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.”

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Dresden / Prague February 14, 1945

398th Bomb Group 

On February 14, 1945, the 398th Bomb Group was chosen to lead some 450 planes of the 1st Air Division on a bombing run to Dresden as a follow-up to the RAF raid of previous night. This was part of the advanced planning for the combined British/American effort, but it was also common practice by the Eighth to send a bomber force back to the same target the following day if they were not satisfied with previous results. The RAF may have incinerated the city that night before but did little damage to the railroad marshalling yards and surrounding industries which the AAF considered vital strategic targets. To read more about the Dresden bombing click here.

The 398th was led that day by their new commander, Lt. Col. Lewis P. Ensign.. He had recently been promoted by 1st Combat Wing commander General William Gross to replace 398th’s original commander, the well-loved and respected Lt. Col. Frank Hunter who had been killed leading a mission to Neuss, Germany on January 23.

But due to a combination of bad weather, faulty radar, and stubbornness, Lt. Colonel Ensign managed to get lost and bombed Prague instead of Dresden.

The weather on the morning of the 14th was terrible, much worse than reported in the morning briefing, and take-off was delayed. The 398th's force of 38 planes finally took off in poor visibility, rendezvoused with the rest of the bomber stream and led them east across the North Sea. At that point the weather deteriorated further and problems with on-board radar began.

Near Munster the formation was forced to swing further south of the planned course and to climb higher to avoid more dense clouds. Ensign also led them through several “S” maneuvers to avoid known or suspected flak batteries, thereby consuming more fuel and time. Icing and high tail winds added to navigational problems.

Navigator Ralph McIntyre recalls, “I received at least two calls from the lead plane (Col. Ensign’s) navigator asking my position data. I advised that my record showed we were about 50 miles south of course."

Actually, McIntyre’s dead reckoning was very close. They were about 60 miles south of the planned course, but his messages were ignored by Col. Ensign in the lead plane. Navigator Nunzio Addabbo’s misgivings about their course also went unheeded by Ensign. "I called our position to Sam and he radioed it to the lead. No action was taken.”

Lt. Col. Ensign was relying on his own “pilotage” or "navigating from the right-hand seat." When the Deputy Group navigator radioed Col. Ensign to suggest that they had missed the correct turning point he was overruled by Ensign and reminded about the rules for radio silence over Germany.

Several other pilots, navigators, and bombardiers began to recognize that they were off course. David Mill’s bombardier told him, “We are heading for the wrong target.” Newt Moy’s tail gunner informed him that the main bomber stream behind them was turning off to the north. Pilot Bill Costanzo adds: “I remember it being a SNAFU’d mission, climbing, climbing, trying to stay in formation at 30,000 feet, going thru “needless” flak, etc, etc.” Then Costanzo and others began to pick radio chatter and confusion from the lead plane and Ensign's voice saying, "I know how to read a map …I say our target is Dresden ahead and THAT is where we are going"

As they approached the target, the radar in the lead squadron came back on momentarily the Lead Radar Navigator identified what he believed to be Chemnitz and Dresden, but which were actually Pilsen and Prague, 80 miles to the south, but in the same general orientation as the target cities. Then about three minutes before “bombs away” the radar failed again, but through a break in the clouds the lead bombardier saw a city with a river running north that looked like photos of Dresden. 

Ralph McIntyre recalls, “Bombs were dropped visually as the clouds parted just before bomb drop, and we returned home as a group, everyone thinking that Dresden had been hit.” Unfortunately they had bombed Prague instead, an open city that was never supposed to be bombed! “It turned out that we really were about 50 miles south of course and that the radar had picked up Pilsen and Prague rather then Chemnitz and Dresden, both pairs of cities being in the same relative position to each other."

Both Prague and Dresden have rivers running north in the same general orientation to the city center. The Vltava River in Prague is actually a tributary to the Elbe which flows north through Dresden on its way to the North Sea, northwest of Hamburg.

As they were coming away from the bomb run, Deputy Lead navigator Doyle again broke radio silence and insisted that they had in fact not bombed Dresden. Lead Navigator Harold Brown checked with the rest of the navigators and they confirmed Doyle’s opinion. Ensign again ordered them to maintain radio silence.

The 91st, 381st, and 305th Bomb Groups followed the 398th toward Prague, while the main bomber stream, realizing they were on the wrong course, turned north to bomb Dresden as planned. Both the 398th an 91st dropped bombs on Prague while the 381st and part of the 305th, also realizing they were far off course, turned northeast and bombed Brux, Czechoslovakia, a viable military target.

152 tons of bombs fell on Prague that day, mainly on the east bank of the Vltava River about two and a half miles southwest of the city center, near a residential area. Initial reports indicated that 116 people were killed, 319 injured, and 50 missing. But subsequent rescue work and post-war clarification raised those figures to 701 killed, 1184 injured, and 11,000 left homeless. Ninety-three houses and other buildings were destroyed, including the 1347 AD Emmaus Monastery, with another 1960 buildings damaged.

Prague, February 14, 1945

Prague Casualty 

As the squadrons and groups re-formed and started back west many of the Fortresses were low on fuel and faced with 100 mph headwinds. By this time many were grumbling about Col. Ensign’s pilotage. They were told to knock it off.” Bombardier Dalton wrote in his diary, “We had another A and B plan today. They were Chemnitz and Dresden, [Germany]. We got a new Colonel here after Colonel Hunter went down. He’s already making a name for himself as a maniac, etc. He led us today to Dresden, Germany. That is a long haul so we had a full gas load. The crazy guy, or someone, made a little mistake and instead of going to Dresden, we bombed Prague, Czechoslovakia. As a result, we ran out of gas on the way back so we landed at a P-47 tactical outfit at St. Trond, Belgium.”

Most of the other 398th planes were also low on fuel and at least twenty-one had to land at Allied airfields in France or Belgium to refuel, and many did not get back to Nuthampstead for several days due to bad weather. Two other aircraft were damaged when landing and were AOC (Abandoned on Continent).

Following this blundered mission Lead navigator Harold Brown was relieved of his duties and flew the rest of his missions as Deputy Lead, but many felt the responsibility rested on Col. Ensign. Pilot Newt Moy remarked, “We had a new Group Commander. He knew more than the navigator.” Captain Keith Anderson remembers, “That was the day he [Ensign] had led the group supposedly to Dresden and ended up bombing Prague, Czechoslovakia, 100 miles away, again telling the navigators, bombardiers, radio operators, that they didn’t know where they were, he did. And that’s what happened.”

Due to the large number of aircraft that could not make it back to Nuthamstead that day, the 398th was very shorthanded of both aircraft and experienced crews. This set the stage for my father, Lt. Donald R. Christensen's first mission the following day, February 15, 1945, two weeks after he arrived in England.

In 1979, 398th researcher Malcolm “Ozzie” Osborne encountered Lewis Ensign at the Woodman Inn at Nuthampstead and asked if he could interview him. “Ask me anything you want Ozzie”, he replied. When Osborne asked him about February 14, 1945, Ensign asked, “What was special about that mission?” Ozzie replied, “That was the day you led the group and you bombed Prague instead of Dresden. Ensign said he had no memory of that mission at all. So I gave him lots of details about it. Still he maintained that he had no memory of that particular mission at all. End of story, for that day at least.”

Malcom "Ozzie" Osborn at Madingly Cemetery 

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