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.
Nellis Air Force Base History
In 1929, what would become Nellis AFB was nothing more than a dirt runway, a water well and a small operations shack for Western Air Express Airlines. After considering several areas in Utah, Arizona and Nevada for a site to locate the “first” American flexible aerial gunnery school, Maj. David Schlatter of the U.S. Army Air Corps settled on the Nevada site in October 1940, since about 90 percent of the area north, northwest and northeast of Las Vegas was desert wasteland.
Three months later, Las Vegas took over the airfield from Western Air Express and three days later, Mayor John L. Russell signed over much of the property to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps to develop the flexible gunnery school. Located on the new Las Vegas Army Air Field, the Las Vegas Army Air Corps Gunnery School’s mission was defined as “training of aerial gunners to the degree of proficiency that will qualify them for combat duty.”
There were many reasons for locating the school near Las Vegas, which had a population of 9,000:
• Flying weather was ideal year-round;
• More than 90 percent of the land to the north was
unpopulated public domain and available at $1 per acre;
• The inland strategic location was unlikely to be attacked;
• Rocky hills, approximately six miles from the base, afforded
a natural backdrop for cannon and machine-gun firing;
• Dry lake beds were available for emergency landings.
A detachment of five staff officers of the 79th Air Base Group, commanded by Lt. Col. Martinus Stenseth, took up residence in a small basement post office in the Las Vegas federal building in May 1941. A month later, the military population of LVAAF more than doubled with the arrival of five administrative noncommissioned officers and other support personnel.
During those first few months, there were no services or facilities at the new base. Enlisted men were quartered in the Work Projects Administration barracks in town. The motor pool consisted of six vintage trucks and a semi-trailer often parked by the barracks. Supply and logistics had not yet been organized, and mechanics had to borrow nuts, bolts and old parts from service stations in Las Vegas, and gasoline and oil from the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Construction of permanent base facilities began in earnest in mid-1941 for barracks to house 3,000 people. By December, there were 10 AT-6 Texan trainers and 17 B-10 Martin bombers. From this humble beginning, LVAAF grew rapidly. The first B-17s arrived in 1942, giving students their first chance to train in the gun turret of an actual combat plane and providing aircraft to train co-pilots in ground and transition school. At the height of World War II, 600 gunnery students and 215 copilots graduated from LVAAF every five weeks and more than 55,000 B-17 enlisted and navigator/bombardier aviation cadets werw trained as B-17gunners.
In March 1945, the base converted from B-17s to the B-29 Gunnery School, and the population peaked with nearly 11,000 officers and enlistees logged on unit morning reports. Of these, more than 4,700 were students.
As World War II ended, the base converted to the role of separating military men and women from the service. During 1945 and 1946, thousands of Soldiers received their separation physicals and final pay at LVAAF on their return to civilian life. Activities at LVAAF continued to wind down until Feb. 28, 1947, when it was placed on the inactive list.
On January 4, 1949, the base was reactivated as Las Vegas Air Force Base and hosted a pilot training wing and gunnery school — the 332d Fighter Group flying the F-47 won the first Gunnery Meet in May 1949. With the onset of the Korean War, the mission of LVAFB changed from an advanced single-engine school to one of training jet fighter pilots for the then-Far East Air Forces.
In 1950, LVAFB was renamed in honor of 1st Lt. William Harrell Nellis, the young man from southern Nevada killed in action over Luxembourg on Dec. 27, 1944. Virtually every fighter pilot and every “ace” who staked claim to a corner of Korean air space called “MiG Alley” — establishing a kill ratio of 14 to 1 — received final combat training at Nellis.
Nellis Air Force Base Overview
Nellis, an integral part of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command, is the pinnacle of advanced air combat aviation training. The base’s all-encompassing mission is accomplished through an array of aircraft, including the A-10, F-15C/D, F-15E, F-22A, F-16C/D, HH-60 and most recently, the F-35A Lightning II. Creech is home to the MQ-1 and MQ-9. Nellis’ 12,000-member military and civilian workforce makes it one of the largest single employers in southern Nevada.
The base covers more than 14,000 acres, while the total land area occupied by Nellis and the restricted Nevada Test and Training Range is more than 4,800 square miles. An additional 10,000 square miles of airspace north and east of the restricted range are also available for military flight operations.
Today, Nellis continues to provide advanced combat training for composite strike forces, which include every type of aircraft in the Air Force inventory. Training is commonly conducted in conjunction with air and ground units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and allied forces from throughout the world. Nellis also conducts operational testing and develops tactics. The base also supports combat search and rescue and unmanned aircraft system operations worldwide.
Nellis Area I
East of Las Vegas Boulevard, the base’s primary operations consist of industrial and administrative facilities; two runways with ramp space for up to 300 aircraft; recreation and shopping facilities; single housing and some family housing.
Nellis Area II
On the northeast edge of the main base, Area II is home to the 58th Rescue Squadron and the 820th RED HORSE Squadron.
Nellis Area III
West of the main base, Area III features family housing, administrative and industrial areas, as well as the Mike O’Callaghan Federal Medical Center.
Nevada Test Site
The Nevada National Security Site, previously known as the Nevada Test Site, is a U.S. Department of Energy installation in Nye County, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It includes support and administrative headquarters at Mercury, Nev. The DOE Nevada Operations Office in North Las Vegas manages all of the nation’s nuclear weapons programs.
The Nevada National Security Site covers approximately 1,350 square miles and includes Yucca and Frenchman flats, Paiute and Rainier mesas and the former Camp Desert Rock area, which was used by the Sixth Army in the 1950s to house troops participating in atmospheric tests at the test site. Yucca Flat, a valley roughly 10 miles wide by 20 miles long, and Paiute Mesa, a rugged 7,500-foot-high area of 166 square miles at the northwest corner of the site, were the main underground test areas.
Frenchman Flat is the first dry lake basin north of the hills beyond Mercury. It was used for all blasts in the Nevada test series in 1951, but since then has been used primarily for DOE weapons development tests and DOD military effects tests.
The Nevada National Security Site employs 1,500 people, with an additional 2,500 people in test-site-related jobs in North Las Vegas. The DOE also operates the Remote Sensing Laboratory on Nellis AFB.