XENIA — A World War II fighter pilot’s military career prevails in color.
Col. Bernie Bass, who would have turned 100 last month, left behind a memoir for his kids and grandkids — using his own words, coupled with black and white photographs, to tell the story of his years in the sky. Today, with the help of Xenia artist Gary Blevins, members of the Bass family have a nine-part portrait to help them remember their lineage.
Blevins referred to the collection of small, vintage photographs while painting the 4-foot by 5-foot acrylic on canvas in his home studio. But he managed to get a hold of one photograph in color — the official portrait of Bass when he served as director of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
The replica of that official portrait, now alive again in the collage, depicts Bass at his desk in blue — sporting a dress uniform pinned with ribbons and medals. The pilot earned two Distinguished Flying Cross medals and 13 Air Medals during his tenure.
“He was the first director of the museum in its present capacity,” Mark Bass, his son, who graduated from Fairborn High School, said. “He moved the museum from Area A, which was in an old hangar, to the big facility in Area B. President Nixon came and opened it up.”
That was the veteran’s last duty assignment, from 1970 to 1976.
“He thought his stint at the Air Force Museum was one of his best assignments because he was able to bring so much of his own history there,” his son said. “He had degrees in history, and met a lot of the early greats of the United States Air Force through that position.”
While that photograph marks the end of Bass’ military career, it was two combat tours, 114 combat missions and more than 300 hours of combat flying that led him there.
“My father had quite a distinguished combat career that he didn’t talk about,” Mark Bass said. “Dad was a member of the Greatest Generation but we didn’t know it until he was retired and started writing.”
The son goes on to tell his father’s story, which is now posthumously named and printed as Bernie Bass, A Tennessee Fighter Pilot.
Bass enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in September of 1941.
“My dad entered before Pearl Harbor because the country knew they were going to war,” Mark Bass said. “Dad earned his pilot’s wings on April 29, 1942 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. Within seven months he was part of the invasion of North Africa, the first major confrontation of the U.S. with Germany and Italy of the war.”
The earliest scene in the collage, painted bottom left, depicts Bass before his deployment that June, standing in front of the P-40 Warhawk fighter-bomber aircraft he would fly as a part of the initial Allied force invasion of Morocco, or Operation Torch.
Another picture shows Bass in flight gear heading out for a mission in February of 1943. During his first combat tour, Bass flew from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to Pantelleria and Sicily.
“Dad considered his service in North Africa — Sicily as ‘the most difficult and dangerous period of my life’,” Mark Bass added.
After his first combat tour, Bass flew back to the states to Perry Army Airfield, where he trained pilots and met Mary Helen Whitfield at a Sunday evening church service.
“They got married in ‘46 and were married for 60-some-odd years,” Mark Bass said of his parents.
Two months after D-Day, Bass arrived in the European Theatre of Operations, beginning his second combat tour. The painting marks this moment through a portrait-like Bass, staring ahead in a green uniform.
“In each tour, the attrition rate for squadron pilots was 30 percent,” his son added.
The remaining colorful images depict Bass standing on his P-47 Thunderbolt in Lyon, France; on the flightline at Toule-Ochey Airfield, France in 1945; standing alert in the cockpit in Giebelstadt, Germany; high in the clouds with two others; and finally, in the cockpit after a mission in Germany, the strain of war evident on the major’s face.
“We were fortunate that we had some pictures from the early days,” the younger Bass said.
But the 1940s gray-scale images inevitably brought challenges to the artist when it came to recreating them in 2019.
“I worked off of photos in the book, did some additional research online to figure out what colors might’ve been true and accurate,” Blevins, who practiced with a ‘study painting,’ said. “A lot of areas like this had no detail whatsoever and I just had to create something.”
In true character, Blevins’ creation — made with those photographs and research, a bit of guess-work and hours of paintbrush to hand — at its core is a tribute painting, a salute to an old war hero.
“It’s going to be a cherished family heirloom for us,” Mark Bass said. “It’s a beautiful painting — it’s accurate yet conveys a lot of the emotions that my family saw in my dad.”
Contact this reporter at 937-502-4498.