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, March 9, 2015

The Home Front

On March 19, 1945, 2 ½ weeks after Don’s plane was shot down, my mother Jocile received the telegram that all military families dreaded. Unfortunately, this was far from a rare occurrence during the war. In the Eighth Air Force alone over 45,000 Missing In Action telegrams were sent for the 26,000 men killed and the 21,000 who later proved to be prisoners of war. But for each family this was an intensely personal and private moment of shock and grief.

Jocile came from a large English-Swiss family that had known much tragedy and heartbreak over the years and tended to be stoic and display little outward or public emotion. When the telegram arrived she read it, handed it to her parents, then went into her room and shut the door and remained there for two days.  She also refused to go to church for several weeks because she did not want the attention and sympathy she had seen so many other sobbing war wives receive. She once told my first wife Susan that she cried so much during those two days in her room that she had no tears left. In fact I don't remember her crying again, except perhaps in frustration over her rowdy children. When her second husband, my step-father Rulon Neilson, died I remember her showing no emotion at the funeral or grave site.

But this was another story that was played out over and over during the war. A young wife and mother, six months pregnant, living on $50 a month Army pay, learns from a telegram that her husband is missing and may be dead. Years later she wrote: “On March 19, 1945 came that dreaded telegram from the War Department informing us that Don’s plane had been shot down over Germany on March 2nd – my 24th birthday. Even though this is something you had to be prepared for in war time, it was a shock to all of us. We kept our hopes up for a time. It was obvious we were nearing the end of the war and we thought we would hear something soon.”

Local news media, along with the Los Angeles Police department were also notified.  The following article appeared in the Santa Monica Oulook, March 23, 1945.

The California Intermountain News reported, Friday, March 30, 1945.

"Missing in action is Lieutenant Donald Christensen, husband of Jocile Ursenbach Christensen. Word reached his family March 19 that he had been missing since March 2 when the B-17 which he piloted failed to return from a mission in Germany. He has been overseas for two months and was based in England. Don served as a missionary in Denmark when war broke out in Europe and was among the missionaries evacuated. He finished his mission in the East Central States. After entering the air corps almost two years ago, Don took his training in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, California, and Iowa. His wife and baby son, Donnie, were with him during the time he was stationed in Iowa."

The Los Angeles Police department included the following in their radio broadcast on March 20:

"Word has been received that Officer Donald R. Christensen, a lieutenant in the army, on military leave from this department, has been reported missing in action in the European Theater. He formerly worked at University Division and is brother of Detective L. E. Christensen, Commander of West Los Angeles Detective Division."

Paul E. Harrison, Captain
Los Angeles Police Department

When my father left for England my mother and I lived with my Grandpa and Grandma Ursenbach on 70th Street in Los Angeles. Grandpa who was something of a writer and poet wrote a poem called "Missing In Action" which contained the following verse:

"A pilot missing with his crew somewhere
  While hearts at home torn with profound suspense
  Raise daily prayers that Divine Providence
  May keep them safe in God's protecting care"

Over the next several months there was much correspondence between Jocile and the War Department, the Army Air Force, and with the families of the other crewmen. By late April she received a summary of the Group Commander’s report for March 2, reiterating that Don’s plane had been 
disabled and attacked and was last seen disappearing into the 10,000 foot cloud cover below, but nothing was yet known about the fate of the crew. 

A May 11 letter from waist gunner Kenneth Plantz’ mother in Minneapolis, mentions news of surviving tail gunner Selmer Haakenson: “I just talked to Mrs. Haakenson long distance and learned that she had received word thru the Red Cross, War Department, and directly from Selmer that he was safe in France and would be home soon. No mention of the other crew members.” There was still some hope that Don and the others were also alive and had been held in some POW camp.

Shortly after V-E Day, when censorship of letters was eased by the military, Don's nineteen-year-old navigator Lawson Ridgeway sent this letter from Nuthampstead:

May 13 – England

Dear Jo,
I’ve thought about writing this letter very many times and have tried, but it’s very difficult to get one through the censor office, and I keep getting them back. Now with the end of the war restrictions have been lifted somewhat and this one should go thru. Before, we over here were forbidden to mention or to give any information at all concerning those that are reported missing. I hope when you read this letter it sounds encouraging for I do feel that way and I was glad to hear that you also have not lost your faith.

Chris and his crew, on March 2, after enemy opposition over Chemnitz, Germany, had trouble with the ship. The damage was such that the ship wouldn’t stay in flight but it did seem operational enough to allow everybody time to bail out, especially at such a high altitude as they were. Because of the clouds directly below we couldn’t view them get out but I feel certain they did. If they were POW’s I feel also certain that they are alright now. Being a war prisoner isn’t as bad as it sounds. I know that’s hard for you to believe after reading about Buchenwald and such horror camps—but such camps as those don’t apply to army prisoners. Those camps are mostly political and concentration camps. The story is much different for the army and especially the air corps.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that you hadn’t received any further details. I’m sure they don’t give any—or very little—so don’t be alarmed as the situation was over here for the past six months with such great advances the Germans were in a state of confusion moving their prisoners about and very few and mixed up records were kept. As a result, very little detailed word is received concerning the boys that are prisoners. No word has been received at this base in 7 months.

It’s quite possible that you will receive further information before this base receives it, so I wish you would please write me as soon as you are notified, for I as well as all the men Chris was in contact with are anxious over his condition. Wherever he is now I know he wants you to be brave and strong now so lil’ Donnie the second will be born brave and strong like his father.

All my best wishes and prayers go with you for your prayers to be answered. Always a friend—whenever I may help you in any way please remember me. I hope I shall have a chance to pay you and Donnie a visit soon

Very Sincerely,

And soon after returning home from Europe, tail gunner Haakenson also wrote to Jocile:

June 29, 1945
Dear Mrs. Christensen,

I’m sure grateful that I’m back in the States and able to write you a letter personally but I regret that I’m not able to furnish you the information you’d like most. You see I was in the tail assembly when that section was shot off, so I don’t know what happened to the rest of the plane. I was shot up a little in the head; in fact I lost an eye. I can be thankful I didn’t get hurt worse, and I sure hope the rest of the crew is alright and will hear from them soon. I did not see any of them in prison camp and I tried to check up on them in France but they seemed to know nothing.

Of course you’ll be the first one notified in case they are found. And by the way the tail was shot off before the ship went into evasive action, so I think they had a good chance of getting out.

Well it’s all the news I have and I sure hope we hear something soon. I’m just as anxious as anyone to see them back. We’ll hope and pray together that they return safe soon.

Sincerely yours,
“Sam” Haakenson

Throughout the year Jocile continued to write and receive communicattions from various military and government officials seeking information and receiving assurances that everything that could be done was being done to locate her husband and all other missing airmen and soldiers. A letter from August 1, 1945 is typical:

But as months passed, hope of finding anyone alive faded. Years later Jocile wrote that she came to her own conclusion and resignation by June: “I kept my hopes alive until Steve was born, June 12, 1945. As I came out of the ether following his birth I told the doctor that Don was not coming back, but that was how it was supposed to be. The doctor said, “Yes I know. You have been talking to him.” I have no recollection of anything like that, but what I did have was a calm, serene feeling that all was well. I knew I had two boys to raise alone. Don and his crew were kept on the missing in action rolls for a year and declared legally dead on March 3, 1946.”

On  that March 3, 1946, Jocile received a letter from the War Department stating that Don's status was changed from missing in action to a presumptive finding of death, and for "the termination of pay and allowances, settlement of accounts and payment of death gratuities.  I regret the necessity for this message but trust that the ending of a long period of uncertainty may give at least some small measure of consolation."

There was still no word or knowledge of the fate of Don Christensen and his crew. At he same time units of the American Grave Registration Service were still diligently searching throughout Europe and the Pacific for the remains of US servicemen and doing their best to identify them and return them to American soil or to a military cemetery .

Since Don was a police officer on military leave at the time of his death, Jocile soon received official recognition and condolences from the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD. Mayor Fletcher Bowron sent a letter of sympathy, and concluded, “A grateful community will forever honor your husband for his supreme sacrifice on the altar of freedom.”

On March 28, 1946, the Los Angeles City Council concluded their regular business by standing in “silent and final tribute to their associate, 1st Lieutenant Donald R. Christensen.” They then passed a resolution expressing their shared sorrow and regret with the family at his untimely death. Their resolution included the following lofty language altogether fitting and proper for that time:

Then there was a condolence certificate from President Harry S. Truman, which was undoubtedly also sent to the families of all war dead. 

My mother told me on more than one occasion that she felt I was too young to understand the loss of my father so she and my grandparents tried to shield me from any overt grief or emotion. Her approach was to simply omit “and please bless daddy and bring him home safe” from bedtime prayers, hoping I would understand more as I grew older. 

But she clearly misunderstood the radar that children have for the emotional weather in the home and in the adults around them. I knew that something was wrong. I remembered my father well and it is from this time that I began to have dream-like memories or visions of him and his presence, and recurring dreams of being alone in strange places searching for him.  And my search continues still, and accounts for why I am driven to tell his story after 70 years.

People have repeatedly told me I was much too young to have such memories. But they were wrong. Research into childhood brain function and memory has shown that while most people have “childhood amnesia,” in which they lose access to early memories – usually before the age of four or five – some as young as 18 months have clear memories, particularly when they are connected to an emotionally charged event such as the birth of a sibling, a traumatizing illness, or the death of a parent. In addition, repeated recall of such memories – particularly when they are fashioned into good story – actually strengthens them over time. Perhaps that is why many older people can recall people and events from their youth better than they can recall their short-term memory. I am quite familiar with that phenomenon.

More on memory later.

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