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.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Visit to Czech Republic

Allan Ostrom, Chuck Sassa, and Jaromir Kohout at Christensen crew memorial

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I knew quite a bit about my father's early life, his marriage to my mother, a little bit about his stateside Air Force training, but had almost no information about his war time experience. Then in April 2005 we had a breakthrough that led us to the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association and to the monument to the Christensen crew near Slany in the Czech Republic. Allen Ostrom put me in touch with some Czech friends who urged us to come to a memorial service scheduled in Slany in June.

On that first trip to the Czech Republic in June 2005 I met Jaromir Kohout who handed me a booklet he had written with Jaromir Kveton entitled 398th Bomb Group a Česká Republika, first published in 2000.

In the early 1985, Jaromir and his brother Martin, then both in their 20’s, formed a group called SLET Pilsen, dedicated to finding and commemorating USAAF crash sites in their country. Jaromir wrote, “We do this so that people know of young boys who flew and were shot down over our country.” They were soon joined by several others with similar interests including co-author Jaromir Kveton and another friend, Jan Zdiarsky. Jan is the founder and director of the Museum of the Air Battle Over the Ore Mountains On September 11, 1944, at Kovarska, near the German border. Jan’s museum is dedicated to that single air battle, known as “Black Monday,” in which over 50 aircraft were shot down including large numbers B-17s from the 100th and 95th Bomb Groups, as well as over 50% of the German fighters sent against them. Jan is also involved in other WWII research projects and contributed some of the photography to Jaromir’s book.

Members of Christensen crew:  Top left Elmer Gurba, Radioman.  Top right Robert Dudley Flight Engineer, Ken Plantz Gunner, Elmer Gurba Radioman, Selmer Haakenson Tail Gunner,Sgt. Carlisle Gunner.

In The 398th Bomb Group and the Czech Republic Jaromir Kohout wrote about the history of the 398th Bomb Group and the airfield at Nuthampstead, some of the group’s early missions into Germany, and most of their missions over Czech territory, including the accidental bombing of Prague on Feb 14, 1945, and their final mission of the war against the Skoda production facility at Pilsen on April 25. A good portion of their work concerns the fate of Christensen crew after their damaged plane disappeared into the clouds on March 2, 1945. It contained information and photos I had never seen, and included several eyewitness accounts of the plane crash, and accounts of the burial of crew members and their recovery by the American Graves Registration Service after the war. Sixty years after that event my Czech friends simply handed me this valuable key to some of the information I had been seeking for decades. They have my undying gratitude.

Allan Ostrom and Jan Zdiarsky
Surviving Tail Gunner Selmer Haakenson with Jaromir's book.

This booklet is written in Czech of course, When I got home I showed it to a couple people from the Czech Republic to get some translation, but with little success.  Then my daughter-in-law Vanessa, who has a translation business -- mainly English to Spanish -- secretly took the booklet and paid an excellent Czech translator to do the job.  She never told us what it cost her but I value my English copy as much as the original.  Thank you, Vanessa!

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