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.”

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Don Christensen's Third Mission

 The Christensen crew flew their third mission on February 19. 1945. This time they were assigned a 603rd plane, 43-38086, N7-C, dubbed “Bad Penny” (as in “A bad penny always comes back”). Several other bomb groups had planes with that same name, some with nose art, some without, but it is unclear whether the name was ever painted on the 398th plane.

Bad Penny

It had been assigned as a replacement aircraft on August 11, 1944, and had already flown many missions included thirty-two with the John Ryan crew. Ryan’s copilot and my friend Roy Test, who recently passed away, told me they flew those missions during the summer and fall of 1944 without an injury or scratch to anyone on their crew. Few were that lucky.

Roy Test and me

John Ryan Crew

The primary target on February 19 was the oil refineries at Dortmund, Germany, but once again a 10/10 cloud cover moved the attack to the secondary target, the railroad marshalling yards at Munster. According to official reports, this was a fairly routine mission with excellent friendly support and no mention of enemy fighters but they did encounter heavy flak. One B-17 in the group ahead was hit by flak and blew up. The Christensen plane was also hit hard. It was one of those anomalies of war, that one or two planes out a squadron or bomb group would be hit seemingly at random. A veteran B-24 pilot I know tells the story of seeing both of his wingmen hit at the same time while he sailed through unscathed.

That day “Bad Penny” took a flak burst just under the nose that damaged both inboard engines and Don was forced to feather those two propellers and shut down the engines. Feathering a prop was done to shut down a damaged or defective engine to keep it from burning up and to prevent “windmilling” and excessive drag from a dead engine. It required teamwork between pilot and copilot and involved turning the propeller blades approximately 90 degrees into the wind in order to offer little wind resistance. At the same time it required enough oil pressure to operate the feathering mechanism, and then for the pilots shut down power and fuel to the affected engines.

Philip Ardery describes the feathering procedure from a pilot’s perspective. “You have to feather props while there is still oil pressure left or else they won’t feather. It is sometimes bad policy to feather or stop when under fighter attack because it lets the fighters know you are a cripple and they concentrate on you. Of course they might have seen your oil leak, but oil on an engine nacelle is less prominent than a feathered prop. If an engine is dead, however, and an engine is allowed to windmill, it exerts much more drag on the plane than if it is feathered. Also a dead engine with a windmilling prop and no oil is apt to heat up and cause a fire. All these considerations work automatically in a combat pilot’s mind to help him reach a conclusion…I was watching the oil pressure gauge on the engine that had been hit. Pretty soon the oil pressure gauge started a fast descent toward zero. I called to Bob that I was feathering the prop. I pushed the feathering button and at the same moment cut off the gas to the engine and switched the mags off. Nervously, I watched the prop. After a moment I saw the big fan start to slow up until at length it came to standstill, with its blades turned edges into the slipstream. Thank God, there was still enough oil left for the feathering mechanism to work.” [Philip Ardery, Bomber Pilot, pp. 149-150]

With only two engines, the Christensen plane quickly lost speed and altitude and Don was forced to drop out of formation and try to make it back alone. The Group or the bomber stream did not wait for wounded or disabled planes. Luckily they were over western Germany, not far from Allied controlled territory in Belgium. Both Navigator Lawson Ridgeway and Tailgunner Selmer Haakenson both told me how cool my father was in this emergency and how his calmness was infectious on the rest of the crew.

Ridgeway remembers Don’s first order to begin lightening the ship and the crew began to jettison everything of weight; guns and ammo, flak vests, and anything else they could, even the floor planking in the fuselage. Meanwhile, radio operator Elmer Gurba kept trying to reach a friendly signal to guide them to a landing field. As the third engine began run poorly Don gave the preliminary bail-out signal just as they were finally intercepted by a P-51 “little friend” which guided them down to a nearby Belgian field, possibly at B-58, Brussels/Melsbroek. 

P-51 Mustang

As they were on their landing approach the third engine quit, but Don still managed to land safely with only one engine. Once again a severely damaged B-17 brought its crew back.

Lawson Ridgeway recalls the crew climbing out and walking around the plane amazed that no one was injured since the entire nose of the aircraft was riddled with flak holes, too many to count. Don gathered his crew to check and be certain no one was injured. Afterwards he sought out the P-51 pilot to thank him.

The crew was in Belgium for a few days before being flown back to England where they had a few days of “flak leave” in London before returning to Nuthampstead. “Bad Penny” was damaged severely enough to be declared AOC (Abandoned on the Continent). It would eventually be repaired and returned to the 398th on April 2, then used for POW pickup after the war before being consigned to Kingman for scrap.

B-17 Graveyard at Kingman, Arizona

Knowing that his wife Jocile had spent most of her teenage years in Belgium, and often spoke of her love of the country and the people there, Don tried to write to her and other folks at home of where he’d been without alerting the censors.

Censorship of letters home was very strict during the war, particularly pertaining to locations, missions, destinations, etc, but Don was still able to give a few clues about where he’d been. In a letter to his mother he wrote, “I believe I can give you a hint without giving away any secrets. I spent several days on the continent and was able to visit several places that are dear to Jo’s heart. The people treated us like kings and couldn’t do enough for us. We also had a chance to give old London town the once over.”

Jocile later recalled, “In one letter he said they made an unscheduled stop and that he knew why I loved those people. I knew he had been in Belgium. When his navigator came to see me after the war he told me they had made a forced landing in Belgium.”

The Christensen crew were flown back to England and gave "old London town the once over" and were given several day's flak leave. It is unclear just when they returned to Station 131, but they did not fly their next mission until March 1st.


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