Open House to celebrate Nellis' legacy of liberty

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Siuta B. Ika
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Tens of thousands of visitors are expected to be in attendance when the base opens its doors for the 2014Nellis' Open House Nov. 8 and 9.

Although the show will celebrate the U.S. Air Force's recent accomplishments, one attendee will be on hand to pay homage to the service's illustrious history and to remember the man he said an unexpected final goodbye to more than 70 years ago.

"I remember the day he left for overseas," said Gary Nellis of his late father, 1st Lt. William Harrell Nellis, Nellis AFB's namesake. "I had a hold of his leg as he was saying goodbye to my mother and I said, 'Daddy, please don't leave.' He looked at me and said, 'I have to,' and that's the last I ever saw of him."

William Nellis' P-47 Thunderbolt was shot down while strafing a German convoy over Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 27, 1944. Although the lieutenant had been shot down twice during his previous 68 World War II missions and survived, he would not make it a third time.

"I was told the story about how my dad passed by one of the pilots that flew with him on that last mission," Nellis said. "He said my dad was flight leader, and he saw the German convoy on the road. There was snow on the road, so he could see the Germans and their vehicles because they stood out. He told me, my dad hit the first couple of trucks of the convoy then his airplane got hit, and he saw my dad's plane fly over the tree tops in flames for a couple miles and he said, 'If there's any doubt that your dad might have lived, I saw him go down.'"

On April 30, 1950, Las Vegas Air Force Base was officially renamed in William Nellis' honor and a dedication ceremony was held to commemorate the event May 20 the same year.

"We had our whole family on the grandstand, and I was the guest of honor," Nellis said. "That morning, the Air Force came by, picked us up and drove us out to the base. We went to the officers' club [and] then over to the parade field. There were speakers - the governor of Nevada and the base commander - and fly overs from the F-85 or F-86, and P-51s. My mother and I came down from the grandstand and unveiled the plaque that's still there. I thought it was a great honor and I felt overwhelmed at that point."

For his service to America, William Nellis was also awarded the Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal and the Air Medal with one silver and one bronze oak leaf cluster.

"William Nellis was a quiet hero. Married with a family and a war-essential job, he didn't have to go but he did," said Gerald White, 99th Air Base Wing historian. "Flying P-47's in ground support may have been one of the most dangerous jobs because the Germans shot back. To strap in and go fly after being shot down twice? That speaks volumes. The damage he and his fellow pilots inflicted at the Battle of the Bulge broke the last German offensive. He wasn't in it for glory, he just wanted to finish the job and come home."

The accomplishments of his father are not lost on Nellis.

"He was an older pilot too," Nellis said. "To become a P-47 pilot, flight school was really tough. If you couldn't handle it, you were washed out and became a bomber pilot, so only the best and toughest could become fighter pilots, and that's what he became. He was on his sixty-ninth mission when he was shot down. He had enough missions to be eligible to come home, but according to one letter, he just wanted to get this war over and get home. He put everything he had into it."

Nellis said his father's dedication stemmed from his upbringing.

"My dad lived in Searchlight, Nevada, and moved to Las Vegas and attended Las Vegas High School, where he was an honors [sic] student," Nellis said. "He worked to even go to high school because he was by himself, so he was a self-made man. [He] eventually got married to my mother, worked at a gas station on the corner of Fremont and Las Vegas Blvd., and then went to work for the railroad and became a conductor."

When the war started, Nellis said his parents went to a movie where they were showing clips of what was unfolding overseas.

"My dad said to my mom, 'I want to join the Army Air Force and fly,'" Nellis said. "She agreed and that's when he applied for service and pilot training. Of course he went to basic training first, then became a rated pilot, got his commission and then went over to Europe and became a replacement pilot."

Although that fateful decision has impacted Nellis in indescribable ways, he still gets 'butterflies' when he sees the signs leading to Nellis AFB.

"I've been thankful, and it's very exciting to be a part of premier air force base in the country and that's what Nellis Air Force Base is," Nellis said. "When we see those signs, my kids say, 'Well there's your air force base,' and that makes me feel very proud."

Even though time may have healed many of the wounds his father's death imparted on him, Nellis said some of them will be with him until the day he dies.

"He was a hero to Nevada. We lived here when there were 10,000 people in the Las Vegas area, so to have someone come from Las Vegas and accomplish what he did in his short life is amazing," Nellis said. "My dad, to me, is someone I think about every day. I have pictures that hang in my office and every day I look at him and feel very proud and I miss him so much."