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.”

Sunday, February 1, 2015

My Parent's Marriage and WWII

Just engaged

My father and mother first met in Los Angeles in the fall of 1940. Twenty three-year old Donald R. Christensen had recently returned from a Mormon mission to Denmark where he had been evacuated by ship just as Germany invaded that country in 1940. Back in California he began living with his brother Earl’s family in Glendale and working at a defense plant for Lockheed Aircraft in nearby Burbank. Nineteen-year-old Jocile Ursenbach had been home from France and Belgium for about two years where her parents had presided over the Mormon mission there. In 1940 she was living with her parents in Los Angeles and working in a woman’s clothing store. Their two large families had each arrived in the Los Angeles area in the mid-1920s. The Ursenbach’s had come from Utah, Idaho, and most recently Alberta, Canada, where Jocile was born in 1921, the youngest of eleven children. The Christensen’s had come from Colorado by way of Utah. Don was born in Salt Lake City on September 3, 1917, the youngest of thirteen children and the only one not born in Manassa, Colorado. 

Both families were part of what some have dubbed a “Mormon Diaspora,” a fairly large scale migration of second and third generation Mormons from the mountain west to Southern California beginning in the 1920s and ‘30s. By the 1940s the Mormon “colony” in the Los Angeles area was growing rapidly, but was still close-knit enough for widespread and common acquaintances, especially among young people. Both Don and Jocile being from large, prominent families from within that community, and both being active in Church functions, it was almost inevitable that they would meet.

Jocile describes their first meeting: “My parents and I came home from Belgium in 1938; a year after Don went to Denmark. I was singing in the South Los Angeles Stake Chorus with Zelma and Melba [Don’s sisters] who kept telling me they wanted me to meet their brother when he came home from his mission. In the fall of 1940 there was a party and Lyle Fackerell asked if he could bring a friend of his as a blind date for me. This friend, who had just come home from a mission, was Don. It was a terrible evening. We were not at all impressed with each other. I thought Don was the most conceited, egotistical bore I had ever met. He wasn’t all that enthused about me either. He was full of talk about his experience of being evacuated out of Denmark during the war and coming across the ocean on a tramp steamer. He had a lot of pictures. I picked one of them up and he said, ‘Please don’t get your fingerprints on my pictures.’ I dropped it and informed him that I had more pictures of Europe than he did. So the evening ended. At that time he was living in Glendale and we didn’t see each other for almost a year.”

The next summer they met again and began their whirlwind courtship. Jocile continues, “In July 1941 there was a dance and I went with some friends and Don was there without a date. He asked me to dance and we ended up dancing together most of the evening. Then he asked if he could take me home. We found we had both mellowed and changed. After a long courtship—I think it was three dates—we became engaged. Don moved back to Huntington Park so we could see more of each other.”

They were married on October 27, 1941. Life seemed full of promise during those halcyon days in Southern California. The Depression was ending and jobs were plentiful, particularly in the burgeoning defense industry. There was talk, concern and anxiety about war in Europe and Asia and whether United states would get involved. Some of their friends were already in active military service, but war still seemed remote for the newlyweds. Don and Jocile settled into a little apartment in Huntington Park near family and friends, and he continued to make the long drive to work at the Lockheed plant in Burbank. They had been married only five weeks—were virtually still on a honeymoon—when news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor. On Sunday, December 7th, they were attending church as Jocile recalls, “It was announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and all servicemen were to return to their bases. This was a shock. Many of us didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was. We soon learned.”

Baby On Board

Suddenly, the future which had seemed so bright and full of promise was filled with uncertainty. Young men, including many of their friends, rushed to enlist in the military, while others were drafted. With rumor and fear that the Japanese might attack California, Japanese-American citizens, some of whom were their acquaintances, were rounded up and moved to interment camps far-removed from the coast. Food and gasoline rationing went into effect, as well as mandatory nighttime blackouts.

Within a few months Don began talking about leaving his defense job at Lockheed and joining the Los Angeles police department. He knew that the Lockheed job was not permanent, and he wanted a better career opportunity. Besides, the long daily drive from Huntington Park to Burbank and back was a wearisome chore. His oldest brother Leonard Christensen was then Commander of West Los Angeles Detective Division of the LAPD, and assured him acceptance on the force. Jocile, however, was strongly opposed. She felt police work was too dangerous, and knew he might lose his draft deferment if he left Lockheed. “I had visions of him getting shot or something. Then one day he came home from work hurt. Someone had thrown a hot rivet and it had gone wild and hit Don on the side of his head. It barely missed his eye and grazed clear back on the side of his head. I decided he would be just as safe as a policeman.”

As soon as Don was accepted to the Police Academy he quit his job at Lockheed, lost his draft deferment and was classified 1A. Even though police work was considered an essential wartime occupation, that draft exemption did not apply to trainees. He needed six weeks at the police academy and six months probationary duty to assure him a place on the force after his military service. He was granted a draft induction delay to fulfill these requirements, and at the same time he applied for and was accepted by the Army Air Force. Jocile writes, “He had to go to the Police Academy for six weeks. I went to stay with my folks as our first child was due. At the end of his third week of training we had to call him home to take me to the hospital. After a long labor Donald Mark was born September 18, 1942.”

Born nine months after Pearl Harbor, I have always felt that World War II and I began together, and that my story and my identity are integrally bound up with that time, that conflict, and the music of that era. Tunes like "Moonlight Serenade" or "We'll Meet Again," or a movie like "12 O'Clock High" can still put a lump in my throat.  After more than 70 years I remain haunted by WWII, my memories, and the loss of my father in that war.

No comments:

Post a Comment