OKINAWA, Japan — The top of the sharp ridge near the town of Naha looked so much different than it did nearly 68 years ago, the last time Columbia’s Ted Bell was on it.
On May 17, 1945, he crouched in a foxhole, dead men all around him, as Japanese soldiers pummeled his Easy Company, 77th Infantry Division, with artillery and small arms fire from all sides.
On Saturday, Bell stood among banyan trees in what is now an idyllic park, a modern city sprawling around him. He held his hat prayerfully in his hands, tears rolling down his cheeks, remembering the three nights he held the ridge, losing most of his company in the process.
“Yes, this is it,” said the 93-year-old Bell, who became the most decorated World War II veteran from The Citadel for his actions here. “I can feel it.”
Bell was a 25-year-old second lieutenant when he was asked to lead his 200-man company up the ridge in a near-suicidal night assault on the heavily fortified position. When the company was relieved by other troops after three horrific days, Bell had only 22 men left.
He went to his battalion commander and asked why they had to endure such a beating: “I hope it means a lot. Because I lost a company up there,” he recalls saying.
The commander explained how his stand had allowed the rest of the division, and in turn the American forces on Okinawa, to breach the Japanese line and win the final battle of World War II.
For his efforts, Bell was awarded the second-highest decoration for valor in combat, the Distinguished Service Cross. Bell called his return here Saturday one of the most emotional days of his life.
“It’s unbelievable to be back here at my age,” he said. “I was fine until I got up here, where all my men died.”
Bell returned to Okinawa last week with his son, Ted Jr., a 1966 graduate of Cardinal Newman High School in Columbia who now lives in Greenbelt, Md.
The Bells were accompanied by a film crew as part of the South Carolinians in World War II project, a partnership between the ETV Endowment and The State newspaper. His story will be told in a film to be aired on ETV in September.
“Ted’s experience is one of the most powerful and emotional stories we’ve been able to film even after interviews with about 160 other veterans,” said Wade Sellers of Columbia, an independent filmmaker who is directing the film. “The opportunity to follow him back to Okinawa is rare and you can’t help but share the emotion.”
With the help of the U.S. Army and the Battle of Okinawa Historical Society, Bell was able to find the location he believes he dug his foxhole and made his stand.
He said the first day, May 17, 1945, was the toughest. “I didn’t want to die on that day because it was my (wedding) anniversary,” he said. “I knew what the telegram would do to Mary.”
‘I heard the shot that got him’
Bell was born in 1920 in Atlanta, son of a judge, with four uncles who went to West Point.
He was turned down for the U.S. Military Academy there and went to The Citadel in Charleston.
In 1942, he graduated and was assigned to the 77th Infantry Division, a famed World War II unit that was reactivated at Fort Jackson. It was called the Statue of Liberty Division and was made up of New York toughs commanded by Southern officers.
Bell met Mary on a blind date in 1941 and married her in 1943 before he shipped out for the Pacific.
He and his company first fought on Guam and in the Philippines, where he was awarded two Bronze Stars and the Silver Star for valor.
On Ie Shima Island off the coast of the main island of Okinawa — a staging point for the invasion to come — he was one of the last people to see famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle before Pyle was killed by a sniper.
“I heard the shot that got him,” Bell said, standing before the monument on the island that the division erected to Pyle.
‘Fight every man, woman and child’
Okinawa is a group of 160 islands about 400 miles south of the Japanese mainland.
It is 67 miles long and 13 miles wide at its widest point. U.S. forces needed to provide a staging area for the eventual invasion of the rest of Japan, which was made unnecessary by the dropping of the atomic bombs in the summer of 1945.
More than 20,000 U.S. troops, soldiers and Marines were killed in the assault. More than 180,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians lost their lives, many committing suicide by blowing themselves up with hand grenades or jumping off steep cliffs on the southern coast of the main island to avoid capture.
“If we would have invaded (the) Japan (mainland), we would have had to fight every man, woman and child,” Bell said Saturday, looking over the cliffs where many of the suicides took place.
The Japanese have built a huge Peace Park there, with long black stone walls etched with the name of every person, American or Japanese, killed in the battle.
On Saturday, Bell lingered in the American section, finding the names of some of the men in his company who were killed, especially a Sgt. White, Bell’s first sergeant, who was killed on the ridge by a shell fired from a tank.
“I never knew these names were here,” he said. “I’m glad I got to see them.”
‘War is terrible for everyone’
After the war, Okinawa was an American territory for 27 years, until it reverted to Japan in 1972. Today, the island is a modern metropolis, a sun-drenched resort area of beautiful beaches, crystal-blue water and reefs teeming with tropical fish.
It is heavily developed with tourist attractions and high-rise hotels, similar to Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head, with American-style shops and restaurants, fashions and music, even a huge Ferris wheel overlooking the beach.
But Okinawa also is home to a massive U.S. military presence. More than 80,000 troops are jammed on the island on 15 bases — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The forces on the island would be among the first deployed if war should break out with North Korea, China or another foe in the Pacific.
That presence causes tensions with many Okinawans, particularly due to the large number of military aircraft that patrol the skies around the island and the trouble that sometime brews between young American troops in the many bars and clubs clustered outside the bases’ gates.
And while the younger generations embrace American culture and are mostly apathetic to old soldiers like Bell, there is still animosity among older residents who remember the brutal invasion and the depravation that followed the 1945 battle.
“It depends on the person,” said Tomoko Goya, a native Okinawan who serves as a community relations specialist with the U.S. Army at Torii Station, which hosted the Bells during their trip. “But most people now know that war is terrible for everyone. Hopefully visits here from people like Col. Bell will encourage others to come and help to understand both sides.”
‘I was stunned’
Bell was honored by all branches of the military during a ceremony at Torii Station during his visit. It was attended by commanders from all branches of service on the island, as well as the U.S. consul general and the commander of the Japanese veterans association.
Bell was presented with a framed tribute to his service, and the American flag that flew over the post that day. In return, Bell presented the base commander, Col. Sheila Bryant, with a South Carolina flag that flew over the State House and a Citadel flag that flew over the school.
Bell, who didn’t talk much about his service until recently, didn’t know the extent of the ceremony until he arrived. He and his son were honored and moved, he said.
“I’ve never really gotten any recognition for anything ever,” he said. “I was stunned.”
‘But it’s over now’
But aside from the ceremonies and the accolades — ordinary soldiers, airmen and Marines went out of their way to shake his hand wherever he went — Bell’s sole purpose for the trip was to find his place on the ridge, share his story with his son and remember the soldiers he left behind.
“It’s surreal how wonderful it is to be able to come back at his age and my age to come and see this,” said Ted Jr., 64. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
On Saturday, atop the ridge in the park surrounded by stone arches and banyan trees, the senior Bell was first stuck by wonder that he had found his position on the battlefield he occupied so long ago, then overwhelmed with emotion at the losses his men had sustained, then reached a point of closure.
Many nights through the years he has laid awake, unable to sleep because of the memories of those three vicious days on the ridge.
“But it’s over now,” he said, turning away from the bamboo fence that lines the top of the escarpment. “I’m not going to think about it anymore.”