Soldier’s letters make final journey home
Connie Garner was just 2 when her dad was killed in action in the Korean War.
On March 19, 1951, 70 years ago today, Cpl. Robert Eugene Bell, who was from Flat River, was killed during Operation Ripper in South Korea. He was 30 years old and a member of the Ninth Field Artillery Battalion, Third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
According to an April 11, 1951, St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about his death, he had been in South Korea since August. A veteran of 11 years, he had been stationed in the Aleutian Islands and Germany during World War II.
Garner, who now lives in Ironton, has spent a lot of her life trying to find information about her dad. The military hasn’t been much help, she said, but she did have stories from her family.
“He was in World War II,” she said. “He got injured in Japan. He got out of the service.”
Then she said he starting working at Swift and Company in East St. Louis before they called him back into service.
Garner and her mom, Shirley, lived in St. Louis with her dad’s parents when they found out he had been killed.
“His brother’s the one that found his body the day they found him in Korea,” she said. “And this was after the Sullivan brothers (in WWII): no two family members to be in the same unit. My uncle got transferred in like a couple of weeks before.”
Garner said her son and his wife did some searching on the internet and found that Bell was chosen to be in the Office of Strategic Services, which according to the OSS Society, was the first organized effort by the United States in WWII to implement a centralized system of strategic intelligence, and the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Special Operations Command, and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
“He started out in the (Civilian Conservation Corp) camps,” she said. “And the OSS started out of the CCC camps.”
Sgt. Robert E. Bell is listed on the OSS personnel list from the National Archives, which can be found on the OSS Society’s website.
“I ran up against a stone wall a lot of times,” Garner said about finding out more about her dad. “I don’t know exactly everything. I didn’t find that out until after my grandfather died. They all knew but I didn’t know.”
She also doesn’t have many things left that were her dad’s.
After her dad died, her mom remarried and they moved to Illinois to be closer to her family. When Garner was 17, her mom tragically died in childbirth.
“His girlfriend moved in before mom was gone a month,” she explained. “We had a box – it was a big square box – and it had all my dad’s stuff in it. And I didn’t have any way to get it, so the evil witch burned it. So a lot of the stuff was lost; all his medals, everything.”
But a few weeks ago, Garner came into possession of several letters written between her dad and mom. Letters she didn’t even know existed.
“For this to fall out of the blue, it was meant to be at this time,” she said.
How that happened is quite the story.
About 10 years ago, Park Hills resident Chelsey Crocker and her husband were driving home on Route N, near the Arcadia Valley area, when she spotted on the side of the road what looked like a treasure chest covered in snow.
“So I made him go back because I’m weird with stuff like that,” she said with a laugh.
Inside the box was more snow and some letters. They took them home, dried them off a bit, and set them out to dry.
“They were letters from 1951, from a guy named Robert Bell, to his wife and daughter,” Crocker explained. “There was an obituary in there, and it was about four or five letters from him to his wife. And then there was one letter from his wife that she’d wrote to him.”
She did her best to find out more information on the internet about Bell. That’s when she discovered he was killed in action in 1951.
“So I knew that he passed away, and I knew someone would probably want the letters,” she added.
With knowledge of what battalion he was in, Crocker tried asking if anyone knew him on a few Korean War forums. But she didn’t have any luck.
Then last month, she was watching a war documentary with her husband and thought of the letters again— Letters she had saved through a couple of moves.
“I’ve kept them with my yearbooks and all that because I knew they were important,” she said. “We read them and it was just sad to know that he had passed away and didn’t get to come home to his daughter. So it was kind of important to me.”
Crocker decided to post the letters and Facebook to see if she could find any information on his family.
“It blew up really quick,” she added.
The post was shared hundreds of times.
Then the wife of the clergyman who officiated the funeral – Evangelist Bernell Weems of Church of Christ in Park Hills – found out about the post and contacted Garner and Bell’s sister in Oklahoma, who got in touch with Crocker.
On Feb. 20, the letters found their way home. Crocker met up with Garner to give her the letters.
For Crocker, it was closure.
“Reading these letters, I got so into it,” she said, “thinking about how he felt writing these letters home and knowing that he didn’t make it home. It’s really sad. And to find something from 1951 and it be in the snow and not ruined, it was, it was really neat to kind of finish the journey.”
For Garner, who moved to the area in 1988, she has no idea how the letters ended up on the side of Route N. She has other letters of her dad’s, but neither she nor Bell’s sister Myrna had seen these before.
They are just thankful to have another piece of him home.
“Like Aunt Myrna said, ‘it was a God thing,’” Garner said.
Nikki Overfelt-Chifalu is a reporter for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.