Our Namesake

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William Harrell Nellis was born March 8, 1916, in Santa Rita, N.M. He was still a child when his family relocated to Searchlight, Nev. Nellis lived with his grandmother for a time in Searchlight, and when not attending school, he helped her run the Searchlight Hotel. Nellis remained in the town until he graduated from the eighth grade, then moved to Las Vegas, where he attended Las Vegas High School. He graduated in 1936, having rented a room and held a job after school to pay room and board. In 1939, Nellis married Las Vegas native Shirley R. Fletcher. The couple had two children, Gary and Joyce. After relocating to Searchlight for a time, the Nellis family returned to Las Vegas where Nellis found a job with the railroad. That job was enough to keep him out of the Army at the outbreak of World War II. However, after completing some flying lessons and logging eight hours in the air, Nellis joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps on Dec. 9, 1942. He reported for active duty as an aviation cadet on March 2, 1943, and five months later, completed primary pilot training in Albany, Ga. He was honorably discharged Jan. 6, 1944, and accepted an appointment as a flight officer the next day.

Nellis departed the U.S. for overseas duty with the 495th Replacement Group on May 21, 1944. He was reassigned to the 513th Fighter Squadron two months later, where he par­ticipated in 70 aerial combat missions. He was shot down three times. Most of the missions flown by the 513th Fighter Squadron in 1944 were air-to-ground operations in support of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. Due to the unit’s fast ad­vance through France, the squadron was forced to change airfields constantly, but the constant movement did not ham­per its operations: The squadron proved quite effective in the air-interdiction and combat air support role. Nellis was an ac­tive member in those missions, receiving two promotions and several awards. On Dec. 18, 1944, the Germans launched a major counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest area known as the Battle of the Bulge. Because of bad weather, the 513th Fighter Squadron was unable to provide air support until Dec. 23. Most of the action occurred within 10 miles of the city of Bastogne, Belgium. Missions conducted in the area were con­sidered extremely hazardous. The fighter squadron flew sorties from dawn to dusk in support of the 101st Airborne Division until Dec. 29. It was in this environment that Nellis flew his final combat mission.

On Dec. 27, 1944, Nellis was hit by ground fire while strafing a German convoy over Luxembourg. His plane burst into flames and plunged to the ground. Nellis was not seen ex­iting the aircraft, but his sacrifice was not in vain. The missions undertaken by the 513th Fighter Squadron saved many lives and destroyed irreplaceable German armored vehicles, personnel and supplies.

In April 1949, the Air Force began its Memorial Program to honor certain individuals who distinguished themselves serv­ing their country. The Air Force began receiving and evaluat­ing recommendations for memorializing outstanding deceased military personalities who distinguished themselves to such an extent that the nation wished to perpetuate their memory by naming military air installations in their honor. Local civic or­ganizations unanimously chose to honor Nellis, and on April 30, 1950, officially renamed Las Vegas Air Force Base as Nellis Air Force Base. A dedication ceremony to mark the occasion took place May 20, 1950, with Lt. Nellis’ family in attendance.