WWII pilot, inspiration for commemorative painting meets artist

WWII pilot, inspiration for commemorative painting meets artist
Retired pilot Lt. Col. Clayton M. Hays, a WWII veteran, and “Together We Serve” artist Paul Steucke Sr. share friendly banter during their meeting at the JBLM Garrison Headquarters. Photo credit Joseph Piek/Joint Base Lewis-McChord Public Affairs

“This is the most exciting thing I’ve done since I crashed my plane in Europe in WWII,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Clayton M. Hays upon his arrival on May 21 to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord garrison headquarters.

Hays, who turns 100 mid-June, traveled with his daughter and son-in-law from Oregon to JBLM on Armed Forces Day to meet artist Paul Steucke Sr. Their purpose was to view Steucke’s 2013 painting “Together We Serve” which features Hays’ likeness. Base leadership commissioned the painting, which hangs in the garrison headquarters, to honor JBLM Service members following the merger of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base in 2010.

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“As an artist ideas flow in and out of your head,” Steucke said. “I had to accomplish the objective of blending the two [services] so I came up with the idea that is represented in the painting.”

Hays entered the Army Air Corps in WWII, and retired from the U.S. Air Force after a full career. During the war he flew the P-51 Mustang, flying 35 missions out of San Severo, Italy.

“The fastest thing in the world at that time.” Hays says when referring to the P-51. “Got mine up to 550 miles per hour,” he added with a grin.

WWII pilot, inspiration for interservice commemorative painting meets artist
Retired pilot Lt. Col. Clayton M. Hays, a veteran of WWII, in his flight gear in front of the operations building before he took off on a mission. The masking tape on his leg is where he secured his map during flight. Photo credit U.S. Army

It was on his fourth mission, Oct. 14, 1944, when he was escorting bombers on a raid over Germany, he crash landed on the Adriatic island of Vis.

Hays arrived at the JBLM garrison headquarters with the same brown leather bomber jacket he was wearing on the day he crashed draped over his square shoulders. His dog tags proudly hung from his neck.

Steucke and Hays, who had never previously met, gathered next to the “Together We Serve” painting as the artist pointed to key elements of the artwork.

Steucke explained how the upper right corner has ghost images of [Meriwether] Lewis and [Colonel William] McChord, with Mount Rainier in the back. While the other side of the painting has a C-17 Globemaster III and a Stryker vehicle. He also noted the Army and Air Force Service members in the painting were selected from across JBLM to represent different military disciplines.

On either end of the painting there are ethereal figures to represent WWI and WWII service members. “That’s you,” Steucke said to Hays, pointing to the faint image of a WWII pilot on the painting’s left side. “And the other side has a WWI doughboy. But you’ll have to forgive me — they’re ghosted, but you’re still here,” Steucke said.

Steucke said he was doing online research for the painting when he came across the WWII pilot image of Hays in a 2012 story in The Oregonian. “That snapshot was taken in front of the ops building before I took off on a mission,” Hays said.

The Oregonian reporter put Steucke in contact with Hays, who gave permission to use his likeness in the JBLM painting, and the rest is history — that is, until the artist and the subject met on Armed Forces Day this year.

As Hays and Steucke exchanged banter as if they’d known each other for years, Hays said with pride in his voice, “In twenty days I’ll be 100,” to which Steucke respectfully replied, “Well I’m 83, so you give me great hope.”