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.”

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Crew Is Found And The Four burials of Lt. Don Christensen

American Graves Registration Service At Work

After the war, units of the American Grave Registration Service diligently searched throughout Europe for the remains of US servicemen and did their best to identify them and return them to American soil. They interviewed returning POWs for information regarding missing servicemen, and they talked with mayors and residents of towns expending any effort to locate and identify MIAs.

On July 3, 1946, the Czech State Police Station reported to Graves Registration, "Eight Anglo-American airmen are buried in the military cemetery, section 4. They were shot down over Slany on 2 March, 1945, in air combat. The airmen were buried on 4 March, 1945, in the German section, therefore they were exhumed on 24 May, 1945, and buried again in grave numbers 17-18-19-20. It was impossible to find out the names of the airmen as the plane crashed in the vicinity of the German training camp. The German soldiers got to the plane and robbed the dead airmen in a most cruel manner of all their property and documents.”

There conflicting reports about whether or not their dog tags were buried with the crew. One story is that the dog tags were thrown into the grave in a bunch, while another says that the Germans took everything including the dog tags.  Regardless, one Czech citizen had written down the serial number from the tail of the plane where it fell a few miles away from the rest of the wreckage so at least the names of the crew could be identified. The bodies of Don Christensen and his crew were buried two in each of the four graves, still with only mattress covers for coffins. It turned out that Don and his co-pilot William Love were in the same grave, but that would not be known until identification was made through dental records in 1950.

In late July, Graves Registration requested permission to exhume the bodies of the airmen and on August 2, this was granted by Czech officials. On August 6, 1946, the remains of the Christensen crew were exhumed from the Slany cemetery and transported to the U.S. military cemetery at St. Avold, France. This solemn event was much celebrated by the people of Slany. Mr. Jurka Rus, newspaper editor and elementary school principal, wrote:

“There was a large thunderstorm that day. The bodies were placed into new coffins under the supervision of county physician Dr. Josef Novotny. Other present parties included the honor company of the Czechoslovak police from Slany, local police, the Military Union, legionnaires, Sokol, boy scouts, firefighters, Samaritan squads, the County social assistance, representatives of the Czech-American Club, and plenty of other visitors…The members of the Military Union carried the coffins from the cemetery’s ceremonial room to prepared American cars. The coffins were covered with American flags. Beautiful wreaths were carried in front of the cars. Present were Ms. Kubikova, Ms. Vykanska, and Ms. Petrzilkova [the women imprisoned at Terezin for putting flowers on the graves] who suffered so much for their sympathies with our allies. Bells were ringing as the mourning [convoy] was moving slowly through the town among numerous local people. Plenty of them were laying wreaths on slowly moving vehicles. Lots of people were escorting their beloved heroes up to the former chemical plant where the last goodbye on behalf of the town’s citizens was said by the chairman of the local government office, Mr. Ant Hejduk. An American officer, moved by so much reverent attention, asked a Czechoslovak captain to interpret warm thanks from the U.S. Army and the Republic for so much love and gratitude expressed to their soldiers. The famous heroes were transported to a joint cemetery of American soldiers close to Paris.”

Lorraine American Cemetery At St. Avold

At St. Avold the US Medical Officer reported that the bodies, which had lain unprotected in the ground for a year and half, were badly mangled and could not be separated. In addition, the bodies had been badly burned when their plane crashed and caught on fire and were devoid of flesh so no fingerprints could be taken and only a few bones, mandibles and teeth were not fractured or burned. They were then reburied in graves marked "unknown" under various X numbers. The grim findings about the mangled, flesh-less bodies of the crew were never communicated to their families of the crew and I only discovered this information in my father's Individual Death Personnel File (IDPF).

Nine months later, on April 7, 1947, Jocile was notified by the War Department that the bodies of Don and his crew had been had been found at  Slany, Czechoslovakia, and his status had been changed from presumptive finding of death to actual finding of death.  No other information was forthcoming at that time.

Then on June 10, 1947, Jocile received another letter from the War Department:  "With deep regret you must be informed that, although the records of this office discloses that his remains were properly interred in a manner befitting our honored dead, due to the manner in which he met his death it has not yet been possible to individually identify his remains or those of others of his crew. The remains of this crew were interred as a group in the U.S. Military Cemetery St. Avold, located twenty-three miles east of Metz, France."

"Please be assured that the Grave Registration Service exhausts every available clue which might lead to the individual identification of our deceased Military Personnel. If further research fails to establish individual identity, the remains of this group will be returned to the United States for final interment in a National Cemetery designated by the Quartermaster General." 

Years later my mother recalled, "He was declared legally dead on March 3, 1946 and a year later they said they had found the graves in Czechoslovakia and that all of them had been put in two graves and they couldn't make positive identification so they were put in a military cemetery in France."

On January 11, 1950, Jocile received further word from the Department of the Army that Don's remains had been positively identified through dental records. 

"According to our records, the identification of these remains was established by favorable comparison of the tooth chart made for the deceased with information  maintained in Army dental records for your husband.The remains have now been casketed  and are being held above ground storage pending disposition instructions from the next of kin, either for return to the United States or for permanent burial in an overseas cemetery."

"There are enclosed informational pamphlets regarding the Return of World War II Dead Program, including a disposition form on which you may indicate your desires in this matter."

Ironically, Jocile had remarried my step-father Rulon Neilson one month earlier in December 1949, and therefore lost the right to decide the disposition of my father's remains. That right then passed to his mother and my grandmother, Annice Christensen who wanted her boy brought home. Jocile was opposed to this decision but had no more say in the matter, as she explains:

"I had lost the right to sign so his mother signed to have him brought home. I was opposed to bringing him home because I knew how he felt about it because he said the body meant nothing to him and he didn't like money spent on funerals and things but that is what the family wanted so that is what they did. He is buried at Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, California.  His father was buried there and they left a space for his mother so Don is buried by his parents in Rose Hills."

Don's next oldest brother Harry was a mortician in Long Beach and took care of all the arrangements for receiving his remains in July 1950 and transporting them to the cemetery for a closed casket grave-side service. The military supplied a simple stone marker for the grave. Jocile and Rulon attended this service and she wrote, "How many women have the experience of going to bury one husband with another husband?"

My father was re-buried with full military honors in a full size coffin. No one knew, except perhaps for Harry the mortician, that the coffin contained only a few unbroken bones, a mandible and some teeth. For many years I imagined that his whole body in dress uniform was buried there. Only recently did I obtain his IDPF which explained the true story.

All of the rest of the crew was also returned to the United States with the exception of waist gunner Kenneth Plantz who remains at St Avold. 

From what I've seen of American Military Cemeteries in Europe I have to agree with my mother that one of them would have been a better resting place for my father among his comrades than alone in California. Somehow at military cemeteries in England, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, Europeans seem to honor our WWII dead better than we do in this country. Of course we have fine facilities at Arlington and the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C., and others, but the dedication and care displayed by volunteers and citizens in Europe is truly impressive.

Cambridge American Military Cemetery

As it is, almost no one in the Christensen family lives in Southern California any longer and the graves of my father and his parents are seldom visited or tended properly, except by my son Jeff.

Jeff Tending Grave, Rose Hills, California

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