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.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Don Christensen's First Mission

Lt Donald R. Christensen

 Don Christensen and his crew flew their first combat mission 70 years ago today on February 15, 1945, and it was an unusual mission for several reasons. To begin with, the 398th was short-handed of both aircraft and crews and had to scramble to put together a small force of 24 planes rather than their usual mission strength of 36 planes. New replacements Don Christensen and Richard Ellis were both tagged to fly in order to have enough crews for those few planes. The reason they were short-handed was that the day before the 398th, led by their new commander Lewis P. Ensign, had mistakenly bombed Prague, Czechoslovakia – an open city -- rather than Dresden, Germany.  To read more about the Prague debacle click here.

Because of the extra distance and strong headwinds on their return, only a few planes made it back to Nuthampstead that day. The majority were short on fuel and were forced to land at Allied airfields in France or Belgium, and many did not get back to Nuthampstead for several days due to bad weather. Two ran completely out of fuel and crash-landed.

So on February 15, the 398th was short of available aircraft, and pilots were assigned whatever planes were ready-to-fly regardless of squadron assignment. Don was in the 603rd Squadron, but was given a 601st plane, 43-39224, 30M, which had just been assigned from Burtonwood Air Depot two days earlier. It is unclear whether this was a new or repaired aircraft, but it was Christensen’s plane for his first two missions. (On March 9, this same aircraft with a different crew would be battle-damaged and declared scrap, but it was eventually repaired and returned to service on April 6. In May it was used for POW pickup and then sent to Kingman, Arizona for salvage.)

Standard 398th procedure was for a new pilot to fly his first mission with an experienced copilot in the right-hand seat, so Don flew with Maurice Trokey, copilot of the Andrew Thomas crew in the right-hand seat, while his regular copilot, William Love, flew with another experienced pilot, probably Andrew Thomas. (One month later on March 15, the Thomas/Trokey crew went down when they were hit by flak in number three engine. Pilot Thomas held the plane steady enough for Trokey and the rest of the crew to bail out, but then he lost his life when the plane went out of control and crashed with him still aboard. Two other crewmen also died, but Maurice Trokey and four others survived to become POWs.)

The weather that morning was so bad, and visibility so limited, that the whole mission was nearly scrubbed. Take off was delayed 45 minutes and then only 16 planes out of 24 were able to lift off before the weather completely closed in. With so few planes and without regular squadrons, the 398th formed up into an “A” Group led by Captain Keith Anderson which attached itself to the 91st Bomb Group, and a “B’ Group, which included rookies Christensen and Ellis, which attached to the 381st Bomb Group.

Visibility on that rainy and foggy morning was only two hundred yards, which dictated an instrument takeoff followed by a long climb to get above the clouds; a tough job for Don’s first mission, but he made it without a hitch. Ralph Golubock of the 44th Bomb Group describes such a take off and the hazards involved. “The lead bomber raced down the runway and took off and was almost immediately enveloped in clouds and disappeared from sight. We followed in turn, the planes spaced about by thirty seconds. When my turn came I advanced the throttles and immediately went on instruments. The copilot tried to watch the runway to prevent accidentally drifting off and onto the rain-soaked grass. The engineer stood between the pilot and copilot to carefully monitor the engine instruments. He also called out our airspeeds so I could concentrate on taking a whole lot of airplane off the ground safely. Upon leaving the ground we were immediately immersed in rain and clouds…The climb was long and grinding, and to our horror, we saw a huge flash of light in the sky. We all knew that two planes had collided and exploded.” [Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth, 235-36].

Allen Ostrom, for many years the venerable editor of the 398th Bomb Group’s Flak News adds, “Nearly every one of our missions in the winter of 1944-45 was done in the darkness of predawn. The guys in the cockpit looked out their windshields and saw nothing save for the flicker of runway lights through their side windows. Every takeoff had to be an adventure, not knowing for sure if there were trees out there, a church steeple, a tower. And fully loaded with bombs and fuel. After taking off they had to begin a five-mile ‘racetrack’ pattern, gaining 300 feet per minute while reaching ‘bunching up’ altitude which might be 12,000 to 15,000 feet. All the time watching out for the others taking off each minute…in the dark. Also, they had to watch out for the other groups taking off at the same time only a few miles away. After all that adventure, these pilots had to join up with 41 groups numbering 1000 to 1500 bombers and try to be on time within a matter of a minute or two before crossing the channel. Had the Air Force generals…submitted these plans to the FAA, adding that most of the pilots would be 19-year-old kids, they would have been told—‘You are out of your minds; it can’t be done.’” {Flak News Vol. 21, No1, Jan 2005]

On a green signal flare from the tower they lifted off, one right behind the other at thirty second or one minute intervals, and headed for their “bunching up” points and rendezvous assignments with other groups. “Bunching up” involved gaining altitude while circling a radio beacon known as a buncher, until the whole bomb group was formed up and prepared to join into larger formations with other groups. Pilot Ralph Golubuck explains. “We had to find our proper spot in the formation. The procedure was to fly a racetrack course around a radio signal called a buncher. The lead plane was constantly firing flares so we could identify him. Each group had their own buncher. Out of all this confusion, we began to form up. First as elements, then as squadrons and groups, finally as wings and divisions. Then the divisions took their correct place in the Eighth Air Force bomber stream.” 

Earl Pate recalls, “A predawn join up, a low overcast that you had to climb until you were on top, sometimes 18,000 to 20,000 feet and then try to join up was terrible. Scary! Imagine a thousand planes trying to line up in groups of thirty-six, spaced two minutes apart in pitch-black darkness and over an exact spot on the English Channel, at a precise time, make the orderly, perfect formation envisioned by the men behind the armor-plated desks, you get a feeling for the high risk of collision.” [Astor p.398]

Jim Fletcher adds: “Everyone is supposed to be going the same way but you could be sure some guy would get lost, start searching for his formation and wind up going the wrong way. If it was pretty dark it was hard to spot those jokers, so you really had to keep looking around all the time.” [Roger Freeman, B-17 at War p. 107]

The primary target for February 15th was the oil facilities at Bohlen, a long flight into eastern Germany, just south of Leipzig and west of Dresden. Bohlen was one of several synthetic oil targets in the area. The entire flight was over 10/10 (100%) undercast. When Bohlen was not visible beneath the clouds the lead commander ordered the attack to move on to the secondary target which was Dresden, but it was also obscured, so bombs were released on the marshalling yards there on PFF radar from the lead group. Results were unobserved due to the cloud cover.

398th Group Commander’s report for that day indicates an eight-hour mission accompanied by the usual snafus. The lead plane on the “A” group had an inoperative bombsight and the “B” group’s PFF equipment failed, so they both bombed off of the smoke marker of the 381st BG’s lead squadron.. S/Sgt. Kenneth Green, a 603rd gunner, wrote in his diary, “We bombed at 24,000 feet transportation facilities. The temperature was -56 degrees. We encountered intense and accurate flak, but received no battle damage, except for a few holes in the wings. We were airborne 8-1/2 hours and on oxygen 4-1/2 hours.”

On their return they flew south of their incoming course to avoid the flak they had encountered on the approach. Visibility at Nuthampstead which had only been 200 yards on takeoff that morning was worse on landing since the field was almost completely socked in. Fortunately, on return flights pilots and radio operators had a radio beacon to home in on to guide them to the field even when they couldn't see it. Still, landing with little visibility was a harrowing experience. Every pilot and crew must have been nervous about such a landing, especially those on on their first mission. This was a good one for the Christensen crew to have under their belt and to further bolster their confidence. They landed at approximately 4:00 PM, and by the time they had unloaded and stored their gear and attended be-briefing they were notified that they were flying again the following day, February 16. Many other planes and crews had still not returned from the Prague debacle of the 14th .