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.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Christensen Crew

David Walker Painting

A bomber crew was as close as or closer than any other unit in the service. They trained and fought together and worked as a team. Rank was not very important aboard the plane, but the pilot was the acknowledged leader, the captain. How he acted and reacted under pressure set the tone for the whole crew. But every man had a job to perform and they all relied on each other for the success of their mission and for their lives. A good pilot recognized the role of each crew member and trusted them to do their part. He did not tell the navigator how to navigate, or the gunners how to shoot, or the radio man how to operate his equipment. And he relied on his copilot and flight engineer to help him fly this aircraft.

The Boeing B-17G was a large and impressive plane. She was 74’ 4” long, had a wingspan of nearly 104 feet, and stood
 19 feet tall with an empty weight of 36135 lbs and with a maximum load rate could carry 65500 lbs. Her power came from four Wright Cyclone supercharged engines of 1200 horsepower each which could produce a top speed of 302 mph, and a cruising speed of 160. With thirteen .50 caliber machine guns and a full bomb load of 6000 lbs. she was indeed a formidable weapon.

Wright Cyclone Engine

But as large as the B-17 was on the outside, she was quite narrow on the inside with most available space occupied by 

flight equipment and armaments. Once the crew was aboard and in position with full flight gear including coats, gloves, boots, electrically heated flight suits, parachutes, and life and flak jackets, everyone was cramped, and could scarcely move. This was mainly a bomb delivery system in which human comfort was of little consideration.

Four officers occupied the cockpit and nose of the plane. Pilot and copilot sat side by side in the cockpit which was just large enough for their seats and a dizzying array of dials, switches, gauges and flight controls. The navigator and bombardier were situated below and forward in the clear plexiglass nose with just enough room for them and their equipment and four machine guns. These four officers were responsible for getting bombs to the target. Five or six sergeants occupied the fuselage, performing various duties, including manning .50 caliber machine guns against enemy attack. They were the flight engineer/ top turret gunner, waist gunner, radio operator/gunner, ball turret gunner, and tail gunner.

B-17 Cockpit

At age 27, Lt. Don Christensen was among the older B-17 pilots, and was five or six years older than most of his crew members. Both his age and experience commanded respect from his crew and they felt fortunate to be on his plane. As one who had already been to Europe, had encountered Nazis in Denmark, was married and a father and had been a big city policeman, he had more experience than his young crewmen could imagine. He was the Old Man, Boss, the Skipper of his crew, and their moral and emotional compass. His job was to start-up, take off, fly and land this large, complex airplane with a cockpit full of 146 switches, gauges, indicators and warning lights. There was a checklist card wherein the copilot called off checkpoints while the pilot had to reply that the item was in order. This included fifty-seven checks before takeoff, during flight, and after landing. There were thirty-eight checks for end of mission. In tight formations and hazardous conditions he had to know what to do and how to react when things went wrong. His calm, steady demeanor reverberated throughout the plane. Piloting a B-17 with a nine man crew seemed to be a glamorous thing from afar, but the conditions and rigors and dangers they would face over the skies of Europe were far from glamorous.

In flight a pilot had all he could handle keeping four engines synchronized with proper oil pressure, temperature, and RPMs, especially when trying to keep the big bomber in tight formations. And it got much more intense when flying through flak or under assault by enemy fighters. Still, Don, like most pilots, praised the B-17 as very predictable with no undesirable flight characteristics. And he was fond of his crew and relied on them.

His copilot was Lt. William H. Love from Sacramento, California. As “the guy in the right seat” he was Don’s essential partner. Some controls were on the right side and could only be operated by him; the oxygen regulator, hand pump if hydraulics failed, engine control start, and levers for temperature adjustment of supercharged air. Part of his job was to monitor and adjust power systems and, once in the air, to retract the landing gear while touching the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning. In addition, the rigors of flying close formations for nine or ten hours put great physical and mental strain on a single pilot and at times it took both pilots to keep the plane under control. Often, when flying close formation on the left wing of another plane, the copilot did much of the flying. Whoever had the controls, the other one monitored instruments, gauges, intercom, and oxygen system. In a landing pattern the copilot lowered and checked landing gear and lowered the flaps half way when under 145 mph, then fueled down on final approach. He would cut off the inboard engines for taxiing and check all switches and locks before leaving the plane.

Some of the Christensen Crew.
Top Left: Radio Operator Elmer Gurba.
Top Right Front: Selmer Haakenson and Albert Carlisle.
Back Row Robert Dudley, Kenneth Plantz, Elmer Gurba.
Bottom: Co-Pilot William Love and Bombardier John Gustafson 

Don’s navigator was nineteen-year-old Lt. Lawson Ridgeway from Dallas, Texas. He had a highly exacting job that required a quick mind and the ability to make complex math calculations. Navigators were often chosen from those who scored highest on preflight tests. Navigation was basically determining the position of the airplane in relation to the earth and plotting a course from there. In training, Lawson, like all navigators, spent many hours learning codes, maps and charts, mathematics, aircraft recognition and more. He also received gunnery training, and when under attack they manned the cheek guns on either side of the plane’s nose.. In the twenty weeks of navigator school he spent over 100 airborne hours learning dead reckoning (determining heading and speed from last know position), wind drift, airspeed calculations and nighttime navigation. He spent another 780 hours in ground school learning radio and other instruments, celestial navigation, meteorology, codes, and pilotage navigation (comparing ground features to maps). In the plane he had a gyro compass that operated off of earth’s magnetic field, a radio compass that received signals from beacons which gave a relative bearing, and a Gee box receiving signals from two fixed beams to give present position.

Nose Compartment For Navigator And Bombardier

Don’s bombardier was 2nd Lt. John “Swede” Gustafson from Aledo, Illinois, a small town near the Mississippi River, south of Rock Island and northwest of Galesburg, the home town of American poet Carl Sandburg. John was twenty-four years old and the only other crew member besides Don who was married. His wife’s name was Lela.

As bombardier he had the best view on the plane from a fixed seat just behind the bombsight in the front of the clear plexiglass nose. It was also a vulnerable position especially when flying through flak or facing head-on fighter attacks. Bombardier school was a twenty-week course with an additional six weeks of gunnery training. Much of his training was learning to use the Norden bomb sight which was an intricate system of gyroscopes and computers which factored altitude, air speed, ground speed, and trail and drift to locate a fixed spot on the run where bombs were to be released. The optical part was a small telescope with two crosses, one for drift left or right and another for rate of closure. When the crosses met it was “Bombs away!” He had a lever to open the bomb bay doors and a control panel with switches for a predetermined order and interval of bomb release. He could either drop one or two from the load, or a “stick” (a train), or a salvo where they were all released at once. The 8th AF eventually came to rely on the bombardier in the lead plane to find the targets while the others dropped, or “toggled” off of his signal. 

Bomb Bay Catwalk

Once in the air, and usually over the sea, the bombardier armed the bombs by standing on a narrow 8” catwalk through the center of the bomb bay and pulling cotter pins from propellers on the front of the bombs and inserting a wire attached to the plane. When bombs dropped they slid off the wire allowing the propellers to turn, thus arming the bombs to explode on contact or on a timed fuse. Occasionally the bombardier had to try to remove a hung-up bomb while standing on the narrow catwalk above the open bomb bay doors 25,000 feet above the earth and with a “walk-around” oxygen bottle for air. On B-17G’s, like the Christensen plane, he also manned the twin .50 caliber machine guns in the chin turret using controls resembling bicycle handlebars.

Young Sgt. Robert. W. Dudley from Toledo, Ohio was the Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner. His position was directly behind the pilots in the cockpit. He had to have a good working knowledge of all mechanisms, equipment, and functions of the plane. He was also trained in armaments, bomb racks, oxygen equipment, and radio transmitters and receivers. But often his main responsibility was to man the twin .50 caliber machine guns in the top turret. After basic, his training included six weeks of gunnery school and then a 20 week course in the operation and maintenance of aircraft armaments. Then there was a six week course in turret operation and maintenance, ballistics, gun repair, and air, land, and sea recognition. In flight he would try to deal with mechanical and electrical problems on the spot, but often it was left to ground crews back at base to complete the process.

Sperry Top Turret

His Sperry top turret was a self-contained unit of hydraulics and electric motors that turned in azimuth and elevation by hand controls. It had two hand grips; the left operated the trigger, while the right operated the range finder and gun sight. He would pull the handles to elevate the guns and push the handles to drop them, then pressure left or right to rotate the unit. The guns had stops to prevent a turret gunner from shooting the plane’s tail. From his bubble on top of the plane he had a good view of any approaching enemy aircraft and could warn the ball-turret gunner when a plane was coming in. At take-off, or when not occupying the top turret, he stood behind the pilots monitoring gauges and calling off air speed. One of the most difficult jobs for a flight engineer was to manually crank the electrically-operated mechanisms such as bomb bay doors, flaps, or landing gear when electric motors failed or jammed. Before long Dudley would be forced to use those hand cranks in combat conditions.

The radio operator was Sgt. Elmer G. Gurba from Cleveland, Ohio. In the air he was relatively isolated from the rest of the crew in the radio room which was in the center of the plane between two bulkheads with the bomb bay to the front and the waist to the rear, and with only small windows to see fore and aft. During flight he wore a headset listening for messages and other communications that might change flight path, scrub a mission, and to relay radio fixes to aid the navigator.

Radio Equipment

For equipment he had a Command Radio for short range communication with nearby aircraft or ground stations, a Liason Radio for long range voice and Morse code communication, and a VHF Command Radio for verbal communication with other bombers and fighters. In flight he often changed radio frequencies to confuse the enemy. He also used a Radio Compass for locating “Buncher” signals used in take-off assembly and in overcast conditions. At times when the navigator was lost or injured it was the radio operator who found the way back to base. He was trained as a gunner, but near the end of the war the radio room gun was phased out. He was also the main first-aid man on the crew. One of his other duties was to check the bomb bay after bombs were released to make sure none were hung up, and to notify the bombardier. At times he also dumped thin aluminum strips called “Window” or “Chaff” from the plane to confuse German radar.

Waist gunner Sgt. Kenneth J. Plantz was from Minneapolis, Minnesota. His was a dangerous job with less protection and more casualties than any other position on a B-17. He had armor plating below the waist window but no higher, so his only protection from his standing position was his helmet and flak suit. His equipment was a swivel-mounted .50 caliber machine gun with belt feeds of 600 rounds each. Earlier in the war each B-17 had two waist gunners, but by late 1944, as German fighters became less of a threat, it was left to a single gunner to man both left and right weapons. He also helped the ball turret gunner enter and exit his position under the fuselage.

Waist Gun

Most ball turret gunners were smaller men because of the cramped conditions there. But Sgt. Albert S. Carlisle was 5’ 10” and 145 lbs; young, thin, and agile. He was from White River Junction, Vermont, where the White River meets the Connecticut River, across from Lebanon, New Hampshire. Don Christensen’s original ball gunner, at least in Sioux City, was Hank Rome from Texas. It is not clear when Carlisle replaced him, but Albert was with the crew on all combat missions.

Ball Turret

Many considered the ball turret as the worst position; isolated, claustrophobic, and without room for a parachute. But statistically it was one of the safest positions and many gunners preferred it. Sgt. Cecil Scott from the Memphis Belle considered it “the best position on the airplane. You see a lot of action in that position, you know what’s going on and you are always busy. If the plane catches fire you know it first because you can see all four engines, and you can get out as quickly as anybody else. It isn’t too uncomfortable.” [Martin Bowman, B-17 Combat Missions, p. 114]

The ball turret was armed after takeoff with 250 rounds for each of the two guns. To enter the turret the gunner hand-cranked it until the guns pointed straight down and the door was up inside the plane. Then the he got in and hooked up his throat mike, earphones, and oxygen mask. He sat hunched against the armored door with his feet spread wide on each side of a 13” window. His face was about 30” from an optical gun sight suspended between his legs. The two-part handles above his head operated a self-contained electro-hydraulic system to rotate the turret. Firing buttons for the guns were in the end of each handle. There was a chute for shoving out spent cartridges and the guns were automatically stayed from firing through the engines and props. His hunched position -- basically lying on his back -- 
was not too uncomfortable, but once in position he couldn’t stretch.

Sgt. Selmer “Sam” Haakenson from Fargo, North Dakota was the “Norwegian tail gunner.” As tail gunner, he had the most important defensive position on the plane since that is where most fighter attacks came from. He also had a wide view through plexiglass windows and could keep the pilot informed on the formation behind or of any approaching danger from that direction. During take-off he and the waist gunner and ball turret gunner rode in the radio room which was the safest place and the plane’s center of gravity. To get to the tail guns he had to take his parachute and climb around the tail wheel and through a tunnel-like entrance to his “office” which was a low padded seat that he perched on with his legs doubled back under him and his knees on padded supports. There he manned two .50 caliber machine guns with 250 rounds each. His escape hatch was a small door under the stabilizer. The tail was the coldest part of the plane and it could buck and bounce, but many learned to clamp their legs and ride with it. Even though it could be uncomfortable on long flights, many tail gunners said they liked their position and would not trade it.

Sgt. Selmer Haakenson

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