PALM CITY, Fla. — The National World War II Museum estimates that of the 16 million veterans who fought in World War II, just about 240,000 veterans are still living.
Florida is home to more of those veterans than any other state, and the number of those still with us decreases by the hundreds every day.
That’s why their stories become more special to hear each year, and more important to keep sharing.
Diane Bell, of Palm City, lost her husband, Alyn Bell Jr., last month. He was 97-years-old and among those of his generation who served in the war.
“Alan was very proud of serving and being there for his country,” Bell said.
Bell was an Air Force 1st Lieutenant with the 13th Air Force 290th Bomb Squadron. Before his passing, he was known to be the last surviving member.
He was among the veterans who went to fight in the war as a teenager. At 18-years-old, he began his mission, flying B-25 planes in nearly 24 combat missions, including the campaigns of Luzon, Southern Philippines, China Offensive, Air Combat Borneo.
There was a story Bell said her late husband loved to tell.
“He put a B-25 down in New Guinea because they ran out of fuel,” Bell said. “The crew had to get the lifeboat out because they were near the Nadzab River. They all got into the boat and were going down the river and they see these cannibals standing on the side of the river with spears…Alyn said just keep your guns pocketed and smile,” Bell laughed.
Bell said they were rescued from the jungle. “They saw the plane go over and it waggled its wings and they knew then they had been found,” Bell said.
He told stories about coming under fire.
“When they came back from being on a mission they would count the bullet holes in the planes when they would come in,” Bell said.
Then, there was the story about the moment he learned his flight would be his final mission. He was in the air in his B-25, bombs loaded, heading toward a target.
“They got a notification from the president: Do not drop your bombs. The war is over,” Bell said.
He also escorted the chorus line of the "Oklahoma!" musical for a United Service Organization's performance. By the time his service was completed, he had been awarded the American Theater Service Medal, Distinguished Unit Badge, Asiatic Pacific Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Air Medal, and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon.
Bell said her husband left the military at the end of the war and went into the private sector. He attended military reunions. “It got to a point where they all had passed,” she said.
Alyn passed away on Oct. 3.
Now, Bell is among the loved ones of veterans doing their part to make sure those first-hand accounts of history are still told and passed down from their generation to the next.
Alyn will be memorialized in the coming months at Arlington National Cemetery.