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 16, 2015

Don Christensen's Second Mission

From the time of their arrival at Nuthampstead on February 1, 1945, Don Christensen and his crew took their final training seriously, practicing takeoffs and landings, formation flying, bombing runs, etc., all the while wondering about and anticipating their first actual combat mission. Their morale was high and they were eager to get going but each man was often alone with his own thoughts, wondering what the real thing would be like and how he would perform when the time came.

Their first chance had come on February 15, and they had performed well in spite of near zero visibility on both take off and landing. It was a long 8 1/2 hour mission far into eastern Germany to bomb synthetic oil facilities at Bohlen. They had encountered heavy flak but only suffered some holes in the wings. Read about that first mission here.

They flew their second mission the very next day February 16, 75 years ago. Their mission that day, was a relatively short 6-1/2 hour flight to attack the benzoil plant and marshalling yards at Langendreer, in western Germany. Once again the weather and visibility were poor at both take off and landing. A normal 398th mission consisted of three squadrons of 12 planes each, but with many planes still away from base after the Prague mission, the Group was only able to put up one full and two short-handed squadrons. Don Christensen flew in the lead 603rd squadron of nine planes. The “high” 600th also had only nine aircraft while the “low” 602nd managed to launch a full twelve planes.

There was a 10/10 undercast again that day, and as the group approached the primary target of Langendreer, the GEE-H (British radar) system burned out, so 603rd command pilot called the high squadron to take over but their GEE-H burned out too. The commander then decided to bomb the secondary target, the railroad marshalling yards at Munster, Germany. The results again went unobserved due to the undercast. 

Anticipation of any bombing mission-- was nerve-wracking. One crewman remembers, “On a night before a mission you reviewed the facts. You tried to get some sleep. The army is very good at keeping you awake forever before you have a long mission. Sleep wouldn’t come to you. You get to thinking by this time tomorrow you may have burned to death.” [Terkel p.200] Besides nervousness and anxiety, the incessant all night noise on an East Anglian airbase made it difficult to sleep. Navigator Jon Schueler explains, “All night long the bombs were being loaded and the ground crew was working on the planes. We could hear the engines being revved up.” [Astor p.93]

By 1945 most bombing missions were deep into Germany; flights of eight to ten hours. Crews were usually awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 am and given one hour to shower, shave, and eat – if they could – before the briefing for that day’s mission. Captain John Regan of the 306th Bomb Group talks about those mornings. “I wish it were possible to accurately describe the tension, the emotion that was evident in our thirty-five man crew huts on those mornings when we were awakened for combat missions. One would have to be present to feel the electricity that filled the air. Some men shouted to relieve the tension, other laughed out loud when nothing was really funny and others were silent with their thoughts, probably fixed on coming events or on loved ones.” [Astor p.98]

Occasionally a mission was a “Milk Run,” like this one, a straight out and back delivery of bombs with little enemy opposition. But on most missions crews had to deal with enemy fighters or flak or both.

Co-pilot Robert Weidig wrote in his diary, “Twenty-first mission, Munster, 6-1/2 hours. Very little flak, no fighters, very bad weather at base. Flew with new pilot today. Not bad at all.” On their return the field at Nuthampstead was socked in again and eleven aircraft had to land at nearby Bassingborn. Weather cancelled any missions for the next two days. On February 17, a small force was dispatched but quickly recalled due to deteriorating weather conditions. The February 18th mission was scrubbed at briefing for the same reason.

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