My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father
The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”
Monday, March 30, 2015
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Sunday, March 22, 2015
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
I was almost five years old and ready to start school that September, and I remember my mother showing me the medal and telling me it would be mine when I got older, but that she would keep it safely in the meantime.
In January of 1950, she received word that his body had been identified and the Army was awaiting disposition instruction as to what to do with the remains. As I explained in the last chapter, because Jocile had just remarried the month before, that right of disposition passed to Don’s mother who elected to have him returned to California. Actually I was the next-of-kin, but because I was a minor I was not consulted.
Then in January 1951, when I was eight years old, we got word that as next-of-kin I would be receiving my father's Air Medal at a ceremony on January 26, at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach, which had produced B-17s as well as other aircraft during the war. We had driven past that location several times since it was on Lakewood Blvd. which ran down to the beach and the amusement park known as “The Pike.”
|Douglas Aircraft, Long Beach, California|
|Women At Work on B-17|
On the morning of the ceremony my mother made sure I was dressed appropriately as if we were going to church. I was quite anxious and nervous in anticipation of what the day would bring. My mother and Rulon and my five year old brother Steve drove down to Long Beach on a gray, gloomy morning. The grayness only added to my anxiety.
When we arrived the area was already crowded with airmen in uniform with their families and several photographers and reporters. Apparently many WWII airmen were also receiving medals and commendations that day. When the time came for assembly I stood in father’s place in the front row of the ranks among uniformed men who all looked huge next to an eight year old boy. While standing there I was almost sure there had been some mistake, that my father was not dead and would appear and would pick me up and tell me everything was alright. Perhaps he had been wounded and was on crutches but that was still okay.
I had just seen a movie called “Three Came Home,” with Claudette Colbert about a family in the Philippines separated by war. The mother and son were kept in one camp while all the men were taken somewhere else. Near the end the Japanese captors fled before the advancing American forces and all the women and children gathered on the road to greet their returning husbands and fathers. The men began coming over the hill and rushing down to greet their families, but there is no sign of Claudette’s husband. Just as she and the son were about to turn away in sorrow the husband finally appears over the crest of the hill on crutches barely able to walk. He rushes toward his family but falls in the dusty road. The mother and son rush to help him, and the family is together once more.
I am not sure that particular film was on my mind that morning, but I was hoping for a similar ending.
As the ceremony began a ranking officer came down the line presenting medals and ribbons to the assembled airmen and exchanging salutes with each one. It was a rather somber event with serious looks on all faces. When he came to me he had to bend down to pin the Air Medal on me, then he stood and saluted and I didn’t know what to do except salute back, then he smiled and shook my hand. I noticed that the airmen on either side of me were smiling too.
When the ceremony was completed and before all the men were dismissed they called me forward for a photograph and my brother Steve joined me. Even today the looks on the faces of those little boys speaks volumes and my heart goes out to them over all the years.
My father had not appeared as I had hoped and I had to finally accept that he was not coming back, though it was a bitter pill to swallow. I don’t think that Steve had the same conflicted emotions since he was born after our father was killed and he had no memories of him. Rulon was the only father he had known and fully accepted. It took me a while longer to shift allegiances but in time I came to love Rulon Neilson for the fine, decent and kind man that he was. From the beginning he called us “his boys” and we called him Dad. He shared his love of the outdoors with us, taught us to shoot and took us camping and hunting and fishing. I also learned how to work on cars and other machinery from him: skills that have served me well through the years.
Sometime after that June morning my mother approached me asked me since I now had two medals, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart, if I would like to share one with my brother. Since the Air Medal had been ceremoniously presented to me I chose it and let Steve have the Purple Heart. From an eight year old boy’s perspective the Air Medal with its sunburst design and with a diving eagle with lightning bolts in its talons was more romantic, plus at that age I did not appreciate the value of the Purple Heart. To this day we are each proud keepers of these medals of our father’s valor.
Friday, March 13, 2015
|American Graves Registration Service At Work|
After the war, units of the American Grave Registration Service diligently searched throughout Europe for the remains of US servicemen and did their best to identify them and return them to American soil. They interviewed returning POWs for information regarding missing servicemen, and they talked with mayors and residents of towns expending any effort to locate and identify MIAs.
On July 3, 1946, the Czech State Police Station reported to Graves Registration, "Eight Anglo-American airmen are buried in the military cemetery, section 4. They were shot down over Slany on 2 March, 1945, in air combat. The airmen were buried on 4 March, 1945, in the German section, therefore they were exhumed on 24 May, 1945, and buried again in grave numbers 17-18-19-20. It was impossible to find out the names of the airmen as the plane crashed in the vicinity of the German training camp. The German soldiers got to the plane and robbed the dead airmen in a most cruel manner of all their property and documents.”
There conflicting reports about whether or not their dog tags were buried with the crew. One story is that the dog tags were thrown into the grave in a bunch, while another says that the Germans took everything including the dog tags. Regardless, one Czech citizen had written down the serial number from the tail of the plane where it fell a few miles away from the rest of the wreckage so at least the names of the crew could be identified. The bodies of Don Christensen and his crew were buried two in each of the four graves, still with only mattress covers for coffins. It turned out that Don and his co-pilot William Love were in the same grave, but that would not be known until identification was made through dental records in 1950.
In late July, Graves Registration requested permission to exhume the bodies of the airmen and on August 2, this was granted by Czech officials. On August 6, 1946, the remains of the Christensen crew were exhumed from the Slany cemetery and transported to the U.S. military cemetery at St. Avold, France. This solemn event was much celebrated by the people of Slany. Mr. Jurka Rus, newspaper editor and elementary school principal, wrote:
“There was a large thunderstorm that day. The bodies were placed into new coffins under the supervision of county physician Dr. Josef Novotny. Other present parties included the honor company of the Czechoslovak police from Slany, local police, the Military Union, legionnaires, Sokol, boy scouts, firefighters, Samaritan squads, the County social assistance, representatives of the Czech-American Club, and plenty of other visitors…The members of the Military Union carried the coffins from the cemetery’s ceremonial room to prepared American cars. The coffins were covered with American flags. Beautiful wreaths were carried in front of the cars. Present were Ms. Kubikova, Ms. Vykanska, and Ms. Petrzilkova [the women imprisoned at Terezin for putting flowers on the graves] who suffered so much for their sympathies with our allies. Bells were ringing as the mourning [convoy] was moving slowly through the town among numerous local people. Plenty of them were laying wreaths on slowly moving vehicles. Lots of people were escorting their beloved heroes up to the former chemical plant where the last goodbye on behalf of the town’s citizens was said by the chairman of the local government office, Mr. Ant Hejduk. An American officer, moved by so much reverent attention, asked a Czechoslovak captain to interpret warm thanks from the U.S. Army and the Republic for so much love and gratitude expressed to their soldiers. The famous heroes were transported to a joint cemetery of American soldiers close to Paris.”
|Lorraine American Cemetery At St. Avold|
At St. Avold the US Medical Officer reported that the bodies, which had lain unprotected in the ground for a year and half, were badly mangled and could not be separated. In addition, the bodies had been badly burned when their plane crashed and caught on fire and were devoid of flesh so no fingerprints could be taken and only a few bones, mandibles and teeth were not fractured or burned. They were then reburied in graves marked "unknown" under various X numbers. The grim findings about the mangled, flesh-less bodies of the crew were never communicated to their families of the crew and I only discovered this information in my father's Individual Death Personnel File (IDPF).
Then on June 10, 1947, Jocile received another letter from the War Department: "With deep regret you must be informed that, although the records of this office discloses that his remains were properly interred in a manner befitting our honored dead, due to the manner in which he met his death it has not yet been possible to individually identify his remains or those of others of his crew. The remains of this crew were interred as a group in the U.S. Military Cemetery St. Avold, located twenty-three miles east of Metz, France."
"Please be assured that the Grave Registration Service exhausts every available clue which might lead to the individual identification of our deceased Military Personnel. If further research fails to establish individual identity, the remains of this group will be returned to the United States for final interment in a National Cemetery designated by the Quartermaster General."
Years later my mother recalled, "He was declared legally dead on March 3, 1946 and a year later they said they had found the graves in Czechoslovakia and that all of them had been put in two graves and they couldn't make positive identification so they were put in a military cemetery in France."
On January 11, 1950, Jocile received further word from the Department of the Army that Don's remains had been positively identified through dental records.
"According to our records, the identification of these remains was established by favorable comparison of the tooth chart made for the deceased with information maintained in Army dental records for your husband.The remains have now been casketed and are being held above ground storage pending disposition instructions from the next of kin, either for return to the United States or for permanent burial in an overseas cemetery."
"There are enclosed informational pamphlets regarding the Return of World War II Dead Program, including a disposition form on which you may indicate your desires in this matter."
Ironically, Jocile had remarried my step-father Rulon Neilson one month earlier in December 1949, and therefore lost the right to decide the disposition of my father's remains. That right then passed to his mother and my grandmother, Annice Christensen who wanted her boy brought home. Jocile was opposed to this decision but had no more say in the matter, as she explains:
"I had lost the right to sign so his mother signed to have him brought home. I was opposed to bringing him home because I knew how he felt about it because he said the body meant nothing to him and he didn't like money spent on funerals and things but that is what the family wanted so that is what they did. He is buried at Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, California. His father was buried there and they left a space for his mother so Don is buried by his parents in Rose Hills."
Don's next oldest brother Harry was a mortician in Long Beach and took care of all the arrangements for receiving his remains in July 1950 and transporting them to the cemetery for a closed casket grave-side service. The military supplied a simple stone marker for the grave. Jocile and Rulon attended this service and she wrote, "How many women have the experience of going to bury one husband with another husband?"
My father was re-buried with full military honors in a full size coffin. No one knew, except perhaps for Harry the mortician, that the coffin contained only a few unbroken bones, a mandible and some teeth. For many years I imagined that his whole body in dress uniform was buried there. Only recently did I obtain his IDPF which explained the true story.
All of the rest of the crew was also returned to the United States with the exception of waist gunner Kenneth Plantz who remains at St Avold.
From what I've seen of American Military Cemeteries in Europe I have to agree with my mother that one of them would have been a better resting place for my father among his comrades than alone in California. Somehow at military cemeteries in England, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, Europeans seem to honor our WWII dead better than we do in this country. Of course we have fine facilities at Arlington and the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C., and others, but the dedication and care displayed by volunteers and citizens in Europe is truly impressive.
|Cambridge American Military Cemetery|
As it is, almost no one in the Christensen family lives in Southern California any longer and the graves of my father and his parents are seldom visited or tended properly, except by my son Jeff.
|Jeff Tending Grave, Rose Hills, California|
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Monday, March 9, 2015
Jocile came from a large English-Swiss family that had known much tragedy and heartbreak over the years and tended to be stoic and display little outward or public emotion. When the telegram arrived she read it, handed it to her parents, then went into her room and shut the door and remained there for two days. She also refused to go to church for several weeks because she did not want the attention and sympathy she had seen so many other sobbing war wives receive. She once told my first wife Susan that she cried so much during those two days in her room that she had no tears left. In fact I don't remember her crying again, except perhaps in frustration over her rowdy children. When her second husband, my step-father Rulon Neilson, died I remember her showing no emotion at the funeral or grave site.
But this was another story that was played out over and over during the war. A young wife and mother, six months pregnant, living on $50 a month Army pay, learns from a telegram that her husband is missing and may be dead. Years later she wrote: “On March 19, 1945 came that dreaded telegram from the War Department informing us that Don’s plane had been shot down over Germany on March 2nd – my 24th birthday. Even though this is something you had to be prepared for in war time, it was a shock to all of us. We kept our hopes up for a time. It was obvious we were nearing the end of the war and we thought we would hear something soon.”
Local news media, along with the Los Angeles Police department were also notified. The following article appeared in the Santa Monica Oulook, March 23, 1945.
The California Intermountain News reported, Friday, March 30, 1945.
"Missing in action is Lieutenant Donald Christensen, husband of Jocile Ursenbach Christensen. Word reached his family March 19 that he had been missing since March 2 when the B-17 which he piloted failed to return from a mission in Germany. He has been overseas for two months and was based in England. Don served as a missionary in Denmark when war broke out in Europe and was among the missionaries evacuated. He finished his mission in the East Central States. After entering the air corps almost two years ago, Don took his training in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, California, and Iowa. His wife and baby son, Donnie, were with him during the time he was stationed in Iowa."
The Los Angeles Police department included the following in their radio broadcast on March 20:
"Word has been received that Officer Donald R. Christensen, a lieutenant in the army, on military leave from this department, has been reported missing in action in the European Theater. He formerly worked at University Division and is brother of Detective L. E. Christensen, Commander of West Los Angeles Detective Division."
Paul E. Harrison, Captain
Los Angeles Police Department
When my father left for England my mother and I lived with my Grandpa and Grandma Ursenbach on 70th Street in Los Angeles. Grandpa who was something of a writer and poet wrote a poem called "Missing In Action" which contained the following verse:
"A pilot missing with his crew somewhere
While hearts at home torn with profound suspense
Raise daily prayers that Divine Providence
May keep them safe in God's protecting care"
Over the next several months there was much correspondence between Jocile and the War Department, the Army Air Force, and with the families of the other crewmen. By late April she received a summary of the Group Commander’s report for March 2, reiterating that Don’s plane had been disabled and attacked and was last seen disappearing into the 10,000 foot cloud cover below, but nothing was yet known about the fate of the crew.
Shortly after V-E Day, when censorship of letters was eased by the military, Don's nineteen-year-old navigator Lawson Ridgeway sent this letter from Nuthampstead:
May 13 – England
I’ve thought about writing this letter very many times and have tried, but it’s very difficult to get one through the censor office, and I keep getting them back. Now with the end of the war restrictions have been lifted somewhat and this one should go thru. Before, we over here were forbidden to mention or to give any information at all concerning those that are reported missing. I hope when you read this letter it sounds encouraging for I do feel that way and I was glad to hear that you also have not lost your faith.
Chris and his crew, on March 2, after enemy opposition over Chemnitz, Germany, had trouble with the ship. The damage was such that the ship wouldn’t stay in flight but it did seem operational enough to allow everybody time to bail out, especially at such a high altitude as they were. Because of the clouds directly below we couldn’t view them get out but I feel certain they did. If they were POW’s I feel also certain that they are alright now. Being a war prisoner isn’t as bad as it sounds. I know that’s hard for you to believe after reading about Buchenwald and such horror camps—but such camps as those don’t apply to army prisoners. Those camps are mostly political and concentration camps. The story is much different for the army and especially the air corps.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that you hadn’t received any further details. I’m sure they don’t give any—or very little—so don’t be alarmed as the situation was over here for the past six months with such great advances the Germans were in a state of confusion moving their prisoners about and very few and mixed up records were kept. As a result, very little detailed word is received concerning the boys that are prisoners. No word has been received at this base in 7 months.
It’s quite possible that you will receive further information before this base receives it, so I wish you would please write me as soon as you are notified, for I as well as all the men Chris was in contact with are anxious over his condition. Wherever he is now I know he wants you to be brave and strong now so lil’ Donnie the second will be born brave and strong like his father.
All my best wishes and prayers go with you for your prayers to be answered. Always a friend—whenever I may help you in any way please remember me. I hope I shall have a chance to pay you and Donnie a visit soon
And soon after returning home from Europe, tail gunner Haakenson also wrote to Jocile:
June 29, 1945
Dear Mrs. Christensen,
I’m sure grateful that I’m back in the States and able to write you a letter personally but I regret that I’m not able to furnish you the information you’d like most. You see I was in the tail assembly when that section was shot off, so I don’t know what happened to the rest of the plane. I was shot up a little in the head; in fact I lost an eye. I can be thankful I didn’t get hurt worse, and I sure hope the rest of the crew is alright and will hear from them soon. I did not see any of them in prison camp and I tried to check up on them in France but they seemed to know nothing.
Of course you’ll be the first one notified in case they are found. And by the way the tail was shot off before the ship went into evasive action, so I think they had a good chance of getting out.
Well it’s all the news I have and I sure hope we hear something soon. I’m just as anxious as anyone to see them back. We’ll hope and pray together that they return safe soon.
Throughout the year Jocile continued to write and receive communicattions from various military and government officials seeking information and receiving assurances that everything that could be done was being done to locate her husband and all other missing airmen and soldiers. A letter from August 1, 1945 is typical:
But as months passed, hope of finding anyone alive faded. Years later Jocile wrote that she came to her own conclusion and resignation by June: “I kept my hopes alive until Steve was born, June 12, 1945. As I came out of the ether following his birth I told the doctor that Don was not coming back, but that was how it was supposed to be. The doctor said, “Yes I know. You have been talking to him.” I have no recollection of anything like that, but what I did have was a calm, serene feeling that all was well. I knew I had two boys to raise alone. Don and his crew were kept on the missing in action rolls for a year and declared legally dead on March 3, 1946.”
On that March 3, 1946, Jocile received a letter from the War Department stating that Don's status was changed from missing in action to a presumptive finding of death, and for "the termination of pay and allowances, settlement of accounts and payment of death gratuities. I regret the necessity for this message but trust that the ending of a long period of uncertainty may give at least some small measure of consolation."
There was still no word or knowledge of the fate of Don Christensen and his crew. At he same time units of the American Grave Registration Service were still diligently searching throughout Europe and the Pacific for the remains of US servicemen and doing their best to identify them and return them to American soil or to a military cemetery .
Since Don was a police officer on military leave at the time of his death, Jocile soon received official recognition and condolences from the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD. Mayor Fletcher Bowron sent a letter of sympathy, and concluded, “A grateful community will forever honor your husband for his supreme sacrifice on the altar of freedom.”
On March 28, 1946, the Los Angeles City Council concluded their regular business by standing in “silent and final tribute to their associate, 1st Lieutenant Donald R. Christensen.” They then passed a resolution expressing their shared sorrow and regret with the family at his untimely death. Their resolution included the following lofty language altogether fitting and proper for that time:
Then there was a condolence certificate from President Harry S. Truman, which was undoubtedly also sent to the families of all war dead.
My mother told me on more than one occasion that she felt I was too young to understand the loss of my father so she and my grandparents tried to shield me from any overt grief or emotion. Her approach was to simply omit “and please bless daddy and bring him home safe” from bedtime prayers, hoping I would understand more as I grew older.
But she clearly misunderstood the radar that children have for the emotional weather in the home and in the adults around them. I knew that something was wrong. I remembered my father well and it is from this time that I began to have dream-like memories or visions of him and his presence, and recurring dreams of being alone in strange places searching for him. And my search continues still, and accounts for why I am driven to tell his story after 70 years.
People have repeatedly told me I was much too young to have such memories. But they were wrong. Research into childhood brain function and memory has shown that while most people have “childhood amnesia,” in which they lose access to early memories – usually before the age of four or five – some as young as 18 months have clear memories, particularly when they are connected to an emotionally charged event such as the birth of a sibling, a traumatizing illness, or the death of a parent. In addition, repeated recall of such memories – particularly when they are fashioned into good story – actually strengthens them over time. Perhaps that is why many older people can recall people and events from their youth better than they can recall their short-term memory. I am quite familiar with that phenomenon.
More on memory later.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Friday, March 6, 2015
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
As mentioned in an earlier post, my father's B-17 without its tail went into a flatspin which created a centrifugal force from which there was almost no chance of escape or survival. Perhaps mercifully, such tremendous G-forces would cause most airmen to blackout. There were only a few who survived such spinning, diving crashes, and their experiences testify to the difficulties of escaping these wounded aircraft.
Gunner Bill Fleming gives another perspective from someone who managed to survive inside a spinning Fortress. “We went into a diving spin and the pilot rang the bail-out alarm but nobody could jump out because the centrifugal force was holding us in. The experience is impossible to describe. Once I couldn’t move, I knew there was no way we were going to come out of that dive and I was going to die. The fear I felt was unbelievable. As we came down, somehow, even the pilot couldn’t later say how he did it, he pulled that plane out of the dive. We started at 28,000 feet and leveled off only at 6,000.” [Astor 157]
Reactions among airmen witnessing others planes go down varied. On his very first mission navigator Carroll “Ted” Binder from 303rd Bomb Group felt distantly removed as he watched other planes and crews shot down. “The group ahead of us really seemed to be getting it now. One Fort dropped out of formation with a wing on fire. Seven chutes came out of it before a blinding explosion finished off the plane and crew. Another “Seventeen” which must have had a hit in the gas tank exploded while still in formation. We were fairly safe (especially when they were concentrating on someone else). It was strange how detached from the whole battle I felt. I experienced no more emotion when I saw a Fort with 10 men in it blow up than I used to experience when such a scene was enacted in the movies. I just couldn’t feel I was part of the drama going on in the arena around me.”
Copilot Jim Fletcher had a different and more visceral reaction. “When we were under attack the tension was high and you acted automatically with no time to be scared. Far worse was seeing someone else get hit. One of the most unnerving things I ever witnesses was a group of B-24’s being annihilated by German fighters. They were way out ahead of us and we could see bombers being picked off and every so often one would get hit and explode. Seeing it like that had far more impact; you had time to think what soon might be happening to you.” [Roger Freeman, B-17 Fortress at War, p.109]
Wally Hoffman, in a post called “The Death of a Flying Fortress,” on armyairforces.com April 4, 2005, writes, and “We would watch helplessly as another Fortress in the same formation started to slip and slide out of the combat formation. . . You can almost hear the groan as she falls back into a vertical spin to her death. The Fortress dies hard, as do the 10 men of the crew inside her. This was their Fortress they made come alive, trying to hold on to that last thin thread keeping her in the air. With tears in our eyes we watch and count the parachutes all the while loudly shouting, ‘Get out. Get out.’ We knew all too well there was little chance of tomorrow for any of us. Some survived and came home. But the question always remains: Why us? Why not them?”
Attitudes among surviving airmen who lost friends or watched others die also varied. Some credited their prayers or faith in God for saving them. Others found it impossible to trust or believe in a God that sent many good men to their deaths. Most felt that God or divine intervention had nothing to do with it; they were in a crap shoot and it was simply the luck of the draw as to who survived.
When Bert Stiles lost his good friend Albert McCardle, he wrote,“The most you could say is that we came back every time. The Luftwaffe never got us, and neither did the flak operators. If we weren’t a great crew we were a lucky crew. Mac might have had a great crew, and look what happened to him.
"He could fly his airplane too. He could sock in close in formation and hold it there all day long. He never got sore and started kicking the airplane around. And he knew plenty about engines and flaps and landing gear and hydraulic systems and electrical systems. He could set up an auto-pilot the way Honeywell Company intended. -- All he lacked was luck” [Bert Stiles, Serenade To The Big Bird, pp. 56, 84]
In his memoir, 398th navigator Leonard Streitfeld writes, “It was a matter of luck as to who was going to get shot down. If it was your turn there was nothing you could do about it, but you just pray that you survived.” Twenty-one-year-old B-17 pilot, Al Meiklejohn from the 100th Bomb group says, “I got through all of it without a scratch. Other guys, some better, more skilled, died. Dumb luck. I still don’t understand it.” [Denver Post, Sat. May 27, 2006.]
Bert Stiles continues: “It’s sort of queer when a guy goes down. Everything goes on. You keep waiting for him to come back from a leave. In a quiet moment he just checks out. It isn’t like seeing him get shot in half while you lie in the grass somewhere. It doesn’t mean anything at all at first. You just say, Mac’s gone. Mac went down. Mac’s had it, and you really don’t believe it yet. And then you wake up some night, after you’ve been arguing with him in a dream. And you walk in the mess hall, and save a seat for him before you remember. It hits you slow, like cancer. It builds up inside you into something pretty grim and petty ugly. Why did it have to be him?” [Stiles, p. 55]
In one of his fine articles, Flak News editor Allen Ostrom wrote of the impermanence of the memory of a lost crew: “When a World War II air crew failed to return home, and the eye witnesses provided convincing evidence that they had been shot down, little time was wasted in clearing out their personal belongings from their Nissen hut or tent.
“Early that morning they were there. Full of life, cocky and confident. Then gone. The hut now is strangely quiet and different. Someone has already slipped in and picked up their things. The photos are gone. The clothes on the rack are gone. The boots under the bunk are gone. The .45 that “Shorty” was so proud of is gone. It has all been cleaned out.
"Silently, as if questions are forbidden, the ones in the hut who did make it home go about the tasks of rearranging their quarters. One will move to a bunk away from the drafty door. Another will lay claim to the choice bunk in the corner where one of the “missing” guys had built a neat writing desk. And the drama will continue. Another mission tomorrow and soon the names of the ‘missing’ guys will hardly be remembered. Once a crew was listed as missing there was precious little information forthcoming as to their status. Just missing.
“Sadly, some crew members simply never did find out what happened to the men who one day turned up missing. If they were lucky enough to come home from the war healthy and unscathed there were more important tasks at hand. School, job, marriage, family. News about the killed in action, wounded, prisoners, missing, became a distant dream. And then all but forgotten.” [398th.org]
One of the unfortunate behaviors of some US servicemen in WWII was the swift looting of a missing airman’s possessions, even before it was certain he was dead. Pilot Ralph Golubuck surprised some looters going through his recently dead friend’s locker. “When I arrived I was stunned. There were six or seven guys in the room, all going through Bob’s possessions. ‘What the hell’s going on,’ I yelled. ‘Get the hell out of here.’ ‘Take it easy,’ was the reply. ‘He won’t be needing any of this.’ I went berserk. I grabbed my gun, which I always kept hanging over my bunk, and pointed it at them. ‘Get the hell out of here, you bastards, or I will blow your fucking heads off.’…I have never been more ashamed of a group of men. And they were all officers in the U.S. Army. All bastards.”
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Monday, March 2, 2015
March 2, 1945 was a special day for Lt. Donald Christensen. It was his wife Jocile’s twenty-fourth birthday. She was six-months pregnant and due to deliver their second child, my brother Steve, in June. If things went right he would finish his thirty-five missions or perhaps the war would be over and he’d be home for the new birth and to be reunited with his son, Donnie. He had a tight-knit, confident, and dedicated crew who looked to him and trusted him for leadership. After four successful missions, including one where he brought a severely crippled plane down safely in Belgium, he had experienced plenty of flak but, like most of his bomb group, had yet to see a German fighter.
In fact, since Don’s arrival at Nuthampstead on February 1, the 398th had lost only one plane to fighters. On February 22, 1945, the Hubert F. Beatty crew was attacked by a ME-262 jet and went down in flames at Attendorf, Germany. The pilot and copilot were killed and six other crew members became POWs. By contrast, since the beginning of 1945, seven 398th planes had been lost to flak. During the last five months of the war, flak rather than enemy fighters was generally the bomber crews’ larger and more consistent worry.
|German ME-262 Jet|
By 1945, Luftwaffe air defenses were greatly diminished. The problem for the Reich was not a shortage of fighter aircraft. They had plenty of planes, including ME-109s FW-190s, and their new ME-262 jet fighter. But they were short of fuel, proficient pilots, transportation facilities, and adequate airfields. Three years of air war against American and British bombers and fighters had robbed them of their most skilled pilots. American P-38s, P-47s and P-51s, along with RAF Spitfires now ruled the skies over Germany. The introduction of the long-range P-51 Mustang in 1944 had really turned the tide; it was simply the best fighter of World War II with long-range capabities and the Germans had nothing to match it.
When General Jimmie Doolittle assumed command of the Eighth in early 1944 he turned his fighters loose to hunt down the enemy in the air and on the ground. “If it moved, could fly or supported the German war effort,” he said, “I told my pilots to kill it in place.” This proved to be a very successful strategy and assured that the Allies controlled the skies over France prior to D-Day, and they continued to dominate the outgunned and out-skilled Luftwaffe thereafter.
Also, by late 1944, the Eighth Air Force had finally stumbled upon a winning strategy by bombing German fuel production, transportation facilities --especially railroads canals, and bridges -- power stations, and airfields, thereby destroying fuel supplies, enemy aircraft, and many long runways needed for the Reich’s jet fighters.
The Eighth Air Force put up over 1200 bombers that day. Don's group, the 398th BG, was part of 1st Air Division's force of 444 planes, that were to attack the synthetic oil facilities at Bohlen in eastern German; another long grind that would take at least 10 hours there and back.
On that day, after weeks of little or no fighter activity, the Luftwaffe ordered all available fighters airborne in what would prove to be their last major show of resistance against the western Allies. Air battles were fought across the sky that day from Magdeburg, Germany in the northwest to Prague, Czechoslovakia in the southeast, with significant losses for both sides. However, at the end of the day American fighters and bombers controlled all German airspace; the Luftwaffe lay in shambles. Ironically, this day also proved to be the last mission by Don Christensen and his crew. Peter Kassak has chronicled this unusual day well in his book, An Ordinary Day In 1945.
That morning did not begin well for the 398th Bomb Group. First, they had trouble “bunching up” before crossing the English coast, and after that their formation was only fair. Following a long flight across Germany with many hours on oxygen, their primary target was the petroleum facilities at Bohlen, Germany. But with worsening weather conditions and an 8/10 (80%) cloud cover, the bomber stream turned toward the secondary target, the railroad marshalling yards at Chemnitz. As the 398th approached Chemnitz, things deteriorated further. Communication went out between the three squadrons, creating much confusion as the squadrons got separated and could not coordinate their attack.
Group Commander’s report for that mission states: “Communication between Lead and High and Low [squadrons] was out. High and Low did not know what target was being bombed so evidently prepared to make separate runs. Got separated from Lead and in making 360’s got separated from each other.”
As Don's 603rd Squadron approached Chemnitz on its own, their PFF radar was not working properly and they did not get good location of the target, so Command Pilot Ken Beckstrom suddenly decided to go around again for another run. This turn took them many miles south over Czech territory.
Don was flying with his regular crew except for the addition of navigator Lt. Harry Ostrow who was on his first mission with the Christensen crew. Their regular navigator, nineteen-year-old Lawson Ridgeway, was in the squadron’s lead ship that day. He was a good young navigator and was being trained to be lead navigator by Bill Frankhouser, who was nearing the end of his tour.
|Don Christensen's Plane|
As noted earlier, Don Christensen’s plane for these last two missions, 44-6573, N7-K, had been disabled and AOC (abandoned on continent) in January and only recently reassigned to the 398th following repairs for damage and mechanical failure, but the aircraft continued to have problems. That morning Don was having mechanical or electrical problems with his flaps and difficulty keeping up with the rest of the squadron. Being far into eastern Germany it was too late to abort the mission, so his best course was to try to stay with the formation for protection, but he was having great difficulty and continued to lag behind the rest of the formation.
Flight engineer Robert Dudley was doing his best to operate the flaps by a hand crank, but this was a poor substitute for the electric motors. One can easily imagine the concern and emergency actions by Don and his crew, knowing that they were in a precarious situation deep over enemy territory. Near the IP, about 30 miles from the target, they were forced to drop their bombs to lighten their load but continued to lag behind..
While making that sudden and unexpected right-hand 360 degree turn over Chemnitz the whole 603rd Squadron came apart, throwing Don further out of formation, as in a game of crack-the-whip. At this vulnerable moment the scattered squadron was attacked by a group of German FW-190s. The Christensen plane, already more than a half mile behind the rest of the formation, was a prime target, a straggler. It was 10:30 AM.
Lt. W. M. Gibbons, 603rd Lead Bombardier, reported, “We went into the Secondary target on PFF but did not get a good run so decided to go around again. We made our turn and as we proceeded out to get enough distance for another run we were subjected to attacks by bandits…we were out of Wing and Group formation.” [398th.org]
The great irony and piece of bad luck is that Don happened to be flying a defective aircraft on the very day that Germany launched all their fighters in one last defensive effort in the air. It was another one of those strange anomalies that happened so often during the war.
The enemy fighters initially made a pass through the loose squadron formation then turned and attacked from behind. Three or four of them came after Don Christensen’s struggling plane. After the war, surviving tail gunner Selmer Haakenson explained: “Approximately thirty minutes before reaching our target we were forced to drop our bombs due to mechanical difficulty with the flaps. Flight engineer Sgt. Robert Dudley went to manually retract our flaps. Shortly after his return we were attacked by approximately 6 FW-190s.” The plane took several hits from German 20mm cannons, especially in the tail section, and was forced further out of formation. [MACR #12853]
The German pilots from JG-301 “Wilde Sau” that attacked the 603rd that day were flying FW-190 A/9s, a late modification first introduced in September 1944. It was a high altitude, high performance plane with two 13mm machine guns and four 20mm cannons. German pilots often employed the “company front,” or wedge formation in attacking bombers in a group, usually from the front or side and then from behind, and their first objective was to put the tail gun out of action. As JG pilot Willi Reschke writes, “My first burst was directed at the tail gunner; he had the widest field of fire and posed the greatest threat to me.” This is the same strategy used against the Christensen plane.
During the attack from behind, Don’s tail gunner Selmer Haakenson was severely wounded and blinded in his right eye but still returned fire and downed at least one, possibly two of the FW-190s. In his post-war report sole survivor Haakenson stated, “We received numerous hits from 20 mm guns. One of them disabled my intercom. A piece of shrapnel hit my face on the right side…That hit threw me on my back on the gunner’s floor. I grabbed my parachute and attached it on only one side due to my flak vest. I returned to my place and continued firing and saw an approaching fighter which began to smoke. Shortly after that our airplane banked to the left and the rear part was cut off. Nobody jumped out of that airplane. The rear part fell into a spin…I was not able to jump out. It stopped [spinning] at 2,000 feet. I dropped my flak vest, attached the parachute and jumped out through the rear door.”
It is highly likely that badly wounded tail gunner Haakenson downed at least one, possibly two, of the German fighters that attacke the Christensen plane. This is especially plausible since two eyewitnesses reported seeing a fighter behind the Christensen plane go into a smoking dive, and another reported seeing an enemy plane explode from the same position
As the Christensen plane rolled left and disappeared into the clouds below, the tail section separated from the fuselage and the plane became uncontrollable. Without its tail, Don’s B-17 went into a flatspin which created a centrifugal force from which there was almost no chance of escape or survival. Accounts from several Czech citizens on the ground state that the Christensen plane came down “falling like a leaf,” landed on its belly, broke apart and caught on fire.
|B-17 "Silver Dollar" Without Its Tail|
In addition, one Czech eyewitness to the B-17 crash reported: “Two German fighters also came down. The first German plane landed due to engine failure. The pilot was Lt. [Josef] Krapp, and he said he was hit by one of the American bombers. His FW-190 was identified with a blue '3.' The second crashed into the ground and the pilot was killed." [Flak News, Vol. 6, No. 4, p 4, Oct 1991] This lends further credence to Haakenson’s heroic actions that day, especially since no other 603rd gunner claimed downing a German fighter.
The other 603rd plane damaged that day was 42-97317; one of the original aircraft assigned to the 398th Bomb Group and piloted Lt. Richard Ellis who was one of the February replacements along with the Christensen crew. During the air battle they lost two engines and were forced to land at Merville, France where their plane was AOC. It was later repaired but not returned to the 398th. Ellis and four of his crewmen were killed twelve days later, on March 14, when their next aircraft, 43-37825, was hit by flak in number three engine, dropped down and exploded. Four survivors were captured and held as POW’s.
After the attack and the loss of the Christensen plane, lead navigator Bill Frankhouser recalls, “The pilots looked for protection that would be afforded by the main bomber stream, but we never did find it. The bombardier dropped our bombs on a rural railroad crossing through a hole in the cloud layer.” Lead bombardier W.M. Gibbons reported “As we were out of wing and group formation it was decided best to get back in rather than make a run all by ourselves. We did get back into the bomber stream and bombed a T.O.O. [Target of Opportunity] on the route back.”
Most of the nine remaining 603rd planes were low on fuel and nearly all were forced to land on the continent, mainly at B-53 Merville/Calonne, France, for fuel or repairs before returning to base. Only two 603rd planes made it back to Nuthampstead that day.
Debriefing reports from three crew members on those returning planes agree on the essentials of the attack that day but differ in a few details, which is understandable since everyone’s attention was focused on repelling the enemy fighters. Also, no one saw the tail section separate before the Christensen plane disappeared from sight. These reports appear in a Missing Air Crew Report (MACR #12852). I am left to wonder what additional information might have emerged if the crews from the seven other 603rd planes returning the following day had also been debriefed.
Sgt. Richard Mills, tail gunner in Lt. Harold Spangler’s plane, observed: “Our 603rd squadron was attacked by enemy fighters while making a 360 degree turn around the target. On this turn Lt. Christensen’s airplane was thrown out of the formation as he was trying to catch up. I noticed that a fighter plane, which was directly behind him, begin smoking and went into a dive. This was first indication that enemy fighters were in the area. In the following few minutes I was busy shooting at and calling out other fighters to other members of my crew… I looked back and saw Lt. Christensen’s airplane diving straight toward the cloud layer. There was no smoke or flame visible and the airplane appeared to be completely intact. I never did see any parachutes.”
Sgt. Norm Anderson, tail gunner on the Lt. Norm Williams’s crew, reported: “Lt. Christensen’s ship was flying at about seven o’clock from us and about 1,000 yards behind us when three or four FW 109’s attacked it from out of the sun at about nine o’clock….The FW’s made about four passes and Lt. Christensen’s ship went over on its left wing and into a spin with no sign of smoke or fire. I did not see any chutes come out. I watched the ship until it went into the clouds.”
Flight engineer Sgt. Richard Martin also witnessed the attack. “As Engineer of Spangler’s crew, I was flying in the upper turret when the fighters hit us on that Chemnitz raid. Lt. Christensen was flying somewhere between one-half to three-quarters of a mile behind the group….There were four fighters going after Lt. Christensen’s plane. Just before the plane went down one enemy plane exploded behind his plane. His plane went straight down. I could see no smoke or fire. I lost sight of the plane as it went below our horizontal stabilizer. I saw no chutes at the time.”
The 398th Group Commander’s report for March 2, summarizes: “This report is based on the observations and encounters of the only two available crews of the High Squadron which was hit. Other crews are missing or have landed on Continent. Five to six FW-190’s came out of the sun in no recognizable formation, made one pass through the rather loose formation, attacked four of our aircraft (2 of which were knocked down). The formation became loose on the turn while making a 360’ over target south of Chemnitz. Fighters attacked singly from tail about 4 or 6 o’clock position…E/A started attacks at about 900 yards and pressed them to varying distances – closest being about 50 feet…Saw FW’s go down into clouds smoking, then come back up.” A later report added, “The [Christensen] plane encountered mechanical difficulty and was attacked by enemy fighters.”
Bill Frankhouser was lead navigator for the 603rd Squadron that day. In his 1997 book, World War II Odyssey, he writes, “I was flying in the lead ship of the high squadron, with Bob Steele as Lead Pilot and Ken Becksrom as Command Pilot. In addition, we had a second navigator in our lead plane – Rideway [Lawson Ridgeway, Don's regular navigator], who was relatively new in the squadron. Each squadron was to bomb separately through full cloud coverage using the Mickey radar that was available in each of the lead planes. . . Unfortunately, the Mickey system malfunctioned and our bombs were not released on the approach to the target. The pilots asked for a course to circle and make a second approach. Our map showed various flak gun emplacements near the Czechoslovakian/German border at Brux, and we directed the pilots in a wide circle to the south around those guns.
“Next, I saw some small shell bursts ahead of our plane and I wondered what they were. I looked out the side window and saw a German FW (Focke-Wulf) fighter plane – my first close view of enemy fighters in twenty-eight missions. The pilot was flying parallel to us and looking directly at us. The squadron was under attack by several fighters and the shell bursts had come from their 20-mm cannons. This fighter attack downed the Christensen crew whose plane was positioned near the rear of our formation and only one crewman survived – rather miraculously. Certainly the German Air Force still had the ability to play havoc within 8th Air Force bomber formations when fuel was available. Also, our gunners could still respond since two FW-190s were shot down during these attacks.”
In this last major all-out air battle with the Luftwaffe, the Eighth Air Force lost twenty-one bombers, both B-17s and B-24s; 8 to fighter attacks, 7 to flak, 4 to mid-air collisions, one to friendly fire, and one to technical failure. In addition, twenty-three American fighters were also lost that day.
But the battle fared much worse for the Luftwaffe. They lost 133 planes destroyed or severely damaged, including eight of their precious Me-262 jets, 51 FW-190’s, and 50 ME-109’s, along with various other planes. Outnumbered ten to one in fighter strength before this day, and with their infrastructure and petroleum facilities severely damaged, March 2nd marked a body blow from which the Luftwaffe would not recover. German ace Willi Reschke wrote that this was the last time the JG-301 flew a major defensive mission against bombers: “American fighters and bombers now controlled German airspace at all altitudes…This marked the end of once powerful Jagdgeschwader as defense for the Reich.” [Reschke p. 235]
Following that fateful day, Don Christensen and his crew, like so many others before them, were missed for a day or two but were soon out-of-mind at Station 131 amid almost daily missions. They had only been there for one month, were only on their fifth mission, and were not well-known within their own unit, either by other crews or by air or ground echelons. As discussed previously, bomber crews did not fraternize with others easily for that very reason; a friend or the fellow in the next bunk might not be there the next day, and the attrition rate was high.
Don’s friend and fellow 398th pilot, Marvin Coffee, was one of the few who remembered him well. They had been close since their training days back in the states. Marvin later wrote, “We lost Lt. Don Christensen’s crew. [They] were very close with the Coffee Grinders. We felt a deep loss. As a crew we could speak of it to one another.” A few years ago Marvin told me he wished he had said more about my father when he was writing his memoir, Bird of Prey, since they had been such good friends and shared so many experiences.
Don’s 19-year-old navigator Lawson Ridgeway, who had been aboard the squadron lead plane that day, was inconsolable. His loyalty and duty, like most airmen, was with his crew, his buddies. “I wished I’d been with them,” he said.
Officially, Don and his crew were declared Missing in Action and telegrams were sent to the families. For years no one in the American military or the crew member’s families knew what had become of them, whether they were dead or alive, possibly POWs, evaders, or wounded somewhere. Even after tail gunner Haakenson returned from POW camp in June, the fate of the others remained unknown. Following the war Haakenson reported, “I am unable to say what happened to the pilot, Second Lieutenant Donald R. Christensen. The interphones were shot out by the first burst received. After I hit the ground I never saw any of the members of my crew again, or heard anything concerning their whereabouts.”
After a year, on March 3, 1946, the War Department issued a presumptive finding of Killed in Action for the eight crewmen. Their bodies were later recovered by the American Graves Registration Service in Czechoslovakia in 1947.
But this is far from the end of the story.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
On March 1, 1945, ten days after their Belgian adventure where Don had brought a severely crippled B-17 down safely , the Christensen crew flew their fourth mission. It was also the first day for the Don to fly B-17 44-6573, N7-K. This plane had been assigned to the 398th as a replacement aircraft on November 6, 1944, and had seen a lot of action. On January 10, it had been abandoned on the continent due to damage and mechanical failure, then repaired and only recently reassigned to the 398th on February 17. Still they were ready to fly again and get some more missions under their belt.
In early 1945, Allied ground forces were still recovering from the German Ardennes assault known as the Battle of the Bulge, and were not immediately ready to continue their march to the Rhine. Eighth Air Force and RAF planners therefore decided their best course in further weakening Germany was to bomb enemy positions along the Eastern Front in support of the Russian ground offensive since it seemed to have the best chance of ending the war by spring. Selected bombing targets included Berlin, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Dresden, and Bohlen, all major rail centers close to the Eastern Front. Attacks on all of these cities,were made with the full understanding that they were filled with refugees from the east and that the bombings would cause great dislocation, clogged roads and railways, and high human casualties as well.
8th Air Force Commander General Jimmie Doolittle protested. He felt that bombing a population into submission had little chance of success and that it violated “the basic American principle of precision bombing of targets of strictly military significance for which our tactics were designed and our crews trained and indoctrinated.” [Donald L. Miller, Masters Of The Air, p. 419] He was overruled by General Ira Eaker and the attacks proceeded.
|General Jimmie Doolittle|
Even FDR agreed with this decision. “It is of the utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation. [That fact] collectively and individually, must be so impressed upon them that they will hesitate to start any new war. Too many people here and in England hold to the view that the German people as a whole are not responsible for what has taken place—that only a few Nazi leaders are responsible. That unfortunately is not based on fact. The German people as a whole must have it driven home to them that the whole nation has been engaged in a lawless conspiracy against the decencies of modern civilization.” [ibid. p.416]
So with clearing skies at the end of February, Allied Command and the Eighth Air Force launched Operation Clarion, an all out assault on German communication and transportation, and began putting up over 1000 bombers a day attacking petroleum facilities, aircraft plants, armament works, railroad yards, bridges and canals, and anti-aircraft installations all across Germany. So, by March 1, the 398th BG, including Don and his crew, became part of this strategy.
|Mission Map For March 1.|
The 398th's target that March 1st was a tank factory and the marshalling yards at Neckarsulm, several miles north of Stuttgart. The 398th encountered no fighters and only light flak, but the mission was unusual as the bombers circled or “went around” their target three times on orders from a tag-along general.
No one liked doing a 360-degree, or even a 180-degree turn over a target area, especially when it came suddenly and unexpectedly. It meant a group or squadron formation leader had decided to abandon the run to the target, return the formation back to the original IP (Initial Point) or to the secondary IP, and do it again.
Waist gunner Jim Wilson, speaking of an earlier mission, says, “The group started the bomb run and for some reason had to turn off. The leaders decided to make a 360-degree turn and make a second run. You don’t do things like that with the Germans.” [Astor, p. 384]