaha Beach making several landing trips to the beach to off-load troops and recover wounded.
The recovery operations were made by navigating through waters containing bodies of soldiers killed in action. A mortar hit his landing craft, severely wounding one of the crew members reading signal lights from other ships of the beach.
Enemy aircraft hidden under canopy of trees
Three other Ripon veterans of the World War II involvement in France on D-Day were all members of the U.S. Army.
Ken Lowe was assigned to the 612th Graves Registration Company. John Sankey was assigned to the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion and Charlie Huckabee was part of the 32nd Armored Regiment.
Tony Bell is already the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three bronze clusters. He remembers one of his crew’s early missions to bomb the Focke Wolf 190 aircraft plant in Bourges, France. The bombing run found the aircraft were hidden beneath trees and missed by the U.S. aviators on their first pass.
Bell has turned one room in his home into a unique military air museum complete with models of Army aircraft including the B-24 Liberator Heavy Bomber, “Topper,” that served him and his crew well. Tyhurst added that Bell has copies of some great newspaper articles that were written about him with pictures taken during the war.
His memory has the benefit of a daily journal that he kept religiously registering every day’s activities in the service and naming members of his crew and others in the unit including those who didn’t make it back home.
The bomb runs would carry payloads of ten 500-pound bombs, dropping them from an altitude of more than 20,000 feet over the targets.
In April of 1944 Bell was among the crews of allied bombers that struck German-occupied French targets in dawn-till-dusk air raids over five days in a pre-invasion blitz of Germany and its occupied territories in a 2,000-plane assault that included fighter escort aircraft.
The bombers were guarded by P-51 Mustangs, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightning fighters from the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces. It was reported to have been the fourth day in five consecutive days that the Americans put a daylight force of thousands of planes into the skies.
A newspaper article noted that every main rail line reaching into Northeastern France had been attacked at a vital point cutting off the supply lines.
Bell was the youngest of five children at the beginning of the war and was exempt from the draft because he worked for Caterpillar Tractor Co. in San Leandro. He said he volunteered in his own way at 20 and was drafted in January of 1943.
The 467th Bombardment Group with its four units including Bell’s 791st squadron of B-24s was activated in August of that year in Wendover, Utah where they would train in the Consolidated B-24 Liberator Bombers – Bell would see action a year later.
The planes were being built at the Consolidated Aircraft Plant in Ft. Worth, Texas, where many women worked on the bombers’ construction.
Bell logged more than 35 missions
Bell was involved in bombing runs from April 10 until July 24, 1944 logging one more than the 35-mission limit with 6,000 pound bomb loads.
The B-24 veteran remembers how bombers were being picked off by enemy night fighter planes on their return to their base in England. He remembers the tail gunner spotting aircraft behind them one night as they were the last to return to their home field flying at a low altitude; however they were not fired upon.
After returning to California after the War, Bell worked as a computer coordinator at the Livermore Lab for some 20 years and is now a member of the Ripon community noting his appreciation: “To think this little town would let me participate,” he said, as he mentioned, with high regard, the names of other Ripon war veterans like Hank DeJong and Don Schaapman.
Bell also served on the Ripon Memorial Wall Committee that recognizes military men and women in Ripon who have served their country over the past years – located in Ripon’s downtown.