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World War I Veteran Has Legion of Admirers

Tribute: George Bell, 100, is awarded France's highest military honor at Thousand Oaks ceremony.


THOUSAND OAKS — George Bell received France's highest military honor Monday, eight decades after the conclusion of the war in which he fought and would have died but for a Bible in his pocket.

Bell, celebrating his 100th birthday, sobbed as he was given the French Legion of Honor at a ceremony at Madrona School, where his great-granddaughter is now a student.

"I've never had so much excitement in my 100 years," Bell said.

The crowd of well-wishers and dignitaries, which included 20 members of his family, sang happy birthday and gave him a standing ovation.

"We live in a wonderful country because people like Mr. Bell fought for our country," said City Councilwoman Judy Lazar, who presented Bell with a commendation from the city. "I think all of us should be very proud to have someone who has done so much to preserve freedom living right here in Thousand Oaks."

Bell didn't go to war as an American. A British citizen, he joined the army at 17 and was shipped to France, where a million of his countrymen were bogged down near the Somme River. He spent his days in the trenches and nights crawling behind enemy lines.

A serious injury in April 1917 from shrapnel, pieces of which are still lodged in his body, sent Bell home. The only thing that saved his life, according to his family, was a slender volume of the New Testament that Bell kept in his breast pocket.

"Along with hundreds of other wounded soldiers, he lay in the open air for hours waiting for treatment," his daughter, Margaret Badoud Thompson, said as she held up the leather-bound book with a gash in it.


Remembrances of rats running across Bell's body as he slept, lice-infested uniforms and the endless digging of trenches still trouble him. To this day, he won't eat rice--a dish he ate regularly during the war. He does, however, miss one small part of war life--the tablespoon of rum soldiers were given each morning.

Even 80 years after the war ended, Bell still has trouble talking about those days.

"The war was a miserable bitch," he said as his eyes welled up with tears. "I saw a lot of cold, wet hardship. It was very different."

Bell's award came as a result of a decision by the French government to honor all surviving veterans of World War I with its highest award, the Legion of Honor.

Monday's ceremony was a celebration not only of Bell's military service but also of his immigration to the United States. In 1929, he and his wife came to the U.S., became citizens and opened a home-furnishings store in Grand Rapids, Mich., which is still run by the family.

Bell came to Ventura County two years ago so Thompson, a retired principal for the Conejo school district, could care for him. A father of four, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of 14, Bell now spends his days relaxing and playing cribbage.

More than 10 of his family members traveled from Michigan, Texas and England. "I don't think I'd want to go back and live there," said Carly Bracco to her great-grandfather about the war. "You should be really proud of yourself."

Carly, a fifth-grader at Madrona, was among 20 or so family members who gathered around their patriarch after the ceremony.

"What do you give a 100-year-old man who has done everything and seen it all?" said grandson Dave Badoud, a 40-year-old Moorpark resident. "You give him a piece of your heart."

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