BILLINGS – Billings radio host Lonnie Bell was a teenager when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, serving in the Navy thousands of miles away in the North Atlantic.
“I had been in the Navy one year and 11 days when they bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. the 7,” Bell said. “I went down to the mess hall on the second deck and they had a big old radio in there and they had the news on it and the first thing I heard was that the Oklahoma was on fire and the West Virginia was still fightin’.”
Bell thought the over 5,000 miles separating him and Pearl Harbor was far enough that he didn’t have to worry, but he was wrong. The next day, he got the orders that he would be leaving for Hawaii.
The trip to gt there took weeks, traveling by air, land and sea. When they finally made it, they were some of the first to arrive.
“It was a sight to see,” said Bell. “The Oklahoma was upside down…all these battle ships were sunk and the Arizona had blew up and here’s all this wreckage. When you go there and you see a battleship upside down for the first time…but you just can’t imagine what it was.”
Bell, who is now 93, remembers those times well as the 76th anniversary of Pearl Harbor is Thursday. He recalls the dates, the assignments, the people he both met and lost, and he remembers the unbelievable sadness that was engulfing the world around him.
“When we got to Pearl Harbor, all the women and kids had been sent back to the United States, and it was so sad,” Bell remembers. “The guys that were there…two of the guys were engaged to be married.”
Bell said one shipmate’s fiancee was already there in Hawaii so they could be married, but once the bombs dropped, plans had to change.
“Those were the saddest people I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Bell.
Bell spent over a year in the Pacific, spending time in different areas running patrols. More than a year after the initial attacks, Bell was sent back to the United States. He was stationed in Florida when the war finally ended.
“It was 16 million people in uniform, and a lot of people sacrificed their lives for World War II,” said Bell. “I always felt that I was extremely lucky and I always thanked the good Lord that I made it.”
Bell continued to serve his country until 1960. In 1964, he moved to Billings, where he has lived ever since.
MTN’s Samantha Harrelson