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 18, 2015

Being There

It was a sober arrival at Nuthampstead for Don and the other replacement crews on Februry 1, 1945. Everything was different. First there was the English climate to contend with during the worst winter and worst weather in memory.  Then they learned that the 398th's original Commander Frank P. Hunter Jr., had been killed while leading a bombing mission just one week earlier, and that he was replaced by new “hard ass” commander, Lt. Colonel Lewis P. Ensign.  More on Lewis Ensign here.

The sight of several badly damaged aircraft also got their attention. Coffee wrote, “We try not to engage in too much speculation about what’s to come, or to discuss reports of recent crashes. Severely damaged aircraft sitting around are stark reminders of the dangers of war.” But like most newly trained crews, their morale was high and they were eager to get started and prove their mettle. 

During the war, servicemen were encouraged to write uplifting, optimistic letters home and to leave out difficulties and the horrors of war. Don was no exception, and the few letters of his that have survived are mostly light and breezy. His only complaint was with the English weather. Shortly after arriving, he sent his first V mail to his wife Jocile: “If anyone you know thinks the war over here is nearly finished you can tell them they’re crazy. I fully expect to complete my full tour of 35 missions. However, we’ll have several days of Ground School and Orientation before we start flying. Coffee’s crew is still with us but he is assigned to another group. We still see a lot of each other tho. As nearly as possible our crews will be kept intact which is good news as I think a lot of my boys. We are near the channel coast and within leave distance of ‘Big Ben,’ but that’s all I can tell you on that. The weather is miserable which is usual for this time of year. They had a terrific blizzard a few days before we arrived but the snow is all gone now. It rains nearly every day which makes everything green but soggy. I wouldn’t mind the cold and rain so much if it weren’t for the constant mud. My crew is lucky in being assigned to live in a Nissen hut, as there are quite a number of officers living in tents. Our quarters are quite comfortable and the food is quite good. There are twelve of us to a hut and the older fellows in ours are very helpful and friendly.”

Ken Blakebrough, a copilot with the 457th Bomb Group, gives a more realistic view of life in a Nissen hut. “To me, a Nissen hut during the winter of 1944-45 was a man-made cave. The interior was always gloomy, damp and cold. The windows were covered by thick blackout curtains, the overhead light bulbs, two to a hut, gave scant lighting. The scarcity of coal for the potbelly stove was another reason for avoiding your hut. As a result, the time spent in the hut was mostly for sleeping. Off duty time was largely spent at the officers club where there was a huge fireplace which gave off some warmth, if you stood close enough.” [Flak News, vol. 6, no. 4 p.8, Oct 2001]

Nissen huts for officers held eight or twelve men, each with an individual cot. Enlisted men slept in bunk beds in larger huts holding up to thirty-six men. There were also many four-man tents used as temporary quarters until room became available in a Nissen hut, but some officers like Marvin Coffee preferred the tent quarters: “Except for the bathroom and shower location some 1,000 feet away I preferred being in the canvas tent as there is more privacy with just the four of us, unlike the huts.” 

Wally Blackwell, former president of the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association, describes tent living: “A standard US Army tent is square, with 3 or 5 foot sidewalls, with a roof from the four sides up to a point at the top. I remember they had wooden floors and a standard stove with a stove pipe. They were put to good use as new crews arrived and crews left. I was in one for maybe 2 or 3 weeks in July and it was 'living in a hot tent.' In winter they were cold. The option was to be moved to a 12 man Quonset hut when space became available. The tent housed a single crew of four, and there were cases where some crews elected to stay in a tent, fix it up their way, rather that get involved with others in a hut with different life styles.” []

Initially Don and his friend Marvin Coffee were both assigned to the 603rd Squadron, but on February 6, Coffee was reassigned to the 602nd. He writes, “We are still able to keep in close contact with the Christensen crew during our tour up to the point that Don and his crew were lost on a mission… I found out later that Paul Colville had requested to headquarters that our crews be assigned to the same squadron since he and I had also trained together and wanted to stay in the same unit…This reassignment may have saved my crew’s lives as we later found out that the 603rd had a high rate of loss…was a “marked squadron” and that German fighters would seek out that squadron. I don’t know how much truth there is in this, but they did have a very high loss record.” This was certainly a bogus rumor. Neither German nor American records substantiate the notion that certain units were singled out for fighter attacks, but it was a common rumor throughout the 8th Air Force about certain groups or squadrons with high loss rates.

The new crews spent the first few days in ground school and briefings on base orientation, air operation procedures such as pre-dawn formation assemblies, responsibilities for completing or aborting missions, returning with injured crew members, etc. After an indoctrination flight or two they practiced take-offs and landings, night and formation flying, over and over again. Most navigators had not received stateside training in British “Gee” radar until arriving in England, so they needed to learn that technology too. The crews also practiced bombing at a range near an area known as “the Wash,” which is a large bay and estuary on the northeast coast of East Anglia, near the North Sea. When deemed ready or needed, new pilots flew their first mission with an experienced copilot in the right seat, while their own copilot flew with another seasoned pilot. Two weeks after arriving at Nuthampstead, Don Christensen flew his first mission on February 15.  To read about that mission click here.

So Don finally found himself in the war zone. A year and a half earlier he had been a civilian, a regular guy, and now he was about to become a combatant in the largest military campaign in history and to fly a fully-loaded B-17 deep into enemy territory. One of outstanding characteristics of nearly all citizen-soldiers who served in WWII was that they were reluctant warriors. Most did not want to be in a war but they went anyway, and most rose to do their duty and bring honor to themselves, their family, and their unit. 

Despite the patriotic rhetoric and propaganda back home, most of these reluctant warriors did not talk much of flag or country or patriotism, though occasionally they spoke of fighting for decency and against evil. When they spoke of their duty they most often mentioned their pride in belonging to their unit, squad, platoon, or crew, and not wanting to let their comrades down.

Even more remarkable, Don and the other American bomber pilots and their crews were very young men and boys with no previous flying experience before the war. They were volunteers, not career soldiers or airmen. Most were unmarried; many were just out of high school. Don was something of an exception, but certainly not the only one, with a wife and young son and another child on the way.

These young airmen came from farms and towns and cities all across America, learned their combat roles in a matter of months or perhaps a year, and then were given control of huge aircraft in the most dangerous and perilous circumstances. The average age of pilots was twenty-two or twenty-three. Don was an “Old Man” at twenty-seven; his friend Marvin Coffee had just turned twenty-one. And my friend Herb Taylor, a B-24 pilot with the 389th Bomb Group at Hethel, was only 19.

They had had minimal training in the states for many tactical aspects of flying bombers.  Most new pilots went into combat with less than 500 hours training and flight time. B-17 transition training was limited to about 96 hours. Combat training was only 110 hours and limited to 110 pound practice bombs, whereas actual combat bombs were often 500 or 1000 lbs. They also had very little training in high altitude formations in the states since it put so much stress on aircraft, and training flights seldom exceeded 20,000 feet. Many missions over Germany, however, were at 25,000’ or 30,000’ where plane and human response was sluggish, making formation flying more dangerous.

 Flight Engineer Herb Shanker talks about the differences between training and the real thing. “We had not experienced any real high-altitude flying till we got to England. We had flown old wrecks in training, never higher than 16,000 feet or longer than six hours. We never carried fuel in our Tokyo tanks or more than 1,000 pounds of bombs. Now, on our first mission to Munich, it would be nine-plus hours at 25,000 feet, a temperature of thirty to forty degrees below zero, with a full fuel load of 2,700 gallons and 5,000 pounds of bombs from a 6,000-foot runway.” [Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth, pp. 330-331]

They also carried twelve or thirteen .50 caliber machine guns and ammunition and needed a fully charged oxygen system for missions lasting as long as ten hours at altitudes up to 30,000 feet, with temperatures of 40 to 50 below zero. Fully loaded, a B-17 could weigh over 70,000 lbs, far above anything they had trained for in the states, and with a center of gravity well aft of where it should be, making these planes even harder to fly. The first time they faced these conditions was in actual combat as part of a formation of hundreds or thousands of planes and with enemy flak and fighters trying their best to shoot them down.

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