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, March 1, 2015

Don Christensen's Fourth Mission





On March 1, 1945, ten days after their Belgian adventure  where Don had brought a severely crippled B-17 down safely , the Christensen crew flew their fourth mission. It was also the first day for the Don to fly B-17 44-6573, N7-K. This plane had been assigned to the 398th as a replacement aircraft on November 6, 1944, and had seen a lot of action. On January 10, it had been abandoned on the continent due to damage and mechanical failure, then repaired and only 
recently reassigned to the 398th on February 17. Still they were ready to fly again and get some more missions under their belt.

In early 1945, Allied ground forces were still recovering from the German Ardennes assault known as the Battle of the Bulge, and were not immediately ready to continue their march to the Rhine. Eighth Air Force and RAF planners therefore decided their best course in further weakening Germany was to bomb enemy positions along the Eastern Front in support of the Russian ground offensive since it seemed to have the best chance of ending the war by spring. Selected bombing targets included Berlin, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Dresden, and Bohlen, all major rail centers close to the Eastern Front. Attacks on all of these cities,were made with the full understanding that they were filled with refugees from the east and that the bombings would cause great dislocation, clogged roads and railways, and high human casualties as well.

8th Air Force Commander General Jimmie Doolittle protested. He felt that bombing a population into submission had little chance of success and that it violated “the basic American principle of precision bombing of targets of strictly military significance for which our tactics were designed and our crews trained and indoctrinated.” [Donald L. Miller, Masters Of The Air, p. 419] He was overruled by General Ira Eaker and the attacks proceeded.



General Jimmie Doolittle


Even FDR agreed with this decision. “It is of the utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation. [That fact] collectively and individually, must be so impressed upon them that they will hesitate to start any new war. Too many people here and in England hold to the view that the German people as a whole are not responsible for what has taken place—that only a few Nazi leaders are responsible. That unfortunately is not based on fact. The German people as a whole must have it driven home to them that the whole nation has been engaged in a lawless conspiracy against the decencies of modern civilization.” [ibid. p.416]

So with clearing skies at the end of February, Allied Command and the Eighth Air Force launched Operation Clarion, an all out assault on German communication and transportation, and began putting up over 1000 bombers a day attacking petroleum facilities, aircraft plants, armament works, railroad yards, bridges and canals, and anti-aircraft installations all across Germany.  So, by March 1, the 398th BG, including Don and his crew, became part of this strategy. 


Opposition and losses were light throughout the rest of the month and there were even signs that anti-aircraft fire was being restricted. With a 10-1 Allied superiority in fighters, the Luftwaffe had resorted to hiding their remaining planes from US and RAF fighters which relentlessly sought them out. The Luftwaffe high command had ordered fighter units to take off only with prospects of success, and according to German pilot Willi Reschke, “At the time, however, such occasions were very rare indeed.”

 By February American P-51 escort fighters had become so dominant that bombers had little reason to fear attacks by German fighters. Americans were now capable of attacking the enemy on his own airfields, and fighter sweeps often flew well ahead of bomber formations to catch German planes on the ground or as they were taking off.

Mission Map For March 1.

The 398th's target that March 1st was a tank factory and the marshalling yards at Neckarsulm, several miles north of Stuttgart. The 398th encountered no fighters and only light flak, but the mission was unusual as the bombers circled or “went around” their target three times on orders from a tag-along general. 

Sgt. John Veenschoten, Radio Operator/Gunner on Howard Rehme’s 603rd crew, wrote, “We had a General in the lead ship that wanted a perfect bombing pattern so he made three runs over the target. I guess he didn’t know it was my last mission…I had a scare on one of the runs over target. Just as we were approaching the target a squadron of planes swung over us and hung there with their bomb bay doors open. I could look straight up and see the bombs hanging in their racks. We landed about 7:40 pm, nine hours 40 minutes in the air and about six hours on oxygen.” [398th.org]

Sgt. George Forsythe, Flight Engineer for Al Petska’s 602nd crew, wrote, “We got only a few bursts of flak at the lines. We went over the target three times. The whole town was on fire when we left. On oxygen four hours.” And copilot Robert Weidig, noted, “10 hours. Little flak, almost a direct burst in the nose. Nicked number four propeller. No fighters.” [398th.org]



No one liked doing a 360-degree, or even a 180-degree turn over a target area, especially when it came suddenly and unexpectedly. It meant a group or squadron formation leader had decided to abandon the run to the target, return the formation back to the original IP (Initial Point) or to the secondary IP, and do it again. 

Turning a bomber formation around is a little like turning an oil tanker around in the middle of the ocean; it was a long, awkward process. And it left a formation over a target area for an extended period, vulnerable to flak and enemy fighters. Sometimes it was obvious to that the leader’s decision to circle around was necessary due to weather, interference, or other factors. Other times it came as a surprise, and if other pilots thought it was a bad decision they were often vocal in their displeasure.

Waist gunner Jim Wilson, speaking of an earlier mission, says, “The group started the bomb run and for some reason had to turn off. The leaders decided to make a 360-degree turn and make a second run. You don’t do things like that with the Germans.” [Astor, p. 384] 

And Frank Aldrich explains the dire consequences of such maneuvers against heavier opposition. “Had the bombs gotten away on schedule we would have all gone home, having chalked up another one. The second go-around was another matter entirely. We all moved into it with a great deal of apprehension. We expected hell and caught it…Air craft were dropping out of formation all over the place, and when the bombs failed to tumble out of the lead aircraft for the second time, we wheeled around for a third run. We all knew we were in deep trouble.” [ibid. p. 443]



Luckily for Don Christensen and the rest of 398th, their three-times-around stunt on March 1, met with only light flak and no enemy fighters. Their luck would change the following day when they were ordered once again to “go around,” this time against surprising fighter opposition.