Saturday, November 24, 2012

Honoring A Very Special Veteran and His Steiff Guardian Angel



Every Steiff treasure has a story, but the one Steiffgal is about to share with you is simply astonishing.  A few weeks ago, a woman named Donna Bell contacted Steiffgal to get a little more information about a Steiff lion cub she had seen on a website.  Apparently the one online was identical to one that had helped her father, Don Bell, a US soldier in WWII, survive his tour of duty despite horrendous hardships and near death experiences.   Don was one of the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 and fought heroically in Europe for the allies during the war.  During his early days in France, Don found a little Steiff cat that would be his companion - and guardian angel -  from that moment forward.  Donna, Don, and the Steiff cat are pictured above. 

Don documented the story of how he found his cat and their relationship during the war.  He shares in part...

"Three sleepless nights into the fighting, I came upon a bombed out farmhouse. I dropped to a crouch and studied it carefully. It was an eerie scene. The yard was full of toys and an overturned tricycle. There was a sandbox, but no people anywhere that I could see. I crept closer. That's when I spotted him sitting in the sandbox. He was an orange stuffed toy tiger cat - just sitting there looking at me with shiny glass eyes. Without thinking, I reached out. Maybe it was a combination of fear and exhaustion, but I wanted that tiger cat. I snatched him up and slipped him inside my shirt.  

(The cat pictured above, which was made about 1951, shows what Don's toy most likely looked liked when he found him in the farmhouse.)

I remember saying to him at the time, "Me and you are gonna make it parnder."

We battled through June. In July, we faced elite German paratroopers. The fighting was ferocious. During a break in the siege, I was sitting alone behind a hedgerow eating cold beans from a can. What happened next I don't remember. They say you never hear the gun that gets you, and it's true. Next thing I knew, I lay in the weeds, unable to get up. My right ankle was shattered and my right shoulder didn't work. I looked at my tiger cat peeking from inside my bloody shirt and said, "Looks like we're done for, cat."


I lay there for some time staring at the stuffed toy. Suddenly I remembered Sunday school classes from my childhood, and Ma reading Bible stories to me at bedtime in our little shack on the Colorado plain. I remembered how simple it was to pray back then. I just sat back and talked to God. Nothing fancy. Just talk. Squeezing the tiger cat in my left hand I closed my eyes and tried to bring back that long ago feeling.


The medics didn't find me until after dark. They hauled me back to Omaha Beach for evacuation to England. I was taken to a hospital and prepared for surgery. My cat was black with blood and a nurse took him away from me. Then it was lights out.


My first thought when I came to was for that tiger cat. Sure enough, there was my mascot, washed clean and sitting on a nightstand, staring with those same shiny eyes that had caught my attention back at the farmhouse. I sure was glad to see him.


Months later, I was back in action at the Battle of the Bulge, tiger cat and all.


When I learned I would be heading home, I looked my tiger cat right in his glass eyes, and then yelled into his ear, "We are going home to America, cat! We are going to that freedom loving country called the United States!" I boarded the troopship Liberty for the journey back to the states. When we sailed past the Statue of Liberty, whistles were blowing all over the harbor. I felt so lucky and I gave my toy cat a squeeze through my shirt. I came out of the war with a couple of Bronze Star Medals and returned to Colorado in one piece. After I married and had kids, my cat became my daughter's favorite plaything. Today, he sits on a mantle in her house."


If that story doesn't win medals for bravery, courage, and loyalty, Steiffgal isn't sure what would!  Donna's father's cat is actually a lion, not a tiger and is Steiff's Junglowe or Young Lion. Many people think this model appears more "tiger-ish" than "lion-ish" because of his coloring and stripes. Young Lion debuted in 1938 and was produced in 17 and 22 cm through 1943.  After the war, this king-in-waiting was manufactured in 10 and 17 cm from 1950 through 1954. Both pre- and post-war Young Lions are sitting and head jointed.  Steiffgal has seen examples in both wool plush and mohair  All are carefully hand airbrushed with light and dark stripes, spots, and highlights and are detailed with brown and black pupil eyes, a black hand embroidered nose and mouth, and his clear monofilament whiskers. Larger sized Young Lions are detailed with long white mohair "sideburns;" you can see this feature on the Young Lion pictured to the left. 

Steiffgal hopes this salute to Don Bell's lion cub encourages you to be a hero to somebody today.

Have a question about one of your Steiff treasures? Let's talk! Click here to learn more.  

3 comments:

  1. What a wonderful story--a lion-hearted man, and his lion mascot. Bravo.

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  2. Thank you Christina, I sometimes wonder, did dad find the lion or did the lion find dad. Either way,they helped each other get through. thanks. Donna Bell

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  3. Wow, what an incredible story about an incredible man at an incredible time in our history! And Mr. Bell's other very wonderful daughter, Bernadette Bell, is an incredible woman who helps us grant nursing home wishes for those who have no one...and there are many nursing home stuffed animal wishes!!! - Cass Forkin, Founder, Twilight Wish Foundation

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