(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12. Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).
As interviews of World War II veterans progresses, it is apparent that most recall specific times or numbers related to their service, even 65 years after the fact. Dugan Bell knows that his time of service, mostly as an MP in the Army, was 22 months and 12 days.
What could have gone on to be a full career with the American military ended suddenly when, on a mountain road, he was thrown from a jeep, breaking his shoulder, back and jaw. But it could have been worse. At the end of basic training at Camp Hood, the 196th Division, 76th Battalion, was preparing for deployment to the Pacific. “They announced that they needed 20 MPs and proceeded calling out names. I was the last name called. If I’d gone with my unit, I probably would have been in the Bataan Death March.”
Bell’s story starts in Bienville Parish where he was born. While he was still in school, his father died and the young man went to work at the paper mill in Hodge. When war broke out, the Army had a signup table at the mill gate and they assumed that Bell (only 16 at the time) was an adult since he was working there. He was drafted.
As the rest of the unit headed for Pacific duty, Bell and the other 19 selected went to Camp Chaffey, Arkansas, for training as military police. “We learned how to handle guns and people. In my duties, I mostly hung around PXs and got my jaw broke a couple of times.” He explained that the PX is the post outlet where military personnel could buy clothing and supplies and, more troublesome, inexpensive beer they could drink on-site.
“The beer was 22 cents downtown. It was only 11 cents at the PX so it’s not hard to figure out where they’d drink when they could. And those jokers could drink that stuff. I guess they had to have a place like that but it was a bad thing.”
Bell explained that his duties over his time of service saw him mostly at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and crisscrossing Texas. “But once they flew me from New York to Germany to pick up a guy who was AWOL from seven battles. They’d caught him and staked him to the banister of a house there. But a big wind came up and blew away the house. He was still there, staked to the banister, and you could see a clearing cut through the trees where the wind and house went.” To travel back to the U.S. base where the prisoner would face punishment, he was constantly chained to the MP. “We traveled, ate and slept together. But we didn’t take any baths…in those days, you didn’t get to take baths anyway.”
Bell talked about another interesting case. “There was this guy who escaped from World War I…he’d been AWOL for 23 years. They caught up with him in Memphis. With the war on, there was a plant there making fences and paying $100 a week. I was only making $28.13 a week when I worked at the paper mill. I’d like to have made good money like that myself. Anyway, they fingerprinted him for the job and found out who he was. I took him to Ft. Smith. He was probably 50-something. I don’t know what they did with him.”
But Bell said the best story was a paratrooper who, during a training jump, “hung his britches on a fence and ‘hurt his back.’ He was discharged. But then he went to work for a parachute company in Fort Worth, jumping out of airplanes. When they found out, they sent me to pick him up. He just thought he was discharged but he wasn’t. They got him back and I don’t know if he did time. That was one guy I hated to pick up…he’d already done three years overseas.”
Bell said that most of his work was across the state of Texas and when he wasn’t sent after someone specific, he worked around a PX. “It’s like a marshal. We acted on warrants. We usually worked in pairs. For sure you had to work in pairs when you went over into Mexico.”
When news that the war had ended in Europe came through, Bell was at the Fort Smith PX, “they hollered around and drank a few extra of that 11-cent beer like it was going out of style. But remember, those old boys had to be in bed by 9 at night. I was still in Fort Smith but in town when I heard the war in Japan was over. The A-bomb. We didn’t know much about it. We thought it was poison gas or something that would kill everybody.”
Bell may have envisioned a military career as an MP. But that ended abruptly. I went out driving with a couple of boys who’d been drinking. We went up a nearby mountain in a Jeep. You know, they don’t have doors. Well, they threw me out and broke me all up.” His military career ended July 6, 1946.
As before, this wasn’t all bad. “They paid me a check and I bought 14 different tracts of land back home. Ever afterwards, I was as lucky as anyone you’ve ever seen. I thought I’d be a poor boy all my life but 10 oil wells later, with a monthly check, I’m doing OK.”
Bell married Thelma Lee Candy. They had three sons and a daughter.
The interview complete, Bell went on to mention a couple of post-war observations. “The Veterans of Foreign War” was a big thing back then. The war was really stressful to many and a lot of those fellows came back from overseas and drank themselves to death with that 11 cent beer.”
He was involved with the Disabled American Veterans. “Me and Paul Green and James Womack, we were in the DAV together. I remember a lot of fish fries we had. They gave me a tie pin for being post commander for a while.”