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 7, 2015

Getting There

After completing their B-17 training in Sioux City and spending ten day’s leave with friends and family, Don Christensen and the other newly-trained pilots and crews assembled back at Lincoln on December 27. Some were assigned to fly new B-17G’s to England, while most were to sail by troop ship. The Christensen, Coffee, and Colville crews were all sorely disappointed to be in the latter group.

In early January they rode by rail to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, an assembly point of embarkation for Europe for all branches of service. They waited there several weeks for their shipping-out orders, wondering what their destination would be. It snowed heavily the day they arrived and while standing at-ease waiting on orders of the day they began a snowball fight between officers and enlisted men, much to the displeasure of a regular Army Colonel who did not appreciate such association between ranks. To the young bomber crews this was normal fun and they often considered regular army officers a bunch of stuffed suits.

One evening Don and his officers went into New York City on a pass to visit the famous Jack Dempsey’s night club. His friend Marvin Coffee cryptically recalls that evening: “Don Christensen’s officers joined with us. We went into a club which was reported to have a good show. Seated at another table was a young man who bought us a round of drinks. The waitress advised us that he was a wealthy heir to the Garwood Boat Company. We raised our glassed and this was when we discovered there was more that this young man had in store for us. At this period of our culture, and needing to be more macho, we were quite unfamiliar and threatened by men who were called ‘queens.’ We lost our desire to finish our drinks or to see the show; we got out of there.”

On January 20, Don wrote to his mother and sister about that evening, “I got a chance to get into N.Y. last night but was highly disappointed as the old city has lost much of its peacetime glamour. Times Square is practically dark and since I don’t drink I couldn’t find much to do and lost a full night’s sleep to boot as we didn’t get back to base ‘til 6 AM. As you can see by now another leave is out of the question. We are on our way. Just where is hard to imagine. The campaign in Europe has certainly taken on a bright aspect during the past couple of days. It doesn’t look as if the Russians will be stopped this time. Whatever happens I don’t believe it will affect our sailing however.”

Within a few days they boarded the S.S. Aquitania, now a converted troop ship and sister ship of the ill-fated Lusitania, along with 3000 other troops. They still did not know where they were going or what their assignment would be. Don and the other officers were quartered in staterooms for two that were so small both men could not move around at the same time. However, as Coffee remarks, “This was luxury compared to the quarters of our enlisted crew members. They were located in the hold of the ship below the waterline near the keel so they could hear water moving around in the hull beneath their location. It was dark and dingy with a terrible musty odor. They had to sleep in canvas bunks that I am sure were less than 20” apart from top to bottom.” With such cramped conditions most men spent much of their time on deck wearing the required life vests.

Distinctions between ranks also extended to their food service. Enlisted men got two meals a day and stood in line for hours for them. By contrast, officers had specific seating times for three meals, sat two to a table, and were waited on by British personnel. Coffee continues: “There were tablecloths, china, and sterling silver flatware on every table. There was a waiter who would wait on two tables or four persons. If I placed my soiled fork down on the plate or cloth, the waiter would immediately replace it with a clean one. The food was excellent.” However, this discrimination between their treatment and that of their enlisted men did not sit well with many AAF officers, and they often took fresh fruit and packaged items from the officer’s mess to share with their enlisted crew members.

In a letter to Jocile who was three months pregnant, Don wrote, “Somewhere in the Atlantic, Nearing Destination, No Date Allowed. I don’t suppose it would do any harm to mention that we are on one of the largest and formerly one of the most luxurious of the old peacetime liners. It is still large and fast but one could hardy say it is luxurious in its present condition. Nearly every foot of usable space has been converted to accommodations for troops and we are packed in like so many proverbial sardines.” Then, facing the reality of war, he continues, “Darling, every roll of the ship and every vibration of the engines makes me realize that I am getting farther and farther from my beloved little family. It’s almost more than I can bear to think of it. We’ve been separated before, but this time it seems so final and the future so uncertain that it’s more like a bad dream, and I keep thinking I’ll surely wake up soon…My love for you has grown more intense with every mile that separates us. At any rate nothing can mar the memory of our last 6 months together and the little bit of borrowed heaven we had. I love you more than life itself and when this is all over I’ll be glad I was able to be a part of it. All my love, Daddy Don”

During their eight-day voyage across the Atlantic they encountered a tremendous storm and an unidentified submarine. Marvin Coffee remembers, “The biggest waves seemed much higher than our ship as we would be in the bottom of the swell looking up to the top of the water. During the storm the ship would porpoise on the mountainous waves and the ship’s screw would come out of the water…the screw would rev up in the air and cause a severe vibration which was felt throughout the ship…The ship’s crew members said it was the worst storm they had ever encountered.” Another day, a submarine was sighted which was not identified and did not respond to communication so all troops were ordered topside in life vests. “Things were tense and I did not feel safe from that moment until I was back on land. You understand how helpless you are in the middle of the ocean…We were also sailing without an escort, giving one a deep sense of vulnerability. Perhaps this same feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability will be repeated over the skies of Europe.”

They disembarked at Glasgow, Scotland, where they were put up in temporary quarters while being sorted out by assignments. There they saw other servicemen, fresh from battle, being rotated back to the states on the same ship. Don noticed that these men were in good spirits at going home but looked older than their years. Soon the new crews were put aboard trains, still not knowing their destination. “The English trains were our first experience in coping with a lack of knowledge on how things worked in this country”, Coffee wrote. “The train had compartments which opened to the platforms with no way to walk a corridor . . . unlike those to which we were accustomed in the states. The train stopped in one city and we all got off to see whatever there was to see. There was no one to announce “all aboard” as we know it and the train just started moving. About half of our group was left behind: this did not meet with much favor when we reached our point to disembark which turned out to be Royston. Trucks had to be sent to pick up those left behind.”

At Royston they learned that their new assignment was with the 398th Bomb Group at Station 131, in nearby Nuthampstead. Arriving there on February 1, the four replacement crews were led by Lieutenants Don Christensen, Marvin Coffee, Richard Ellis, and Paul Coville. Marvin Coffee would be the only one of the four to survive the war unscathed.

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