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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.