As squadron commander, Bill Harrell flew on the first long-range, over-water flight in a single-engine jet aircraft, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. Harrell, the son of a country doctor, was born during October 1920 in Pleasant Hill, Alabama. In 1938, after graduation from high school, he enrolled in the University of Alabama to become a doctor. He also joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
He made his first flight in a Piper Cub. As World War II escalated, Harrell joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and began primary flying school. He soloed in the Boeing PT-17 Kaydet, and then advanced to the Vultee BT-13 "Vibrator." He earned his wings at Craig Field, Alabama, in the North American T-6 Texan, and pinned on gold lieutenant bars. Shipped to India, he was soon flying combat over Burma in the Curtis P-40 Warhawk as a member of the 89th Fighter Squadron (FS). During 158 combat missions, protecting transports flying the perilous "hump" from India to China, Harrell shot down two Japanese aircraft. He also earned command of the squadron, and met his future wife, Marion Johnson, a flight nurse also stationed in the theater.
In 1945, he returned to the States and after graduation from Command and General Staff School in 1946, was sent to the Pacific Air Command. From March 1946 to February 1948, Harrell commanded the 413th FS, then the 67th FS, and finally the 16th FS. Next, while assigned as Chief, Flight Test Unit, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, he attended Air Command and Staff College and later enrolled in Ohio State University. From 1950 to 1953 at HQ USAF, he worked on the acquisition of the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo; the first supersonic air defense interceptor designed to carry an air-to-air nuclear rocket. In 1954, he went to England to command the 406th Fighter Interceptor Group, U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). Flying the North American F-86 Sabre, he twice led the USAFE "Rocket Team " during the annual USAF fighter interceptor competition in Arizona.
After graduating from Air War College in 1958, he served at HQ Western Air Defense Force, Hamilton AFB, California, and in the early 1960s directed operations at the Beale AFB, California, SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) facility. Returning to Hamilton AFB in 1962, he commanded the 78th Fighter Wing and flew the F-101. As a new brigadier general, Harrell became Vice Commander, Tenth Air Force, in July 1966 and three years later received his second star while serving as Deputy Chief of Staff, Materiel, HQ Aerospace Defense Command. In 1973, Major General Harrell retired after commanding 24th Air Division and returned home to Alabama with his wife, Marion.