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Bingo boss found better odds in Las Vegas than in B-17 over Germany

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since Tom Brokaw gave us his remarkable book, “The Greatest Generation.”

You probably know the story. The NBC Nightly News anchor traveled to France in 1984 to interview American veterans for the 40th anniversary of D-day. He was so overwhelmed by the stories that he collected them over the years and, in 1998, published them to wide acclaim.

A recurring theme in the book is the juxtaposition of ordinary lives with extraordinary bravery. After the war, those world-saving Americans returned home to resume regular lives.

I’ve been thinking about “The Greatest Generation” lately after meeting a longtime Las Vegan named Jack DeBorde. At 86, he’s a member in good standing.

Jack is like a lot of men of his generation I’ve met. For the life of him, he can’t figure out why anyone would be interested in his story.

To hear him tell it, he’s just a Montana boy from Butte who made the acquaintance of fellow native son Milton Prell and in 1950 made his way to Las Vegas to take a job at Club Bingo, which has long since been replaced by the Sahara. He made $7 a day as a bingo agent and break-in dealer.

He worked his way up to shift manager and went on to help manage bingo parlors at the Golden Nugget, Las Vegas Club and Boulder Club.

“I became a troubleshooter and jumped from one to another,” DeBorde says.

After Club Bingo, DeBorde moved to the Lucky Strike Club on Fremont Street, where Prell and Al Winter of the Portland mob kept an eye on the books. Jack learned more about the casino business from men who made downtown famous.

“At that time, downtown was more popular than the Strip,” he says. “The slot percentages were looser, and people just liked coming downtown.”

DeBorde moved through the casino business, working as a general manager at the Lucky Strike, an assistant slot manager at the Mint. He jazzed up slot machines with flashing lights and attractive glass and watched the contraptions become an important part of the casino’s bottom line.

When I tell him he was an innovator, he just laughs. No, he says, he was just a working guy. Now the late, great Sam Boyd, he was something special.

Boyd made DeBorde a general manager at the Mint, and to this day he still speaks with pride about the casino legend telling people, “There’s nothing Jack can’t do in a casino.”

DeBorde spent a couple of decades as slot manager of the Four Queens before retiring in 1989. He raised his family in Las Vegas and wouldn’t trade the experience for a pocketful of gold.

“I love Las Vegas,” he says. “I like to talk about those days with the guys who are still around. The trouble is hardly anybody’s still around. I’m getting so old I’ve outlived them all. I figure making it to 86, I’ve done pretty well.”

That’s about it, he says. It’s been an interesting, ordinary life.

Well, there was that one time over Hamburg, Germany, when his B-17 was nearly shot to pieces by enemy fire. Jack almost failed to mention he was a B-17 tail gunner with the 100th Bomb Group, 350th Squadron.

In case I start thinking he’s boasting, he reminds me the ball turret gunner had the most dangerous job on the B-17. His was only about the second-most dangerous.

He flew 30 missions into enemy fire. After one mission, he counted more than 60 bullet and flak holes in his plane.

“The B-17 was a very sturdy plane,” he says. “It could take a lot of abuse.”

On New Year’s Eve 1944, the 350th filled the night sky with 13 B-17s, each with 10-man crews. They flew over Hamburg into a hell storm of German fighters and anti-aircraft. They did their duty.

Four planes returned. Ninety men were lost.

“It was our toughest mission,” he says.

Such daring missions broke the back and the spirits of the enemy and helped speed the defeat of the Nazis. Victory was accomplished not by a race of supermen, but by ordinary Americans who were capable of extraordinary acts of bravery.

That includes tail gunner Jack DeBorde, a boy from Butte who became a bingo and slot boss in Las Vegas.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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