William Harrell Nellis was born in Santa Rita, N.M., March 8, 1916. He was still a child when his family relocated to Searchlight, Nev. Nellis lived with his grandmother for a time in Searchlight. When not attending school, he helped her run the Searchlight Hotel. Nellis remained in the town until he graduated the eighth grade and moved to Las Vegas and attended high school, and graduated in 1936. He 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. Nellis’ job with the railroad 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 enlisted in the Enlisted Reserve Corps Dec. 9, 1942. He reported for active duty as an aviation cadet March 2, 1943. On Aug. 27, 1943, Nellis 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 United States for overseas duty with the 495th Replacement Group May 21, 1944. He was reassigned to the 513th Fighter Squadron July 9, 1944, 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 General Patton’s 3rd Army. Due to the fast advance of the 3rd Army through France, the squadron was forced to change airfields constantly. The constant movement did not hamper the unit’s operations, however. 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, 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 Bastogne 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 into the ground, and Nellis was not seen exiting the aircraft. 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. He was appointed 2 Lt on 9 August 1944 and promoted to 1 Lt on 22 November 1944. At the time of his death, 1 Lt Nellis had received the Air Medal with 1 silver and 1 bronze Oak Leaf cluster, the American Campaign Medal, the European- African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 4 Bronze Service Stars for participation in the Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes- Alsace, and Rhineland campaigns as well as the Distinguished Unit Emblem with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster. He had also been awarded his Pilot’s wings (aviation badge) and a Marksmanship Badge with Pistol Bar. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and World War II Victory Medal.
In April 1949, the Air Force began its Memorial Program for the purpose of honoring 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. Nellis was chosen unanimously by local civic organizations to be honored. Effective April 30, 1950, Las Vegas Air Force Base was officially renamed Nellis Air Force Base. A dedication ceremony to mark the occasion took place May 20 with Lieutenant Nellis’ family in attendance.