Winnipeg Grenadiers Lance Cpl. William Bell lived through the Battle of Hong Kong, was saved when a fellow soldier made the ultimate sacrifice by jumping on a grenade before it exploded, and survived extreme deprivation in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.
On March 12, his 96th birthday, the conditions he faced during his Second World War service finally caught up to him. Bell died after another bout of skin cancer, which his family says was because he was detained in a prisoner of war camp near Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was detonated in 1945.
"He always talked about seeing the flash," his son, Dennis Bell, said.
"Three weeks ago, he had a large tumour taken off his back. So many of them suffered from skin cancer through the years," said Bell's other son, Bill.
"He was a very heroic person."
William Bell himself, in the story he told for the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association website, said "if it weren't for the atomic bomb, as horrible as it was, I would not have survived Japanese captivity," he wrote.
"Consequently, I would not be here today to write these memoirs."
Carol Hadley, national president of the HKVCA, said they know of only 43 Hong Kong veterans who are still alive. The Winnipeg Grenadiers and Royal Rifles of Canada deployed 1,975 soldiers to defend the colony.
"They are all in their 90s now," Hadley said. In Manitoba, there is one in Carman and six in Winnipeg.
Bell was born in Winnipeg on March 12, 1917. He joined the 38th Field Artillery militia, which later became the Fort Garry Horse Regiment.
When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, along with his 19-year-old brother, Gordon.
Bell wrote that after basic training he and his brother were first shipped out with part of their regiment to Bermuda to do ship guard duties before they rejoined with the rest of their regiment in Jamaica. The regiment was assigned to Hong Kong, with the troops arriving there on Nov. 16, 1941.
A few weeks later, the Japanese army attacked and shortly after, while Bell was on a recognizance with two others, they were shot at by Japanese soldiers, killing one of them and wounding Bell.
On Dec. 19, Bell was one of about 65 Grenadiers under the command of Sgt. Maj. John Robert Osborn, who were surrounded by Japanese soldiers. He said he shot two officers while Osborn kept flinging back grenades the soldiers threw at them.
"There were nine or 10 of us together at this time," Bell recalled. "One of the grenades landed where John Osborn could not grasp it... in the ultimate sacrifice, CSM Osborn threw himself onto the grenade. He was killed instantly, but managed to save many of the men he was with, including me. It was the bravest thing we had ever seen."
(Osborn was posthumously honoured with the Victoria Cross.)
Shortly after, Bell said they surrendered and were incarcerated in prisoner of war camps for almost four years.
Bell said that's where he met his brother, Gordon, for the last time. Gordon later died at another camp.
Through the years of internment, Bell recalled many things: helping four fellow soldiers escape -- when captured, they were beheaded -- getting ill, sneaking rice into the ward where sick prisoners were, eating rats and dogs that strayed into camp, and helping slaughter a horse and cooking it.
On Sept. 6, 1945, Bell was able to send a telegram to his mother saying: "Have been rescued by Americans. Health good. Home soon, love William."
Dennis Bell said "they were the first soldiers to go into battle and the last to come back home."
During his years of service, William Bell suffered malaria, a gunshot wound to his hip, grenade shrapnel wounds, beriberi, rheumatoid arthritis, mouth ulcers, pellagra and stomatitis, dysentery and malnutrition.
Amazingly, he enlisted again when the Korean War broke out and was assigned to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.
"But after going to Quebec they said because of everything he suffered in the war, his body wasn't good for anything anymore so they sent him home," Dennis Bell said.
Bell worked at Winnipeg Hydro until he retired. His funeral will be held March 23 at the Neil Bardal Funeral Centre near the Brookside Cemetery.