Cliff Bell is a patriot – and has the military awards to prove it: a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart with a bronze oak leaf cluster, a Good Conduct Medal, an American Campaign Medal, a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, a World War II Victory Medal, a Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award, an Expert Infantryman Badge, an Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII, and a Unit Presidential Citation from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And now he’s added another one to his collection.
Last Thursday, the 87-year old lifelong Crystal Springs resident was one of 14 World War II veterans from the southeastern United States who were awarded the Legion of Honor by the country of France. The ceremony was held at the Lenox Building in Atlanta “in order to express France’s eternal gratitude to those who liberated it from oppression from 1944-45.” Bell was accompanied by his sons, Larry Bell and Tommy Bell, along with Buddy Donahoe, all of Crystal Springs. Pascal Le Deunff, the Consul General of France, presented the award.
The Legion of Honor is bestowed upon those who fought in France in 1944-45 during the time the nation was liberated. According to information issued in a press release, the National Order of the Legion of Honor was founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the highest honor in France and “recognizes eminent services to the French Republic. Recipients of this honor are designated by the President of the Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy.”
Bell was one of three Mississippians receiving the award. The other two were Robert Mims from Natchez and Joseph Stockwell from Starkville. Other honorees included five recipients from South Carolina, four from Tennessee, and three from Georgia.
The day began early for the Bell family, who left Crystal Springs at 4:00 AM. The ceremony itself was held at 2:30 PM EST, and lasted nearly 30 minutes, with an informal reception afterwards. The Copiah County foursome drove home afterwards, arriving in Crystal Springs around midnight. “I was like a kid with Santa Claus,” Cliff says in describing his special day. “I was really excited.”
“Daddy actually made it (the trip) better than any of us,” Larry Bell reported. “We tried for several years to get this done. The experience was worth whatever it took to get there.” He and his younger brother Tommy credit Ron Evans and Buddy Donahoe with making the right contacts and getting the proper paperwork completed.
Ironically, it was in France when Cliff was first wounded in World War II. As a 19-year old infantryman, he was part of D-Day, the invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy. After a bloody day of fighting, the U.S. soldiers marched to St. Lo, France, where Germans began firing on them with rifles, machine guns, and mortars.
“We were so close you could hear their breath as it was expelled from their lungs,” Cliff recalls. “I could see a German soldier as he threw a hand grenade in my direction, and I saw it land close by me. The only thing I had time to do was fall on the ground and cover up as best I could. A piece of the grenade fragment hit me in the arm just about my elbow.”
From there, he was eventually transported to a hospital in England, where he had surgery. Afterwards, he was sent back to his unit in Germany, where he was put on the front lines again. He was wounded a second time and sent back to the hospital. This time, he returned home and was honorably discharged on October 18, 1945, in Tuscaloosa.
Those experiences resulted in his Purple Heart award with its oak leaf cluster – and now, nearly 67 years later, in his Legion of Honor award from France. Are there any more awards yet to come?
“I hope not,” Cliff says without hesitation. “I don’t think I can stand any more.”