By: Randy Tucker
It is a situation all too common in families across in America: after building a house together, differences split a married couple apart. One particular separation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, led to a unique outcome.
At 15, Aloysious Bell of Beaver Creek found himself all alone at the new home he had helped his father build in Pine Ridge. His father, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and his mom, a Northern Arapaho, were having marital problems.
“Mom and dad separated,” Bell said. “Mom took all the younger brothers and sisters, and dad said I was going with him, but I said no. We just built a house; I stayed in it all by myself during my freshman and sophomore year. I supported myself by working for the NYC (Neighborhood Youth Corp).”
‘I Went to Jail for a Week’
A teenager living alone is a recipe for problems, and Bell soon found himself in trouble.
“I went to jail for a week. Nobody knew until my uncle found out and got me out. I knew I was getting nowhere, it was dire straits out there,” Bell said. “I found out my mother moved to Rapid City, so I hitchhiked up there to look for my mom. It took me two days to find her. She was very happy to see me.”
Bell, nevertheless, had a plan for his life at the tender age of 16.
“I got mom and dad back together and waited until everything was warm again,” Bell said. “I told them I want to join the Army. They didn’t want me to enlist. The war in Vietnam was on TV all the time. I told them I am firm in my choice.”
Bell’s parents tried to talk him out of it, but the 5’6”, 125-pound teenager was decided. He went to the Army recruiter in Rapid City, and his parents, relenting, signed the paperwork for him to enlist. The problem was that he was still only 16 and had to be 17 to enlist in the Army. He had to wait until his birthday in February of 1968.
‘I Only Had the Clothes on My Back’
Times were tough, but he and his family managed to raise $7.00 to pay his expenses while he took his induction test in Sioux Falls.
“Mom put me on the bus with just the clothes I had on. They put me up at the YMCA for 50 cents a day and gave me a food voucher. We thought I was going right into the Army, so I only had the clothes on my back.”
Bell passed all the tests and was about to take his oath to join the Army when he was pulled out of the line.
“I was still too young to enlist,” he laughed, remembering that day. “I turned 17 on February 22, but they made me wait until February 29, 1968 to take my oath.”
He took his first flight in a commercial jet to Ft. Lewis, Washington and took basic training there. He went directly to AIT (Advanced Individual Training) after basic without the chance to go home.
“I enlisted with Fred ‘Rex’ Shaw from Pine Ridge on the buddy-buddy system, but once we were out of basic, I never saw him again,” Bell said. “I signed up to be a carpenter since I had learned how to build houses with my dad when I was 12, but they changed my MOS (military occupational specialty) to 51M20 Army crash rescue and recovery.”
It was a natural but strange transition for a boy who is afraid of heights to eventually work in air crash and rescue. He took his aircraft firefighter training at Ft. Rucker, Alabama, graduating in the top five of a class of more than 160 men. Bell didn’t fly right away; instead, he delivered food to ground firefighter rescue units at neighboring air bases.
Seeking Some AC
The duty was hot and humid for a boy from the Black Hills. The summer weather in Alabama was a drastic change for Bell, one he didn’t like very much.
“One day I was stopped and asked if I wanted to join Flatiron, the Ft. Rucker crash and rescue unit,’ Bell said. “I said I had a good job already, but they told me this one was air-conditioned.”
Bell agreed to the new post, and soon he was training in the white and green helicopters with the big Red Cross on the fuselage.
He took extra training in advanced first aid, eventually reaching the Army equivalent of a civilian EMT. His team consisted of two pilots, a medic, another chief besides himself, and an MP (military police).
Bell excelled at the position and made the rank of Spec.4 in just seven months. He was turned down for a promotion to sergeant and later recommended to warrant officer, but because he was still 17, it was against regulations for someone so young to make that rank.
‘They Called Me a Crazy Indian’
At Ft. Rucker, Bell began conducting actual rescues of many downed aircraft and helicopters. Air crashes are rare now, but they were occurring constantly during the training phase for deployment to Vietnam, even in Flatiron helicopters.
“We crashed stateside, but I never crashed in Vietnam,” Bell remembered. “Some of the crew members asked to be transferred, not wanting to fly again, but I wanted to fly since it was a job I’d gotten very good at, and for the adventure it offered. They called me a crazy Indian for wanting to get back into the helicopters.”
In one of many recoveries, a Chinook helicopter crashed in the Alabama wilderness, and Bell and his crew were sent to the scene.
“We couldn’t land, so I dropped down on a cable to the crash. I found a body, then a second body, a third still inside the Chinook. There was a bright battery phosphorus light burning near the chopper,” Bell said. “In the bright light, I didn’t see an Alabama state trooper who arrived on the scene. We both jumped scaring each other.”
Farmers began arriving on the scene to help, but Bell had to keep them back until MPs showed up and secured the site.
“We bagged the bodies and carried them out,” Bell said. “A dead person is heavy. We took them over to another Chinook, and they told me to ride with them, but I didn’t want to get on since we’d just worked on one that crashed.”
‘My Uncle Taught Me How to Shoot Back Home’
Soon, Bell received orders for Vietnam, but once again his age was an issue. A new law passed prohibiting 17-year-old soldiers in combat, so he had to wait once again until he turned 18.
He qualified on the M14 in basic initially, but received additional training on the M16 and other firearms.
“My uncle taught me how to shoot back home,” Bell said. “It was like the song ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ by Peter, Paul, and Mary when my orders for Vietnam finally came.”
In July 1968, Bell returned home for the only time after his grandmother was killed crossing the highway south of Riverton. They held a special blanket dance during Ethete Pow Wow for him.
His parents had moved to the Wind River Reservation while he was in training. He flew from Riverton to Denver, then on to Vietnam. He did a full tour in Vietnam, then started a second when orders came for him to return home, and he was processed out of the Army at Oakland, California. He returned home intact but with severe hearing damage in his right ear after an explosion went off close to his head.
A Strange Letter from the Government
Bell returned home in November 1970, and a strange letter arrived from the government just before he turned 20 in February of 1971. The two-tour veteran with a combat disability received a draft notice.
“You are hereby drafted into the armed forces of the United States,” Bell remembers the letter saying. “‘How can they do that?’ we all thought?”
The family got a good laugh out of the draft notice, and Bell went to the local recruiter’s office in the old Lander, Wyoming post office to straighten out the mess.
“They said, ‘We’ll sign you up.’ I told them I had my DD214, and they didn’t know why I had a draft letter,” Bell said. “They finally figured out that since every 18-year-old has to sign up for the draft, and I was active duty when I turned 18, that the notice was sent to me.”
They gave him a draft card anyway, but his was printed with “prior duty service” on it.
“It meant I was exempt from the draft,” Bell said. “I burned my draft card in protest at a rally later, but nobody knew that I’d already been in and wasn’t eligible to be drafted.”
‘I Tried to Buy a .22…But They Refused’
Bell returned to a time and place where you had to be 21 to drink, vote, or buy a rifle.
“I tried to buy a .22 at the Coast to Coast in Lander but they refused, saying I was too young. I told them I just back from Vietnam. I’d fired M60s, 50 cals, grenade launchers, and BARs, but they wouldn’t do it. I was furious,” Bell recalled. “My mom calmed me down outside. She went back in and bought the rifle for me.”
Bell tallied 2700 flight hours and served in combat areas throughout Vietnam. His grandfather was wounded twice in World War II fighting the Germans in Europe. His grandfather’s Lakota warrior name was Hanpa Nasica, meaning “Bad Moccasin.”
“My grandfather told me I would receive this name when I returned from Vietnam,” Bell said. “He is the third man in his family honored with this warrior name.”
Bell’s service to the United States might seem gruesome to many, but he did a difficult job with honor and dedication and served his nation well.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].