Chapter 10 - Muri's flight takes to the air(waves)

More than three decades after Jim Muri buzzed the deck of Akagi with his B-26, his bomber took to the air again.

Except this time Muri wasn’t at the controls of Susie-Q . And he wasn’t making a dash for his life and his crew’s lives, trying to find the airstrip at Midway amidst the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. And finally, when this imaginary trip occurred, Muri wasn’t aware of it, even though it happened about 60 miles from the ranchette where he and Alice retired, a place at the flank of the Montana’s lofty Beartooth Range.

What happened in the 1970s was a flight of fancy, a song crafted by a fellow World War II veteran, a Navy flight crewman from West Virginia who gained fame as a country music broadcaster for several radio stations in Billings, Montana.

The song was called “Midway.” Its composer, who recorded the ballad and has sung it during his country music radio show and on other occasions, was Lonnie Bell.

“I think I wrote the song about 1976. I wrote it before the movie (“Midway,” starring Charleston Heston, released in the summer of 1976) came out,” Bell said in 2017, shortly before his 93rd birthday.

Bell came to Billings in 1964 and was a fixture for decades in Montana’s largest city and throughout its vast trade region. He worked for several radio stations and hosted a show for several hours every Sunday morning on KGHL for years; the show could still be heard in February 2019. 

Bell became a legend in country music circles where he crossed paths with dozens of headliners. He may be best known for giving fellow West Virginian Loretta Lynn, of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” fame, her break into music recording when he ran dances in a rented hall in Anacortes, Washington. Bell first heard Lynn sing in the basement of the American Legion club in Bellingham, Washington, 60 miles away. Bell was an announcer for KGAT in Anacortes and while there, “I was the first guy to ever play a Loretta Lynn record on the radio,” according to his autobiography.

Bell’s accomplishments earned him a spot in the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame, and in 2002 he won the national Golden Voice Award for “radio personality of the year.” Despite the accolades, listener involvement remained a priority for Bell; people were encouraged to call in requests to play songs on his radio show.

Bell said he heard from “a couple guys that called whose dads were killed” at Midway. What inspired him to pen his Midway song, though, was the country’s wrenching experience in the Vietnam War, which ended with a truce only about three years before.

“The reason I wrote this song (is that) I was watching TV, and this one veteran was (testifying before) Congress. He was a sergeant. He slammed his fist against the table and told the congressmen, damn it, we all want to put ourselves besides the World War II veterans.

“I wrote the song for him” and in memory of someone else. “My son-in-law was killed in Vietnam. He was an Army cook.”

Bell, despite his Navy service, knew his song couldn’t concentrate on the glories of that branch’s record at Midway in 1942 to the exclusion of other servicemen who played vital roles in the battle.

“I said if I write a song about Midway, I’ll have to include those Air Force fellas. I don’t want to say it was all Navy,” he said, adding his opinion that Nimitz and Admiral Bill “Bull” Halsey, “all of them didn't accept (the) Air Force” contribution to victory.

“So I wrote (about) this plane called 1391, that was the number of it. Jim Muri was 23 at the time. He was the commander of that flight. However, I didn’t know him.

“So I write this song. And the line goes, ‘From the Hornet came Torpedo 8 and 1391 came from the island of Midway to meet the Rising Sun.’ ”

A quarter-century passed. Then in the early 2000s, chance circumstances finally brought Bell and the man his song referred to without naming him, Jim Muri, together in Billings. That happened after Jim and Alice moved there so her health needs could be better met. Alice died just before her 80th birthday in 2001, and Jim continued to live in their house on Avenue F on the city’s West End.

Bell described what happened next, a sequence of events involving his friend, Don Cooper, whose daughter, Kristie, is married to Yellowstone County commissioner John Ostlund.

“One day, (Kristie) was cleaning houses on Avenue F. I don’t think you can get any sharper than she was. She’s running the vacuum cleaner in this old gentlemen’s house. She knows my song because we’re close friends.

“She looks and sees this picture (Roy Grinnell’s “A Shot Across the Bow,” a painting of Susie-Q buzzing the deck of Akagi, a copy signed by Muri which the artist had given to him). She says that’s 1391 — that’s the plane Lonnie sings about. She looks at this old man sitting in his chair and says, ‘Who’s plane is that?’ ”

Bell, imitating the gruffness of Muri’s speech in his advanced age, gave the Marauder Man’s response.

“That’s my plane,” and Kristie Ostlund’s response was dramatic.

“She jumps straight in the air. She says, do you know Lonnie Bell? He says, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of him. My little wife used to listen to him.’ He always referred to his wife as ‘my little wife.’ ”

Ostlund got the ball rolling. She told her father what had happened when she cleaned Muri’s house. And Cooper had a salty reaction, according to Bell.

“Don said, ‘you gotta be shitting me.’ Don says, ‘Take me over there.’ Don’s the friendliest guy in the world, but he just goes charging over there, and he introduces himself to Jim.

“He says, ‘do you know Lonnie Bell?’ And Jim says, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of him but I don’t know him. Them cowboys don’t know anything about the war so I didn’t bother to get hold of him.’ So Cooper jumps straight in the air. I was his hero; I’ve known him since he was 18.”

Cooper told Muri a little about Bell’s wartime record, embellishing the account by describing him as having been “in charge of naval operations” and having participated in the Battle of Midway. (Actually, Bell, who enlisted in the Navy in 1940 at age 16, was a crewman on a Navy PBY Catalina scout plane. His unit flew patrols from New Caledonia in the Southwest Pacific in early 1942 and while there, they herd about Jimmy Doolittle's April 1942 raid on Tokyo, carried out with 16 B-25s that took from the Hornet. Bell’s PBY later saw the U.S. aircraft carrier Lexington from the air just before it was lost in the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May 1942. By the time of the Battle of Midway, June 4-6, 1942, Bell and his fellow PBY fliers had been assigned to patrol duty over Hawaii. There they heard about the battle from Navy and Army fliers in conversations that included the story of the B-26 pilots and crews that engaged the Japanese fleet.)

Cooper asked the man he had just met, “Can I bring him (Bell) over? So old man Muri says, ‘All right. Bring him over.’ ”

Cooper may have been convinced he had found the Army pilot in the “Midway” lyrics, but Bell admitted he needed convincing.

“So Cooper comes running up to the radio station and he says, ‘I found the guy that was flying 1391.’ I said, what bar did you find him in? Cooper says, ‘No, he’s for real.’ He takes me over there.”

That prompted a lively exchange between the two World War II veterans, Bell said.

“He starts asking questions. The next thing you know, me and him was locking horns. Two of the greatest friends in the world.”

Bell spent 20 years in the Navy and got his start in radio in 1953 while still in the military. He was stationed in Hawaii after the war, and a DJ in Oahu invited him to help spin records at the station. In his biography, he mentions opening a box of newly arrived records, including one from a small label called Sun. He mistakenly thought the name on the record was Elvis Priestly because, while growing up in Madison, West Virginia, Bell knew of a car dealer named Elwood Priestly.

The actual name on the record was Elvis Presley. Bell played several Presley songs on the record, and at least one listener liked what heard.

“I now have the distinct honor of being the first radio broadcaster to ever play a record of Elvis Presley’s on the radio in the Hawaiian Islands,” Bell said, adding that he grew to like Presley’s music.

“Midway,” the tune that brought Bell and Muri together, lives on. Taylor Brown, president of Northern Broadcasting Co., KGHL’s parent, said the station still gets requests to play the song, especially on holidays special to military veterans and their families, such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

You can listen to Lonnie Bell’s song on SoundCloud (free registration); use this link:

https://soundcloud.com/search?q=Midway%20Lonnie%20Bell


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