Remembering Joe Ellen, war hero

The day Joe Ellen saw his first airplane he told his grandfather, “I will fly in one someday.”

His grandfather scoffed at the idea.

But, World War II proved Joe Ellen right. He flew many times as a turret gunner with the Naval Air Corps – one of the most dangerous positions.  “When he heard he was assigned the position of turret gunner, he said he had a sinking feeling,” said his daughter Joanna Smith.

“The normal lifetime for a gunner in W.W.II was 12 minutes. He made 49 missions and was only wounded once. That in itself was an accomplishment,” said Ray Ellen brother of the late Joe Ellen.

Just to take-off from the air craft carrier the USS Essex, the plane had to dip down which gave Ellen – in his bubble of glass atop the plane – a startlingly close-up view of ocean water before he soared into the air.

He felt fortunate every time he returned alive. At one point a bullet Ellen shot hit an incoming bullet mid-air exploding both and possibly saving both gunner’s lives.
On one of his missions, the pilot pointed out a tower, “Joe, see what you can do to that tower.” “Daddy started shooting at it. When he shot it enough, it exploded and went up in the air flying. He did some damage,” Joanna remembered from a story she had heard at a reunion of Air Group 15 which she attended with her father.
Ellen’s task in the gunner bubble also included scoping out the location of Japanese carriers and other important sites to help secure the islands around the Philippines.
Ellen did suffer one wound, but considered it so inconsequential that he refused the Purple Heart. Like many other gunners, he subsequently suffered a significant loss of hearing.
The family gathered to eulogize and celebrate the tenacity of Joe Ellen last week.
“He was a very sickly child, when he born. The cow got killed. The new cow had been in a bitterweed patch (which made the milk unacceptable). He had to be raised on the juices squeezed out of cooked oatmeal. He did not grow very big. He did not go to school regularly. He laid up in the bed and read and became very studious. If they had had honors classes, he would have been in that – instead he became bored and got in a lot of trouble, making model and paper airplanes,” recalled Ray Ellen.

During the Depression years, Joe Ellen delivered the morning newspaper – rising at 4 or 5 a.m. to walk his route. Later he bought a bicycle and carried two routes. One wintry morning as he shivered he way around the route, a woman saw him and said, “Son, would you like to come in and have a cup of hot chocolate?”
Ellen often pointed out the house where he had received the best hot chocolate he had ever had and declared it was kindest thing she could do. He reiterated to his children that is the little things which can mean a lot to someone else.
After graduating from El Dorado High School in 1942, Ellen worked as a carpenter’s helper in New Mexico. “It was the only place they could find to work. He worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week,” Ray Ellen said.

The fall after graduation, on his 18th birthday, Joe Ellen signed up with the Navy.

Like many other military personnel, Ellen courted his future wife Wanda through the mail. They had a couple dates before he left. Then they corresponded until he came back, married, had three children – and 62 years of marriage.

Joe Ellen, with his brothers Jim and Ray started a local business, worked it for five years and went broke. Jim found another job.  Joe and Ray stuck it out and within five years paid everybody off, according to Ray.

“We were good electricians, but poor business people. We learned a little and had some help from older business men.” Ray said, specifically naming at Burnie Wilson of El Dorado House and Russell Marks of Marks Ford.

For the next 33 years Joe and Ray Ellen managed Ellen Brothers Electric – but Joe was the driving force of the business.

They worked together until Ray retired and sold out. “Joe said ‘mother carried Ray nine months – I carried him 33 years,’” Ray said.

Three years after selling the business, Joe Ellen came out of retirement and started all over again with JoEl Electric. Every employee he had before retiring came back to work for him except one. Joe turned the small electrical business into a wholesale business with locations in Magnolia, Camden, Crossett and El Dorado.

“He was a firm believer that if he made a nickel he needed to share it with those who helped him. That’s why his employees liked him so much,” Ray said.
“He was a character, a pretty good artist, a pretty good draftsman, an excellent electrician – basically self-taught,” Ray said.

Joe Ellen’s high standard extended to his children’s conduct, manners and language. He considered it poverty of language to use swear words, his daughter said in her eulogy of her father.

Last week the community, the country lost another war hero, a successful local businessman, a beloved father,  husband and employer – a man who enriched the lives of those he touched.