Even though he didn’t talk about World War II much, the family of Roy Schellin knew of his exploits as a heroic ball turret gunner.
They also knew that famed artist Charles Baskerville had painted a portrait of the young Schellin; they had a copy of the painting at their Brainerd home.
But until last week, they had never been able to see the actual portrait.
A few years ago, Schellin had actually made a pilgrimage to Washington in search of the painting, but looked in the wrong place and went away disappointed. He died in 2012.
His daughter was undaunted and recently contacted Sen. Al Franken’s office after researching information about Baskerville. The Pentagon was quick to locate the portrait and arrange a viewing in a portion of the building not usually accessible to the public where it has hung for decades.
“This Minnesota veteran was a war hero, and it was an honor to help ensure his family could view the portrait honoring his service,” Franken said.
Schellin’s daughter, Caralee Bjerkness, went to Washington with her 13-year-old grandson last week to see the portrait hanging where it has been for decades.
“It was just amazing to see him hanging there in that building. It definitely was a memorable experience and one I will never forget,” she said.
She wasn’t aware that any portrait might actually exist until 10 or 15 years ago when her father first talked to her about it. The family thought the portrait might be at the Smithsonian and tried to find it when she drove her mother and father to Washington to see the National World War II Memorial.
A quiet hero
Although he became active in the Brainerd VFW after returning home from war, Schellin never talked much about his wartime experience in Europe.
“He was a very proud man and proud of his country, but he didn’t talk a lot about it,” his daughter said.
No one in the family doubts that the young fly boy in the portrait is Schellin, who cuts a strong figure with the tail of a B-17 in the background. He flew 13 missions in B-17s as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
On July 14, 1943, a 20-mm shell shot away half the ball turret, wounding Schellin and rendering his right arm useless. With his left arm, he continued to operate the turret and both 50-caliber guns and shot down two enemy fighters as his bomber limped home.
He was presented the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart among other awards.
Painting’s roots unknown
It was never clear how Schellin came to sit for famed portraitist and muralist Charles Baskerville. But Baskerville, whose subjects would include the actress Helen Hayes, the Duchess of Windsor and the King of Nepal, was designated the official portrait painter of the Army Air Forces in World War II. He traveled to different war theaters to create more than 60 likenesses of officers and enlisted men that are now on permanent exhibit at the Pentagon.
Schellin’s widow, Lucille, didn’t make the trip to Washington but thought her husband would have liked to have seen it.
“He appreciated it, but he never really made anybody feel like they shouldn’t have a portrait, too,” she said. “He didn’t brag about the painting. There was many people in Brainerd who didn’t know about the painting. They didn’t know about him being shot up, either.”
When the National World War II Memorial opened to the public in 2004, Schellin told the Brainerd Dispatch that it was important to speak truthfully about the horrors of war, but that he didn’t feel the need to single-handedly educate people about World War II.
“History is pretty much there if you want to listen,” he said at the time.