During WWII, an American fighter plane went down behind enemy lines in China.
The pilot, Maj. Dick Orr, was injured but alive. By a stroke of luck he was captured not by the Japanese but by Chinese troops, who controlled a narrow strip of land at the base of a canyon.
The guerrillas “gave us notice and said, 'If you can get an airplane in at a certain time and place we’ll have Dick Orr there,'” said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Oliver Cellini, who was serving in China under Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, commander of the 14th Air Force and leader of the famed “Flying Tigers.”
They were given three days to arrange a rescue, and find a pilot certified to fly a twin-engine plane that could carry passengers.
Only two pilots in the immediate area had such qualifications. One was Cellini. The other, Orr’s commander.
“His boss said, ‘You have to expect losses.' Literally, they gave up on him,” said Cellini, who knew Orr personally. Even if he hadn’t, there was no way he was leaving him behind.
They took a doctor along because Orr was reportedly in bad shape. Also oxygen, because their route took them over the Burma Hump — the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains — which meant altitudes above 14,000 feet.
At the other end, was a landing strip “at the bottom of a canyon, over dry, hard sand paralleling the river. It was not an airfield, (just) a place where you could land an airplane,” Cellini said. “You could land the airplane there and pick somebody up. And that’s what I did.”
The man who mounted that rescue mission, thought to be the oldest living WWII veteran in Colorado, turned 107 on Feb. 10.
“Ollie was commissioned and 26 months later he was a full colonel. And he spent the next 70-some odd years as a full colonel. And that’s not a bad rank to be stuck in,” said retired Air Force Col. Al Uhalt. “He was a Flying Tiger in WWII. He was in Korea. He’s history on two feet.”
Cellini is the oldest member of the Order of Daedalians, the fraternal and professional organization of American military pilots.
“And I’ll tell you, one of our most distinguished, if not the most distinguished member, is Ollie Cellini. And we all almost revere him,” said fellow Daedalian Randy Cubero, at a birthday party held for Cellini at Brookdale Briargate assisted living community in Colorado Springs. “He was a pilot extraordinaire.”
Cellini grew up in Chicago and was a champion wrestler, attending Indiana University on an athletic scholarship and even qualifying to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin — an invitation he had to turn down. After college and ROTC, he spent 13 months serving in active duty with the Army before entering flying school with the Army Air Corps.
“I went into the service, the infantry a short while, then I took a physical with a doctor when I was in uniform. He said, 'Why didn’t you go to flying school instead of the infantry?'” Cellini said. “I took him up on it.”
His first station was at Selfridge Field, now Selfridge Air National Guard Base, near Detroit, where he was among the first test pilots for the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a twin engine fighter plane.
“The first P-38 pilots were very proud of the fact that we were chosen,” Cellini said. “After that, it’s routine.”
Cellini went on to train other P-38 pilots, including late Colorado Springs resident Col. Frank Royal. Before leaving for China in 1944, he commanded the 311th and then the 312th Jug Squadrons at Tallahassee, Fla., and earned a medal and visit from Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China, for his role training Chinese gunnery pilots.
As a member of the legendary Flying Tigers, he was a squadron commander on the Burma Hump, fighting to halt the Japanese advance into China. After WWII ended, Cellini served in Korea, where he flew 87 missions during 18 months of service in Southeast Asia.
"In all his years as a fighter pilot, he never lost a wingman. I know that's one of the things Dad is most proud of," said his daughter, Linda.
After a series of postings in Europe and the U.S., including time at Otis Air Force Base in Cape Cod, Mass.,where he helped establish the 551st Air Early Warning Wing, Cellini and his family settled in the Springs in 1966, when he was posted at Ent Air Force Base, now the Olympic and Paralympic Training Centers on East Boulder Street.
The last time he flew a fighter plane was in 1968, the day before he retired.
“Strength of character and leadership qualities … without question tend to surface during combat operations,” wrote retired Lt. Col. Earl E. Ashworth, in a tribute to the man he met in 1944 while flying tactical reconnaissance missions for the 81st Fighter Group in China. “As leader of the group, Colonel Cellini always remained calm and confident even during extreme combat conditions. Those of us who flew with him and knew him well had a great amount of respect for Oliver Cellini’s intellect and his performance as a military officer, but the thing I admired most was that he was obviously a devoted family man.”
The father of three daughters taught his middle child, Linda, to fly. He knew if he taught her, she’d be prepared to handle any challenge that came at her in the air.
Those who know Cellini know there were other motivations at play, as well.
”He did it because he was going deaf,” Uhalt said. “He had to teach her how to fly so she’d know what was going on with the air traffic system. She would listen to the radio and tell him what they were saying.”