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, February 2, 2015

Basic Training in the Army Air Force

In May 1943, my father completed his six-month probationary period with the Los Angeles Police Department, thus assuring himself a place on the force following his military service. In June he reported to Kearns, Utah for induction and basic training in the Army Air Force.  My mother and I moved in with her parents on 70th Street in Los Angeles. I was nine-months-old.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, nearly the entire American population became involved in the war effort, either in the military or on the home front. It was a time when patriotism and the desire to do one’s duty were at a zenith. The country was flooded with patriotic slogans, images, movies. Many joined the various military services out of that fervor. One young enlistee said, “After Pearl Harbor, just about everybody I knew was ready to enlist, to be drafted, to be part of a program. Very few people didn’t feel we had a responsibility to ourselves and our country.” Pilot Martin Garran remarked, “It was a matter of honor, duty, family. We were exposed to a lot of propaganda. I was defending my mother, my sister, from invasion. I never felt like a hero. I did what I was supposed to do.”  Film critic Pauline Kael remembered, “During the war years, the whole spirit of the country seemed embodied in Life magazine. Its covers featured GI Joes, girls, and generals. The GIs were always clean-cut, wonderful kids. And so were the girls they dated. This was carried through in the movies. Everybody was patriotic and shiny-faced.” 

Men volunteered for the Army Air Force for any number of reasons. Many, like my father, wished to avoid the infantry, especially with America’s disillusionment with a prolonged ground war following WW I. They were also motivated by patriotism, peer pressure, and/or a sense of adventure. Many were drawn to the Air Force by a youthful romantic ideal of flying. They had grown up in the Golden Age of aviation with stories about the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindberg and Billy Mitchell, although most of these young men had never set foot in an airplane before the war. Don had been employed at Lockheed Aviation in Burbank working on the P-38 Lightning, an unusual and powerful twin-engine fighter. Like many male defense workers, Don thought he would rather fly one of these machines than build them. And a small army of Rosie the Riveters was already moving to take their place on the assembly line.

My father had another reason motivating him.  In 1940. during his Mormon mission to Denmark, the Germans attacked and occupied that country and he and the other missionaries were quickly evacuated, first to Norway and then to the United States.  On the North Sea they were stopped and inspected by a German submarine and buzzed several times by British planes, but arrived in New York safely.  My father was deeply resentful of the fate of peaceful Danish people and wanted a chance to strike back against their aggressors. 

For those who wanted to fly, USAAF training usually began at a classification center where they were given a battery of tests for health, eyesight, motor coordination, mental aptitude, and psychological ability. Over half of applicants failed this process, but they could still volunteer for aerial gunnery training.

Basic Army training was mainly conducted by old career sergeants who treated the new air recruits as just another bunch of privates that needed shaping up, “And so the yelling and hollering began, and the nonstop four-letter words.” Physical training included cross-country runs, weightlifting, calisthenics and obstacle courses. The drilling was constant. They were taught barracks duties, close order drill, how to march and then march some more, how to shoot a gun, how to put on a gas mask, and how to obey verbal commands. My father wrote home wondering why more drill sergeants were not shot by their men.

But this was only the beginning of the most mentally rigorous training yet devised by the American military. Before a potential pilot could earn his wings and an officer’s commission in the AAF he had to pass through several additional programs including college courses, Pre-Flight training, and three separate flight training programs—Primary, Basic, and Advanced Pilot Training. Each of these flight schools lasted nine to ten weeks.

After thirty days of basic Army training the air cadets were shipped out to various colleges and universities around the country for months of testing and training in CTD, the College Training Detachment. Before the war the Air Force had established a minimum of a two-year college education for its pilots, co-pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. But by December 10, 1941 that requirement was dropped in favor of those cadets who could pass a rigorous college education equivalency test. In January 1942, the marriage ban for flyers was also eliminated and the age requirement lowered from 20 to 18 years.

In July 1943, my father was assigned to Spearfish, South Dakota for his college training. He had no idea that this was where his future unit, the 398th Bombardment Group, was training and waiting for deployment overseas. The Aviation Cadet Qualifying Exam covered such topics as graph, chart, and map reading, math and physics, principles of mechanics and other technical information, and college level courses in English and history. Potential pilots were also tested for motor coordination, dexterity, response to pressure and reaction to change. In an undated postcard to his mother, he wrote, “I enjoyed your sweet letter and I was very happy to learn that Dad is progressing satisfactorily. I feel pretty happy today as I just learned that I passed all my examinations. I’m pretty weak in math and physics but close to the top in my other subjects.”

After CTD there was another stringent physical exam in which vision was the critical component. Cadets were tested on depth perception, distance and near vision, color perception, and other vision related issues. Nearly twenty percent failed these tests and were washed out, but they could still volunteer for aerial gunnery training, radio operator training, or flight engineer training. Those who passed CTD and vision tests were asked to list their preference of pilot, bombardier, or navigator. Although potential pilots had to score high to move on, the AAF often selected navigators from the highest scorers.

Don’s father, E.S. Christensen, passed away on August 21, 1943, at age 69 following prostate surgery. Jocile remembers, “Don was within a short time of finishing his training at Spearfish when his father died. They gave him leave to come home and the Red Cross found a ride for him. It was a time of mixed emotions for us. We were saddened at the passing of his father, but so happy to have some time together. The Air Corps gave him an extra week and told him not to go back to Spearfish but to report to his new base at Santa Ana, California. When he was there we saw each other often. Either I rode down with the other wives or he was able to come home.” My father turned 26 on September 3, and I had my first birthday on the 18th.

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