Retired Col. Ted Bell became The Citadel’s most decorated World War II veteran for his valor in holding a rugged ridge on the Pacific island of Okinawa, but the deaths of so many of his men in his Easy Company of the 77th Infantry Division weighed on his mind as the decades passed.
“It was hard on him when he was by himself,” his wife, Mary Hill Bell, said Wednesday at the premiere of an S.C. ETV documentary on the 93-year-old Bell.
But holding the place near Ishimmi Ridge over a tortuous three days of combat proved to be a decisive moment in the war in the Pacific, puncturing a hole in the Japanese’s Shuri Line and clearing the way for the United States to win the island and use it for the planned invasion of Japan. Two months later, Japan surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The story of Bell and Ishimmi Ridge is told in “Man and Moment: Ted Bell and The Ridge,” the third in the “Man and Moment” series developed by the ETV Endowment of South Carolina. It airs at 8 p.m. Thursday” and Sept. 1 at 4 p.m. on ETV-HD and again Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. on the South Carolina Channel. The film is part of the South Carolinians in World War II project, a partnership between the ETV Endowment and The State Media Co.
The documentary recounts how Bell, a 1942 graduate of The Citadel, marched off to war along with his entire class, training at Fort Jackson, in Arizona and in California before heading to the Pacific.
On Okinawa, Bell, then a 25-year-old second lieutenant, received orders to take his company up to the top of the ridge and hold it at all costs. He led a company of more than 200 soldiers single file in darkness on May 17, 1945, his second wedding anniversary. When they topped the ridge, they discovered a line of Japanese holed up in trenches and caves. After hand-to-hand fighting, the company claimed the ridge. But for the next three days, they came under withering mortar and sniper fire from the Japanese, losing man after man.
“I didn’t think any one of us would be alive by noon,” Bell said Wednesday. After three days with dwindling rations and no water, reinforcements finally arrived, but only 22 of his men marched back to the base with him.
War weary and distraught over the loss of so many men, he demanded to know whether the sacrifice had been worth it. His commanding officer assured him the action was necessary in the Allies’ winning of the Battle of Okinawa, the last major battle of World War II.
Bell, who earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership on Ishimmi Ridge and fought in both Korea and Vietnam, returned to Okinawa earlier this year.
He was accompanied by his son Ted Bell Jr., also a Citadel graduate, producer and State reporter Jeff Wilkinson and director Wade Sellers, a Columbia filmmaker. The place that was dirt and sand in 1945 is now an urbanized island and Bell could hardly recognize where he had been nearly 68 years earlier.
But one thing Bell wanted to see was the ridge, and with the help of two young Marines who searched for the hilltop, Bell was able to return to the place of such terrible battle. The documentary shows his emotion as he contemplated the memory of those who had fought with him.
“It was transformational for Ted,” said Wilkinson, who covers the military for The State. “He had nightmares about the battle for years and even though he would never mention it, he always wondered why he survived when so many of his men didn’t. Going back gave him some peace.”
John Rainey, who along with Elaine T. Freeman, is an executive producer of the films, said Bell can “live in certain knowledge” that his actions led to a swifter end to the war and the saving of thousands of lives.
Bell’s family members attended the premiere along with one of the men who held the ridge with him, Joe Casillas, who traveled from California with his son to attend the premiere. The Military Channel has featured Casillas in a chapter of its Ultimate Warfare series, “Okinawa: Island Fortress.”
Bell said he and Casillas are among only three veterans of the ridge who are alive today.