Nellis, flew his flaming P-47 out to sea and died - Unrecognized Hero - January 16, 1943 - The Burma
We were getting ready to go overseas and they had already put three or four airplanes on the boat to go to England. Something happened that they were having trouble with the plane bearings that raise all the rods and pistons and so forth. We had stopped flying and we were pretty well restricted to the base. We usually had to stand alert...and alert went usually from daylight till about 1 o'clock. So Nellis and I, we had a scheme, worked out pretty well. We'd get an early flight, we had to fly four and a half hours every day which meant three flights, so we were there when the ops officer came in. We were there in our flying suits, bushy-tailed and ready to go and we'd be off on the first flights. And by about 12:30 or so, we would have finished our four and a half hours and we'd go change into our first class uniform and take off for New York City and catch the electric train back, the last one. We'd be in the ops office there on the flightline when the ops officer came in. He was ready to make the first flight, two of us were. So that meant we'd be finished, all right we and could do it again. That worked out pretty well.
We were in there, come back from New York, early in the morning and we had gone to bed and got a pretty good night sleep. When the ops officer came down he said, "Well, we need to have two aircraft tests flown for 50 minutes at military power, one at 25,000 and one at 35,000." I looked at Nellis said, raising my hand, "We will," I said to Nellis, "You take the 25,000 and I'll take the 35."
We took off and I think we were about five minutes from finishing the time we had to run them at military power and I heard this call, "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is Lieutenant Nellis. I'm over Hempstead at Angels 25 and my ship's on fire." He said, "I'm gonna fly down to South Beach far enough that I'll know the airplane can crash in the ocean and I'm gonna bail out so that I'll land on the land there." What he didn't know was that there was a strong offshore breeze. He bailed out but the wind blew him out into the Atlantic. It was colder than hell. It was 7 degrees on the ground and, of course, at 35,000 feet it was colder than a witch's tit. I got back. I looked to try to find where he might be. Couldn't find anything, but apparently, there were some people in boats out there, fishing boats I guess, fairly large ones, and they picked him up but he was already in deep hypothermia and they couldn't bring him out of...so he didn't die a pleasant death.
I had to take him back home. He was the only son. He had just finished four years in college just before we went into the Air Corps in December of '41. They had bought him a new '39 Chevy Coupe which he had with them. So I took him home on a train. It was a rough assignment. They gave him a military burial and I was there with his parents. He was the only child. His mother was on my left and father was on the right. Of course, they did the normal military burial with a fire drill. They had six riflemen there that fired a correct number of volleys and it seems like it took forever. And every time they would shoot a volley, his mother would jerk. Like that. It was snowing, I mean, it was like a blizzard blowing snow sideways and there was big drifts of snow and the ground was frozen so hard I couldn't imagine how in the hell they could dig a grave for him, but they did.
It was snowing when I went into the chapel and we followed him out to the cemetery it was still snowing when we got there. The funeral car pulled up next to the gravesite there and all of a sudden, the sky just opened up, it wasn't snowing at all when he was laid to rest. When it was all finished and they had left, we were in close behind them, but as soon as we left it started snowing again and it never stopped all the time I was there. I couldn't stay very long, I had to get back to training. He was one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. It was kind of hard to imagine him being a fighter pilot because he was...I forget what we called him...Gentle...Gentle Nelly, or something like that. We all miss his infectious smile.