Somehow I always remember my dad. I can’t really bring up that first image in my mind, he just was there. Even today, several years after his passing, he is still there, a proud American, steadfastly committed to serving his nation, a loving father and husband, and my example for life. He was and is everything I ever wanted to be.
Dad was born Burwell Baxter Bell, Jr. in 1916, the first of three sons of Burwell Baxter and Myrtle Rollins Bell. The ancestral home was a fine, family farm tucked up next to the small community of Shawboro in Currituck County, northeastern North Carolina. Dad had a normal childhood, working the farm with his two younger brothers, Tom and Jack, and doing what one would expect of boys in pre-Depression rural America. It was a loving home, rich in land and food. Dad was athletic, loved baseball, and learned to hunt and fish with his dad. He was, even then, a patriot.
Following graduation from Mayock High School, Dad attended college prep school for two years at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA, where his uncle was headmaster. After a year at the University of North Carolina, Dad received an appointment to the Military Academy, Class of 1942, from Senator Robert R. Reynolds. A severe foot injury from baseball caused Dad to miss class time for rehabilitation, and he was moved to the Class of January 1943. On graduation, due to his now arthritic foot, Dad was medically discharged. For all his life he proudly displayed his Military Academy diploma above his desk.
Following marriage in October 1943, Dad, with his engineering degree from USMA, went to work at the then top secret and under construction Manhattan Project facility at Oak Ridge, TN. He spent his entire adult life working with the nuclear weapons program. Everything was secret. I didn’t know where he went in the mornings, but I was always excited to see him come home in the evenings. It was the same with all the dads in Oak Ridge. Why did they wear the radiation badge? In the early days, MG Leslie Groves’ organization had quickly built the nuclear plants and a city for all the workers and their families. It was a classic WWII military installation with miles of fences encircling the city and atomic plants and subdividing the town from the various weapons facilities—K-25 (gaseous diffusion), Y-12 (weapons design and manufacture), and X-10 (national lab). I began to understand this once the “Secret City” took down the fences and we began to learn what went on at the plants. As a youth, I never saw where my dad worked, but in 2000 on a trip to the National Lab in Oak Ridge, when I was the Chief of Armor, I had the opportunity to search out where he spent his working life in defense of the nation. I was overwhelmed.
Dad first worked at the gaseous diffusion facility, where he and his co-workers were committed to enriching uranium by separating U-235 from U-238. Later, he moved to the Instrument Engineering Division at the Y-12 Plant and dedicated himself to the design and engineering efforts surrounding nuclear weapons development and production. I remember him as the superintendent of instrument engineering, an impressive title for a son to digest.
Outside the work environment, Dad devoted his life to his wife Mary and two youngsters, my sister Amelia (we call her Mimi), and me. My recollections of youth are crowded with pictures: helping Dad upgrade the Army’s “asbestos house” where we lived; fishing with him in the Clinch River for Stripes; and then there was the five-pound carp. Wow. Every Thursday the family went to Davis Brothers’ Cafeteria to give Mom a break, and on special occasions to the Elks Club to crack open a lobster. I’ll never forget that first squirrel hunt at Catoosa, or the deer he and his pal Brownie brought home, and of course Jefferson Junior and Oak Ridge High School football—he never missed my games. Why did he bet every year a fifth of Scotch on the Army-Navy football game with Ed Tulley? Yes, Dad was always there. He still is.
After 30 years of dedicated work at the atomic plants, Mom and Dad retired to a wonderful home, Sunset Hill, on a point jutting into Watts Bar Lake, a Tennessee Valley Authority impoundment. It was heaven for them. I was in the Army after commissioning through ROTC at the University of Chattanooga, and I was just figuring out what West Point was and what it meant to him and to the nation. The diploma over his desk deserved a second look for sure. At Sunset Hill the years passed well for this great American and his lady. As Dad aged and the days grew shorter, his memory of and appreciation for the Long Gray Line became clearer. The Class 50th Reunion was a highpoint of his life. Well, maybe second to the several days we spent together—Mom and Dad and my wife Katie and me—at West Point in 1994. The picture of Mom and Dad overlooking the Hudson is my treasure. Even then, as a colonel, I was rightfully the outsider, following his steps carefully and quietly on the Plain as he quietly rediscovered his roots and his purpose.
Mom and Dad are both gone now. Dad died in 2001 at age 84, a bit over a year after Mom left. The diploma speaks to me now, an outsider for sure, but a son in love with his dad and the lessons of Duty, Honor, and Country that I learned by watching him. His purpose. The Corps, the Corp, yes the Corps. I think I understand Dad. Thank you.
GEN B.B. Bell, son
- Class of 1943 January