WWII pilot shares painting, legacy with Air & Space Museum

Neal Clemmer PortraitBy JOURDYN KAARRE / Lincoln Journal Star

A 1945 version of Neal Clemmer, composed of oil paint and confined in a frame, stared at family and friends gathered before him.

Clemmer — the living and breathing, 90-year-old version — spoke.

He explained the Army pilot gear his painted self is wearing: leather helmet, goggles, parachute harness, ripcord, oxygen mask. In the sky above him, four lines in the canvas from being stored in an empty artillery shell box for the trip home from Europe.

The painting, which Clemmer posed for in Belgium during World War II, has traveled the world, hanging in home after home of the pilot and his wife, Mary Jane.

But on Saturday, with loved ones gathered from across the country to witness, the piece of one man’s history made it to its final home: the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, where it will give museum-goers a glimpse into the pilot’s journey.

“It’s a great relief to know it will be safe for generations to come,” Clemmer said.

Donated memorabilia is common for the museum, but Clemmer’s is unique, said Dr. Scott Tarry, CEO and president of the Strategic Air & Space Museum.

Clemmer’s artifact is a painting, as opposed to an actual uniform — and he was able to hand it over himself.

That alone, Tarry said, makes it even more special.

It’s unknown where the painting will hang.

It will be accompanied by information about its subject’s military service: a career that spanned more than two decades after Clemmer graduated from Omaha North High School in 1941.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army and, after induction into the aviation cadet program, continued on as a fighter bomber pilot and tactical reconnaissance pilot.

In Europe during the war, a fellow soldier named Archie McLean painted Clemmer’s portrait in exchange for two $7 bottles of scotch. Hiring a painter for the same job now would cost $14,000, Clemmer says.

By the end of the war, Clemmer had completed 73 combat missions. He returned home, enrolled at Iowa State, met his wife and married her in 1946.

He later re-entered the military, this time the Air Force, and traveled the world.

He raised four daughters — Susan, Louise, Beth and Judy — and retired as a lieutenant colonel at Offutt Air Force Base in 1965.

He and Mary Jane now live in Florida.

Clemmer has launched missiles, crossed the Atlantic 18 times, authored a book.

And he witnessed the evolution of technology over nine decades, Tarry said — from the planes he flew to the mechanics behind the missiles he launched.

Today, Clemmer owns an iPhone 5 and operates his own Facebook profile.

“He just never stops,” said his second-oldest daughter, Louise Clemmer.

With an ever-growing family, it would have been hard to decide who among his friends and family would get his portrait, so Clemmer decided to print duplicates for them and donate the original.

Watching the painting transition to a new home was bittersweet for his daughters: Heartrending to see it go, Beth Harold said; heartwarming to see all the family gathered for such a special celebration, Judy Kitten said.

Clemmer’s stories will stay, said Susan Dodge, the eldest daughter — and they love to listen.

“To me this is a wonderful end to a wonderful life … like the cherry on top,” Louise said. “It’s like he’ll never leave us.”