OMAHA, Neb. — Gail Farrell, in a wheelchair thanks to a bum leg, bowed his head as the colonel pinned the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters on his breast pocket. He might have shed a tear, but he couldn’t have been happier.
Farrell, 93, of Papillion, earned the medal the hard way: behind a machine gun, in the freezing tail of a B-17 bomber, during the waning days of World War II. He survived 21 missions over Berlin, Schweinfurt, the Ruhr Valley and other dangerous destinations in skies filled with flak from anti-aircraft weapons.
“He was part of the mighty 8th Air Force,” said Col. Michael Manion, commander of the 55th Wing, during the ceremony Thursday afternoon at Offutt Air Force Base. “He (saw) some of the most intense fighting of the last few months of the war.”
Manion presented Farrell the Air Medal, as well as a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars, and a World War II Victory Medal, in front of a crowd of nearly 100 young airmen — most of them enlisted students in Offutt’s Airman Leadership School. They applauded with gusto and lined up afterwards to congratulate him.
“It’s a recognition of my career — and for all the men who didn’t come back,” Farrell said, quietly, after the ceremony. “There’ll never be another war like that.”
Farrell received his medals through the efforts of Mark Jensen, an Omahan who has befriended World War II vets and helped them secure awards honoring their service. Some of the medals weren’t created by Congress until after the war, Jensen said. Service members who mustered out right after the war might never know they had them coming.
Mostly, he likes to see these aged vets get their moment of recognition.
“They were the Greatest Generation,” Jensen said.
Farrell has lived in Nebraska since taking a civilian job at Offutt in 1960. He was born in Colorado and grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, one of five children reared by a single mother during the Great Depression.
Even as a youngster, Farrell knew he wanted to fly. He joined the Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet while still in high school, and he was inducted just a few weeks after graduating in 1943. Boot camp, aviation training, armament and gunnery schools stretched for more than a year before he was fully qualified as a B-17 tail-gunner. In February 1945, he and his crewmates picked up their aircraft in Georgia and deployed to England with the 379th Bomb Wing.
They racked up those 21 missions in less than two months, before Germany surrendered. His unit returned to the U.S. mainland to train aboard B-29 bombers for the coming invasion of Japan. The Japanese surrender following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cleared the way for him to leave the military. He was discharged that summer, on his 21st birthday.
After the war, Farrell returned to his hometown and used his GI Bill to earn a journalism degree at Kansas State University, graduating in 1950. He was recalled to active duty because of the Korean War — this time, as a public affairs officer in the newly created Air Force. He served until the war ended in 1953. After a brief stint in the U.S. Border Patrol, Farrell became a civilian public affairs officer. He worked at bases in Alabama and Kansas before landing at Offutt. He joined the Strategic Air Command as associate editor of Combat Crew, SAC’s official magazine. He held that position until he retired in 1982.
At that time, his co-workers called Farrell “an institution” and noted that his wit would be sorely missed.
“Thanks,” they added in a farewell article in Combat Crew, “for a job well done.”
Now another generation can thank him, too.