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How ironic, he thought. Red, white and blue.

1st Lt.Tom Bell cocked his head to the side and stared out of a dome in his B-24 as a curtain of anti-aircraft fire exploded red and white in the bright blue sky over German-occupied Vienna.

While he was lost in momentary thought, an invisible force pushed his head back.

Then everything exploded.

Flak came through the window. Fiberglass pieces ripped into the bombardier's eye. He dropped to his knees.

When Bell awoke, all he could think was to drop the bombs. Finish the mission.

He looked down as blood poured from his wounded eye.

Still focused on his duty, he put a bandage on his eye and stumbled down to his bombardier station.

The bombs were gone. The pilot had lowered the explosives.

Now all he could do was wait.

Still bleeding, he sat down. The only thing keeping him from dying on the trip back to Italy was the freezing temperature on the plane. At 40 degrees below zero, his wounded eye socket froze.

Chunks of anti-aircraft shrapnel should have blown through Bell's head. When he turned to look at the explosion, he was in the path of the flying metal. Something pushed his head back to the side, saving his life.

What happened was simple.

"It was God's hand. That's the only explanation I have."

He believes there's a reason he was saved. A reason that an unknown force pushed his head, that the air temperature was so cold he froze instead of bleeding out, that his pilot landed the plane without flaps or brakes, that a nurse happened to see him shaking in the dark and saved him from dying of shock.

When he was 20, he didn't know why. While he still isn't sure, in retrospect his life's purpose may have been to raise awareness of the natural world. To convince people they want to conserve. To speak out against environmental degradation.

He went on to found an outdoor conservation group in Wyoming, start High Country News and speak to as many groups as would listen.

At 86, sitting at his home in Lander, he shakes his head. He did a lot of good, but worries it wasn't enough

"What a hell of a place we've passed on to our grandchildren. But it wasn't for lack of me trying."

Born in a mining town southeast of Rock Springs, Bell enlisted in the air force when he 18. By the first week of January 1944, Bell had traveled over the Sahara Desert to northern Africa and into southern Europe.

He flew long missions into eastern Europe. Twice he had to crawl above the bombs with a screwdriver and leverage them out when they were hung up.

He and his crew dropped hundreds of bombs. But by May 1944, less than five months after he arrived, he was in a hospital. In mid-July, he headed home with doctors warning him he may never see again.

Despite their predictions, his left eye recovered, allowing him to return to normal life.

Bell used his GI Bill to return to the University of Wyoming. He wanted to be director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. There he believed he could effect change.

After five years in the department, he was frustrated with politics and felt he couldn't make a difference. He left and for the next 10 years taught sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade science in Lander.

He tried working for Game and Fish once more, this time increasing Canada geese populations at Ocean Lake. But, as with the first job, he was disgusted with politics and left.

In 1965, he was back in environmental protection.

A Game and Fish friend of Bell's took him outside of Casper on horseback to show him lines of fences on public lands with "no trespassing" signs.

The signs were illegal, and he realized Wyoming lands needed help.

"If something was going to change, we needed to get together," he said.

So he and about 15 other outdoor public interest groups formed the Wyoming Outdoor Coordinating Council, to later become the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

He also started the environmental magazine High Country News, but by 1974, "things went to hell in a handbasket."

According to a story in the Star-Tribune from March of '74, Bell told the Casper Kiwanis Club that the world was "hooked on energy."

"And like a man hooked on heroin, we've got to get off of it, in order to survive."

He saved the story, and others like it from his career. He wishes people had listened to him 30 years ago.

"All my life I worked to make sure we had open spaces, wild game and clean air."

He's still on the board of the Outdoor Council and visits High Country News. Thank-you notes and plaques from government organizations and environmental groups dot his living room. He's not retiring from his mission.

For his dedication 66 years ago on that B-24, he received not only the Purple Heart, but also the Silver Star, the military's third-highest decoration for valor.

For his lifetime spent advocating for Wyoming's lands, animals and air, he's hasn't received all of what he hoped for -- a greater concern for the environment. But there are glimmers of hope.

"You have a chance at living if you are part of a community of people coming together to help each other. You need to learn to do things for yourself, by yourself, with others."

1st Lt. Thomas Bell

Age: 86

Unit: 455th Bomb Group, the Vulgar Vultures, Air Force

War fronts: Eastern European theater

Family: Married with six children, three biological and three adopted.

His words: "When I went over, I was a gung-ho 2nd lieutenant. I didn't know if I would come home. But there was hope. I could do anything, all I wanted was not to make money. Where there is money, there is greed and waste."

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