William Nellis was born on March 8, 1916, in Santa Rita, New Mexico, and grew up in Searchlight, Nevada. He married Shirley R. Fletcher in 1939, and had two children, Gary and Joyce, before enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserve on December 9, 1942. Nellis entered the Aviation Cadet Program of the U.S. Army Air Forces on March 2, 1943, and was commissioned a Flight Officer and awarded his Pilot Wings at Albany, Georgia, on January 7, 1944. After completing P-47 Thunderbolt training, he deployed to England in May 1944, and joined the 513th Fighter Squadron of the 406th Fighter Group in July 1944. Lt Nellis flew 70 combat missions before being killed in action when his P-47 was brought down by ground fire over Luxembourg on December 27, 1944. He was buried at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium. On May 20, 1950, Las Vegas AFB, Nevada, was renamed Nellis AFB in his honor.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.