SHERIDAN — Inside Sheridan County Airport, there hangs a large photograph of a painting of a fighter pilot. It may appear an apt decoration for an airport, something worth a glance in the hustle to catch a flight, but it is more than decor.
The man in the painting is First Lt. Charles Byron Elmgren, lifelong Sheridan resident, World War II fighter pilot, and Sheridan County’s only flying ace.
Elmgren died in July 2016 at the age of 95.
Although he shared war stories with friends, Elmgren, like many in the Greatest Generation, didn’t talk much about his service. A year after his death, his nephew Curt Symons wants more people to know about his Uncle Byron.
“A lot of people didn’t know that he was an Ace,” Symons said. “He just kept that with friends.”
One of Elmgren’s friends, local artist Kendrick Harmon, felt his service was worth commemorating. Over a span of several years, Harmon put brush to canvas to create a portrait of Elmgren based on an official military photograph.
With rich oil tones, Harmon captured Elmgren’s confident grin and inherent charm. The young airman rests one arm on an auxiliary oxygen tank, his name — C. B. Elmgren — etched neatly behind him over the wing of his aircraft. He is, as Harmon described it, “kitted out.”
A piece of white celluloid is sewn onto the right knee of his trousers. Tucked inside is a paper that contains his latest mission. A yellow Mae West, or inflatable flotation device named after ample-bosomed actress Mae West, is strapped beneath his oxygen mask and parachute, the ripcord dangling at hip height.
Aviator goggles perch on Elmgren’s forehead and a white silk neckerchief is tucked into the front of his partially unzipped leather jacket. The white neckerchief was the symbol of a fighter pilot, Harmon said, but not just because it looked macho. Fighter pilots constantly turned their head from side to side in flight, and the neckerchief prevented chafing.
Harmon, son of Rosa-Maye Kendrick and Lt. Gen. Hubert Reilly Harmon, finished the painting in 1991. The original hangs in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a fitting home since Harmon’s father is designated “The Father of the Air Force Academy” for his role in securing legislative approval for the academy, in building it and in serving as its first superintendent.
“I’ve been known to paint a painting now and again,” Harmon said. “I’m a child of World War II, and I was raised in the fledgling Air Corps, and to this day am intensely gung-ho Air Force, aviation and so forth. What better subject matter than Byron Elmgren?”
Elmgren was a student studying geology at the University of Wyoming when America entered World War II. He enlisted and went to Texas to train for the Air Corps.
Stationed at the Royal Air Force Bentwaters station near Woodbridge in England, Elmgren flew missions over France and Germany, serving a total of three years from 1942-1945. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 8 Oak Leaf Clusters in his time flying a P-51 Mustang with the 436th Fighter Squadron.
A short newspaper clipping in THE Wyoming Room at Sheridan Fulmer Public Library hails Elmgren for his service with a “lucky” squadron. The clip describes 50 missions flown over a period of three months that resulted in the destruction of 39 enemy planes — 12 in the air, 27 on the ground — as well as 32 damaged planes, nine smashed locomotives, 21 railroad cars, and many German army trucks, half-tracks and automobiles.
Whether Elmgren’s status as an ace came in those three months or spread over his service is unknown. Either way, his gun camera captured a total of seven “kills,” or direct hits on enemy ground craft such as trains or trucks.
A flying ace is a military pilot credited with shooting down several enemy aircraft during aerial combat. Standards for what is considered a kill differ in various countries, but the most widely accepted minimum “kills” to be considered an ace is five.
The concept began during World War I — the era of the Red Baron, or German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, who had 80 kills — and became an incentive for pilots to fly and fight with skill.
A list of aces compiled by Al Bowers and David Lednicer credits America with 110-120 aces in World War I, 1,283 aces in WWII, 38 in Korea and 2 in Vietnam. Gene Gurney, in his book “Five Down and Glory,” lists seven aces whose hometown was in Wyoming. Elmgren is listed as the only ace in Sheridan.
“Pretty much the Luftwaffe had been shot down and so to create an incentive and reward for pilots doing ground support, they created a ground ace,” Harmon said.
Whether in the air or on the ground, a hit is a hit. Or, as Symons put it: “An ace is an ace.”