The French are grateful.
And eloquently so.
“Seventy years ago you gave your youth to France and the French people,” said the letter from the Consulate of France in Chicago. “Many of your fellow soldiers did not return, but they remain in our hearts.
“Thanks to your courage and to our American friends and allies, France and Europe have been living in peace for the past seven decades. You saved us. We will never forget. For us, the French people, you are a hero. Gratitude and remembrance are forever in our souls.”
So read a letter dated Sept. 6 and received by Ellis McClintick, 94, a veteran of three wars, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a resident of Hillcrest Country Estates in Papillion. Enclosed was a royal blue box, which contained the Legion of Honor medal, the highest military decoration bestowed by the French Republic.
McClintick is now a knight of the Legion of Honor, which is not bad for a Kansas farm boy who enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942 and retired from the U.S. Air Force 30 years later.
McClintick, who was a longtime Bellevue resident and is father of retired Bellevue Police Officer Bill McClintick, was born in 1922, the perfect year for those destined to fight in America’s three great 20th century wars. McClintick was so destined, serving 30 years with the U.S. Air Force before retiring from Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base in 1972 with the rank of colonel.
He was 20 when he enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942, in his 30s during the Korean War, and in his 40s during the Vietnam War.
But it was his service as a navigator during 35 bombing missions over occupied France and Germany that won him America’s Distinguished Flying Cross and, now, a forever place in the heart and soul of France.
McClintick said the French offer the honor to anyone who can demonstrate involvement in the effort to liberate France from German occupation. Application forms are available at the Sarpy County Veterans Office, he said, and so he gathered the necessary documents and hoped for the best.
And the French came through for him.
Just as he did for them from 1942 to 1945.
Bombing missions were terrifying, McClintick said, and although the fear receded as the war wore on and Germany’s defensive abilities grew weaker, death was always likely.
A typical bombing mission began about 3 a.m., he said, with flight crews from a thousand bombers gathering for a hearty breakfast referred to, with classically dark wartime humor, as the last meal for death row inmates.
“No matter how many missions you flew there was always that fear in the pit of your stomach,” he said. “As soon as we hit the coast of France the flak would start. There was no escape from flak. You had to get lucky.”
And, generally speaking, Lady Luck smiled on the Kansas farm boy.
Certainly there was the time when his four-engine plane got badly shot up and limped home on two engines. And then there was the time when his plane burst into flames and he had to parachute out, severely burned and injuring himself so badly on the descent that he spent the next six months in a hospital.
But then there was the night of Sept. 9, 1944, when McClintick was too fresh from the hospital to be assigned back to flying duty, and his crew took off without him on a bombing run over the Ruhr Valley. The Ruhr was a major site of Germany’s wartime industrial production and thus vigorously defended.
The plane got shot down that night.
“Most of the guys in my hut were killed,” he said. “That night was a lonely night. I was the lucky one. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
McClintick survived the maximum 35 missions — the feat that merited the Distinguished Flying Cross — and joined his three brothers as survivors of a global conflagration that he describes in his memoirs as “The Great War.”
While that title is usually attached to World War I, McClintick said he believes it more properly describes World War II.
“To me it was the Great War,” he said. “We had a few people involved in World War I, but we furnished 16 million people for World War II. World War I was really a European war, but World War II was a true world war. We fought not only the Germans, but the Japanese, too.
“And it wasn’t just us. We’ve been called the “greatest generation,” but I think our parents were the greatest generation. My parents sent four sons off to war, and they had to wait and worry. There was nothing they could do about it. That, too, took guts.”