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.”

Monday, February 2, 2015

WWII Pilot Training

Basic Pilot Training

My father began Preflight Training at Santa Ana in September 1943, and was soon immersed in a rigorous curriculum of navigation, code, mechanics, aircraft recognition, communications, weather and instruments, and other topics. Cadets also had altitude pressure tank tests and experience with flight simulators. Many had their first airplane flight there, usually in a Piper Cub.

From Santa Ana, Don reported to Condor Field in the high desert near Twenty-Nine Palms, California, for Primary Pilot Training. His group was Class 44-F, meaning that those who made it through primary, basic, and advanced training would earn their wings and commission in June 1944. In Primary, Don and other cadets continued their physical and mental conditioning, learned the rudiments of aerial maneuvers and were expected to fly their first solos. They also took courses in meteorology, navigation, Morse code, aircraft engines and parts, maintenance and repair, and fuel and lubrication procedures.

Condor Field,, Twenty-Nine Palms CA

Their training planes were Boeing Stearman PT-17s, nicknamed “The Washing Machine” since it “washed out” so many cadets from flight training. It was a large bi-wing plane with narrow landing gear and a high center of gravity which made it prone to ground loops. It was a throwback to the days of baling wire and fabric biplanes, but it was also a good introduction to handling larger aircraft. Charles McCauley explains some of the pressure they were under: “Until you soloed you had to wear a tape across the top of your helmet that carried your name and serial number. A student wearing a tape was called a ‘Dodo.’ I was sure glad to have that tape off.” 

Stearman PT-17

On December 30, 1943 Don wrote to Jocile, “Wheee! I soloed today! What do you think of that? I was first up today and showed so much improvement in my landing that after we’d shot 5 of them, Lindberg told me to taxi over to the parking line and I thought I was thru for the day. Instead he climbed in and said, ‘OK, give me a ride.’ And that’s what he got. I don’t think he touched the controls once. When we got back to the line Lindberg said, ‘Alright, you know what to do, take her up.’ Boy! My heart was in my mouth…I went on around the pattern and made a pretty fair landing (although a bit bouncy.) When I taxied back to the line Lindy had a grin on his face from ear to ear. He said, ‘How do you feel?’ and I said (gulp), “OK,’ so he said, ‘Alright, take it around and make two more landings.’ I said, ‘Yes sir,’ (mopping my brow) and away I went again. My second one was the best one I made all day…I certainly didn’t expect to make it as soon as I did. Lindberg got check rides for two more of his cadets but they didn’t make it so that puts me about 3 days ahead of my group. Give my love to all and about a thousand kisses for you and little Donnie.”

In early 1944, Don was sent to Minter Field near Bakersfield, California, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles for Basic Pilot Training. Here he was introduced to faster, more sophisticated aircraft, the Vultee BT-13 Valiant, also known as the “Vultee Vibrator.” The BT-13 was a faster, more powerful plane than the Stearman and required more skill to handle, but it brought a higher level of flying satisfaction and accomplishment to trainees. In Basic, cadets were also introduced to longer flights, aerobatics such as loops, spins, and rolls, navigational problems, and night flying.
Minter Field, Bakersfield CA

BT-13 Vultee Vibrator

One weekend a group of cadets on weekend passes to Los Angeles did not get back to the base near Bakersfield due to heavy snow on Grapevine Pass, so the commander at Minter Field declared LA off limits to all personnel. Jocile’s solution was to take me and temporarily move to Fresno, north of Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley , where her brother Dean and his wife Charlotte and my cousins David and Bruce lived. That way we could see my father at least once a week.

Basic Pilot Training Graduation

After Basic came Advanced Pilot Training Some men went on to train as fighter pilots while bomber pilots were sent to twin-engine training. Don’s assignment was to Pecos, Texas, where he began flying twin-engine UC-78’s. His friend Marvin Coffee recalls, “This is the first clue that we will not become fighter pilots. Most of us like to think of being a fighter pilot as it was viewed as requiring a more daring individual and one who can operate with independence in the sky. This was not necessarily true, but it was perhaps glamorized at this point in the war.”

Advanced Pilot School Graduation

Because nearly everything in the military was done alphabetically, Don became most familiar with men in the “C” group, including his friends Marvin Coffee and Paul Colville. The three of them would do the remainder of their training together, would sail for England on the same ship, and would all be assigned to the 398th Bomb Group.

The Army Air Force assigned men as bomber or fighter pilots on several criteria. First was the current AAF military need or quota. Next was aptitude and physique. Some men were simply too big to fit in a fighter plane, plus the AAF wanted men with physical capabilities to handle heavy bombers. The last criterion was a cadet’s own preference.

Donald L. Miller discusses the pilot selection process. “In testing and training the Air Force looked for different qualities in fighter and bomber pilots; physical strength, judgment, emotional stamina, dependability, team play, discipline, and leadership in bomber pilots; rapid hand-eye coordination, aggressiveness, boldness, individuality, and a zest for battle in fighter pilots…For bomber pilots, ‘intellectual traits’ were more highly prized than sensory motor skills.”

The twin-engine UC-78 Bobcat, also called the Cessna AT-17, was used throughout the country as the multi-engine advanced trainer for bomber pilots. Originally developed as a light civil transport, it was ordered in great numbers during the war for the sole purpose of getting bomber pilots trained as quickly as possible. It was a bit of a bulbous aircraft that airmen often nicknamed the “Useless 78” and the “Double-Breasted Cub.” Nevertheless it served its purpose in preparing pilots for their final phases of training.

UC-78 Bobcat

On June 27, 1944, Class 44-F at Pecos airfield graduated and received their wings and their commissions as 2nd Lieutenants in the United States Army Air Force. It was one year since Don had been inducted into the AAF. After graduation the men were granted a short leave to visit home and then to report for B-17 transition training in Roswell, New Mexico by July 9th.

Newly commissioned Lt. Donald Christensen came home to California to get Jocile and me to go with him to Roswell, since officers were allowed to live with their families for the duration of training. For the next two months we lived in different motels with cooking facilities near the 3030th Base Unit at Roswell.. He finished B-17 transition training there on September 11, just before my second birthday. After that we all lived on-base at Lincoln, Nebraska and Sioux City, Iowa. Those last six months together before he shipped out for Europe is where my memories of him begin and from where they continue

That September, we all went to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the bomber crews were made up. Both officers and enlisted men were given psychological tests in order to sort them into compatible crews, and they were given time to get acquainted and begin a bonding process. A good bomber crew quickly developed a group identity that emotionally sustained each crewman, and most of them were very young.

Don described his new crew in a letter to his mother:

My bombardier and I are the only ones who are married, he being 24 and I 27. The average age of the rest of the crew is 21 and 22. My Co-pilot’s name is William H. Love and we were together at Kearns, Utah, Spearfish, South Dakota, and Santa Ana, California.

Here is a list of my crew and where they are from:
Donald R. Christensen, Pilot, L.A. Calif.
William H. Love, 2nd Lt, Co-pilot, Sacramento, Calif.
John H. Gustafson, 2nd Lt, “Swede” Bombardier, Illinois
L. Ridgeway, Navigator, Texas
Robert W. Dudley, Cpl, Engineer, Toledo, Ohio
Elmer F. Gurba, Cpl, Radio Operator, Cleveland, Ohio
Ken J. Plantz, Cpl, Armorer Gunner, Minneapolis
S.H. “Sam” Haakenson, Pfc, Norwegian Tail Gunner, North Dakota
Hank Rome, Pfc, Ball Gunner, Texas
I am quite fortunate to have such fine men, fine personalities, no indifference, no complaints.

By October 4, 1944 we accompanied my father to Sioux City, Iowa, where B-17 crews practiced formation flying, bomb runs, radio communication, high altitude flying, and gunnery practice. They had about six weeks to learn to work together as a cohesive unit so what they did was fly, fly, fly. They practiced takeoffs and landings, including many solely on instruments to prepare for bad weather in England. At times they flew for 7 or 8 hours in formations to simulate a bombing mission, including bombing runs with practice bombs. Navigators had many chances to practice their newly-learned skills. There was also gunnery practice. Many navigators and bombardiers had not had much gunnery practice before this, and so it was a chance for all gunners to test their skills from a B-17 in the air. As they would soon find out in Europe, shooting at towed targets with plastic bullets was very different from shooting at fast-flying fighter planes that are trying to kill them.

(I remember one particular incident from that time in Sioux City. One day my father took my mother and me to see one of the B-17s. We must have entered through the rear door because I remember him carrying me toward the front of the plane and passing through the bomb bay with bombs hanging in the racks – undoubtedly practice bombs. He sat me down in the pilot’s seat and was telling my mother about all the instruments, dials, and switches. There was another man there, probably his copilot. Suddenly another plane in the line started its engines. The roar of 1200 hp Wright Cyclone engines is quite impressive, especially to a 2 ½ year old. I panicked, certain that we were about to take off. My father laughingly picked me up and calmed me down. But it was certainly a memorable experience.)

With stateside training completed, Lt. Donald Christensen was among the best prepared of American pilots. Nearly 40 percent of those who began the pilot training program washed out or were killed in accidents. During stateside training over 7100 aircraft were lost in accidents, and over 15,500 pilots, crew members and ground personnel were killed. Those who remained were an elite who every right to be proud of their accomplishment. They were products of a veritable “pilot factory.” During 1944, the AAF turned out 81,024 pilots and co-pilots. Pecos Army Air Field alone produced an average of 400 pilots per month. But as they would soon learn when they arrived in England, there was still much on-the-job training yet to come.

By early December 1944, my father and the other men were given a ten day leave and told to report back at Lincoln on the 27th. We spent those last days together as a family, and then my father went off to war while my mother and I had a long train ride back to Los Angeles. She was three months pregnant. That is the last time I saw him in the flesh. Our experience was not unique; this scenario was played out countless times during World War II, and even throughout history. As an anonymous writer said, “A man at war, a pregnant wife, a child at home; it is the history of the world.”

I remember much of the long train ride home; the aural nature of the feel and sounds and smell of trains and railway stations; the kind Pullman porters, the view from the windows or the vestibules. I remember my mother pointing out the lights of Salt Lake City as we approached at night, telling me this is where my father was born. It was probably not nearly as romantic or interesting through an adult’s eyes. A woman named Dellie Hahne recalls, “That’s how I got to see the misery of war, not the excitement. Pregnant women who could barely balance in a rocking train, going to see their husbands for the last time before the guys were sent overseas. Women coming back from seeing their husbands, traveling with small children. Trying to feed their kids, diaper their kids. I felt sorriest for them. It suddenly occurred to me that this wasn’t half as much fun as I’d been told it was going to be. I just thanked God I had no kids. We didn’t fly. It was always a train. A lot of times you stood in the vestibule and you hoped to Christ you could find someplace to put your suitcase and sit down.”

Back in California, Jocile was unable to afford rent and food with her husband’s $50 per month allotment, especially with a two-year-old son and another child on the way in a few months, so we returned to live with her parents, my Grandma and Grandpa Ursenbach, in their house on 70th Street in Los Angeles. My brother Steve was born three months later.

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