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

Some Breakthroughs In The Search

After our first visit to the Czech Republic in 2005 we went to the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association's reunion in Kansas City. There I met and spoke with many veterans, but none of them knew or remembered my father. This is not very surprising because he was only in England for one month and bomber crews were well known for associating mainly among themselves and were slow to make close friendships with other crews or individuals.

Copilot Ken Blakebrough explains,. “In my hut no lingering ties of friendship seemed to develop. For example, the four officers of my crew shared my hut with four other officers from the time I arrived in December until they finished their tour in March. Within a matter of days, they received travel orders and we never heard from them again. No final good-byes, no exchange of addresses. Why was this so? To begin with, the Nissen provided cramped and uncomfortable quarters, in an atmosphere not conducive to social conversation. We tended to share limited personal information about ourselves. The infrequent talks seldom touched on serious matters such as the war or future plans. I didn’t know who was married, nor anyone’s home state with the exception of the bombardier nicknamed ‘Tex’, who I assumed was from Texas.

“There was another factor, and it was probably the primary one, working against the creation of friendships, namely combat missions. We tried to deny it to ourselves but the missions concentrated and dominated our thoughts. You couldn’t help thinking that maybe tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or the next day after that, you might be wounded, face captivity or even death. A man was meditative about missions and survival. Maybe we tried not to know each other too well, so if a man from the hut was posted as missing, or killed, the loss would be less personal.” [Flak News, vol. 6, no. 4 p.8, Oct 2001] Ira O’Kennon remembers, “Other crews were associates; we rarely made lasting friends except with our crew. It was not unusual to lose someone from your barracks but you didn’t dwell on it"

Following the Kansas City reunion I wrote a short piece for Flak News and Allen Ostrom included my phone number and address. In the next few weeks I heard from at least half a dozen vets who looked at their records and realized that they had been on that fateful mission on March 2, 1945, and recalled several details of that mission. Some had even gone on the group's tour for the dedication of Christensen memorial in the Czech Republic in 2000. But no one specifically remembered my father.

Allan had given me the phone numbers for the two survivors of the Christensen crew: tail gunner Selmer Haakenson in Sacramento, and navigator Lawson Ridgeway in Dallas who had been on the squadron lead plane that day. Both remembered my father as a fine, calm leader with whom they felt safe. They said that instead of climbing into the nose of the plane like most officers, he would enter through the fuselage door so he could greet and check on each crew member. Lawson filled me in on some details of their earlier missions which I'll discuss later.

Then one day I answered the phone and a man said, "My name is Marvin Coffee. Have you heard of me?" When I said no he replied, "I was your dad's best friend in the service. We did most of our training together, shipped out together, and were both assigned to the 398th." Marvin said that he had written a memoir that he would send to me and he wished he had written more about my father since they were such good friends, His memoir, later published as Bird of Prey: Tales from the Coffee Grinder And Her Twenty-Seven Missions has been a great help in filling in part of my father's wartime story.

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