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Papillion veteran who crawled through wall of fire in WWII celebrates 100th birthday

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Omaha veteran reunites with long-lost soldier who saved his life in Vietnam

As Lt. Ellis McClintick, 22, eyed the wall of oxygen-fueled flame blocking the only exit from his burning B-17, his odds of living another five minutes seemed low — much less making it to 100.

Yet here he is, 78 years later — 50 years after retiring from the Air Force at Offutt Air Force Base as a colonel — celebrating his 100th birthday. Friends and many of his descendants (four children, eight grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild) gathered Sunday at an American Legion post in his adopted hometown of Papillion.

Also at McClintick’s side was his longtime lady friend, Bonnie Heald. She turned 100 on Dec. 26, beating him to the century mark by less than two months.

“We were all lucky to be able to finish World War II,” McClintick said last week, “and (I was) lucky to have a 100-year life.”

Ellis grew up on a farm in rural Walnut, Kansas, 130 miles southwest of Kansas City. He was the oldest of seven children. His family eked out a living during the Great Depression, raising dairy cows, pigs, sheep and goats, along with row crops. They had a big garden, too.

“We didn’t realize we were poor,” he said. “Everybody else was in the same boat.”

McClintick grew to a height of 6-foot-2, played softball and graduated from high school. But he never thought much about a life beyond the farm. In fall 1941, he was working as a farmhand in northern Iowa.

When the news broke on Sunday, Dec. 7, that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, he quit his job and hitchhiked home, planning to enlist like tens of thousands of other young men.

His folks had a different idea.

“My parents were adamant: Don’t volunteer until you get called,” he said.

Instead, he took a job at a munitions factory in nearby Parsons, Kansas, until the draft call came in September 1942.

Before the war, McClintick had never given a thought to serving in the military, or to flying. But he decided to take a test to join the Army Air Forces.

“I’m not sure I’d ever seen an airplane before,” he said. “But I didn’t want to walk.”

McClintick qualified for navigator’s school — not bad, but he really wanted to be a pilot.

“They said, ‘Well, if you live through the war, you can volunteer as a pilot,’” he recalled.

He trained in Texas and joined up with a squadron in Washington state for combat crew training. His crew picked up a brand-new B-17 in Georgia and crossed the Atlantic via Brazil and West Africa, arriving in Great Britain on his 22nd birthday, in 1944. He was assigned to the 390th Bombardment Group at Framlingham, England, about 60 miles northeast of London.

He flew his first mission March 18, 1944. It was stressful work in awful conditions: subzero cold at altitude and unpressurized planes that made it necessary to wear oxygen masks at altitude.

Then there was the threat of German Messerschmitt fighters and exploding anti-aircraft flak.

“You learned a black puff of smoke was dangerous,” McClintick said. “They were trying to kill you.”

As the plane’s navigator, McClintick sat below and in front of the pilots. The B-17’s clear Plexiglass nose cone provided a panoramic view of the flak, the incoming fighter and other B-17s, sometimes in peril, whose death spirals he dutifully noted in his plane’s logbook so their fates could be reported up the command chain.

“The nose of the B-17 wasn’t exactly the safest place to be when they’re shooting at you,” he said. “You just tried not to think about (the risk). You had a job to do, and you did it.”

McClintick’s crew got through 25 missions in seven weeks essentially unscathed: missions to Augsburg and Liege, to Berlin and Bordeaux, deep into Nazi-controlled territory.

Compared to that, the 26th mission, on June 4, 1944, seemed like a piece of cake. Flying a plane called I’ll Be Around, McClintick’s crew planned to bomb German coastal defenses in France — the purpose of which would become clear two days later on D-Day.

Piloted by Lt. Leroy Holmberg, I’ll Be Around ran into trouble at 21,000 feet, barely 40 miles from the home base. Suddenly, an oxygen-fueled fire broke out just behind the cockpit, about 6 feet from where McClintick was sitting.

He saw the plane’s engineer, Tech. Sgt. Andrew Brown, who also manned the top turret, crawl forward through a tunnel to the cockpit area.

“The top turret gunner was right in the middle of the fire. When he crawled up, we knew we had to get out,” McClintick said.

One problem, though. The inferno blocked his path to the escape hatch.

“So I crawled through the wall of fire, fell out the escape hatch and pulled the ripcord,” McClintick said.

He remembers floating to earth in great pain, from burns to his exposed face and hands and from an injury to his pelvis. He was rescued by some British soldiers, who took him to a nearby Army hospital.

“They gave me a shot of whiskey and put me in a body cast,” he said.

The rest of his crew was there, too. Except for Brown. He took the controls and apparently hoped to land the plane. He did jettison its bomb load, but the B-17 crashed into a farmer’s field.

“He went down with the plane,” McClintick said. “He tried to be a hero. He wasn’t qualified to fly.”

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Ellis McClintick recounts experiences from his service during World War II shortly before his 100th birthday. Friends and family celebrated the occasion Sunday.

Two months later, he had recovered from his wounds and returned to his squadron — the same base, even the very same cot as before.

Still, McClintick said, he wasn’t afraid to fly again, just determined to hit his quota of 35 flights as soon as possible.

“I made up my mind I was going to finish 10 more missions and go home for pilot training,” he said.

That’s just what he did.

McClintick was home to spend Christmas 1944 with his family in Kansas, then on to pilot training. By the time he finished, in October 1945, the war was over. But he continued to fly — B-17s, C-47s, B-57s and eventually KC-135 tankers, which are still flown today.

He met his wife, Rhoda “Rae” Enslow, on a tour in Canada. They raised four sons. McClintick joined the Strategic Air Command in 1958. He racked up another dozen combat missions during the Vietnam War and finished up his career in SAC headquarters at Offutt in 1972.

He spent 10 years selling real estate in the Omaha area before retiring for real in the early 1980s. He has continued to take an interest in military aviation museums in the U.S and England. One of them, the 390th Bomb Group Museum in Tucson, Arizona, has restored a B-17 and named it I’ll Get Around, after McClintick’s plane that crashed.

To this day, McClintick plays golf and bridge regularly. He’s scored three holes-in-one and shot his age more times than he can count — though he confesses that he now plays an “old man’s course,” with no water hazards or sand traps and no lengthy par-5 holes.

Rae died in 1996. Ellis and Bonnie have been companions for more than 20 years. They moved together into the Hillcrest Country Estates retirement home in Papillion seven years ago.

“We are each other’s caretakers,” Bonnie said.

France honors WWII vet with Legion of Honor (copy)

Retired Air Force Col. Ellis McClintick with his Legion of Honor medal in 2016.

In 2016, the French government awarded McClintick its Legion of Honor medal, and he was selected to be the grand marshal of Bellevue’s big Veterans Day parade.

The 100th birthday party featured a red, white and blue birthday cake, a photo slideshow drawing from McClintick’s long life, and a few surprises.

His son, Jim, 73, who lives in Lincoln, said McClintick taught his kids the importance of family, generosity, a strong work ethic and good character.

“He was tough but fair with us,” Jim McClintick said. “While he has mellowed over the years, he has never lost his focus for us to carry the family legacy through his example. We are all glad he is here for five generations to know him.”

Oh — and what is Ellis McClintick’s secret to long life and good health?

“Well,” he said, “What other choice do you have?”

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Omaha veteran reunites with long-lost soldier who saved his life in Vietnam

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