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.”

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Slany, Czechoslovakia 1945

For more than a year and after their crippled plane disappeared into the clouds on March 2, 1945, the fate of the Don Christensen and his crew remained unknown to the American military and to the families back in the States.

After the war all former POWs were interrogated about their knowledge of those still missing in action. But when sole survivor Selmer Haakenson returned in June 1945, he reported, “I am unable to say what happened to the pilot, Second Lieutenant Donald R. Christensen. We received numerous hits from fighters and both 20mm and .50 cal. The interphones were shot out by the first burst received. The plane went into a left bank and the tail was shot completely off and I was unable to observe what happened to the other members of the crew as I received a shrapnel hit on the right side of my face which removed the vision in my right eye and very badly clouded the vision in my left eye. I bailed out from the tail at approximately two thousand feet into a low cloud bank and snow storm and was unable to see whether or not any other chutes opened. After I hit the ground I never saw any of the members of my crew again, or heard anything concerning their whereabouts.” [MACR #12853]

However, on that March 2, 1945, there were several Czech witnesses to the crash of the Christensen plane near the village of Kvic, two miles from the town of Slany, Czechoslovakia, about eighteen miles northwest of Prague. Frantisek Hrabanek, a nine-year-old boy at the time, recalls: “We were playing soccer and observing air strikes announced by sirens. Large units were flying over Slany. We saw an airplane fall into a spin. That airplane was flying at the very end of a large unit and it was quite visible. It was going down in some kind of spiral. We noticed it already at a high altitude…We knew it would crash pretty close. The guys said, ‘OK, let us run,’ and of course I was running with them.”

Mr. Jiri Pruskavec, a resident of Kvic, remembers that a group of German soldiers were drilling nearby when the plane came down. “I was in the garden and heard fire in the skies. All of a sudden I saw an airplane missing its tail. It was falling like a leaf –spinning and its engines were roaring…Smoke was coming out of it. It crashed in a field not far from the airfield. I heard an explosion and saw a smoke cloud. The Germans were running up the hill and I was running behind them. Upon reaching the field’s edge flares started firing out of the airplane and cartridges were exploding. The Germans dropped to the ground and so did I. After that the Germans gradually continued forward and dropped to the ground anytime something exploded. Then they pulled out a parachute from the wreckage, returned to the field’s edge, and cut the parachute in pieces. When they left I was able to get closer to the airplane. Its wreckage was spread within 50 meters. Approximately 30 people came to see the airplane. Later on Germans came from Slany and guarded the crash site.”
Young Frantisek Hrabanek and his soccer-playing friends soon arrived at the crash site: “We were watching from distance of 30-40 meters. The Germans came from the airfield in some type of truck, formed an approach formation, and pushed us farther away. Then they were pulling flyers out of the airplane. It was not much damaged. The fuselage was only slightly damaged. It looked like it landed flat.” They watched as German soldiers stripped the dead American flyers of their fine insulated boots and silk parachutes.

Meanwhile, tail gunner Haakenson, after being seriously wounded and trapped in the falling tail, was finally able to parachute out of the tail section. “The rear part fell into a spin and since it was subject to huge forces, I was not able to jump out. It stopped at 2000 feet; therefore I dropped my flak vest, attached the parachute and jumped out through the rear door.” He was blown by winds and came down several miles east of the crash site, near the village of Olsany. “I was fighting the parachute until it opened, and then I landed in a small town. For some time I was unable to see anything with my left eye [He had already been blinded in his right eye during the attack]. Three local men handed me over to the Germans. After examination they transported me to a hospital. They x-rayed me and operated on me. I lost my right eye. I had no idea where I was until some English-speaking German told me they had seen an airplane going down not far from them.”

A Mrs. Vorechovsky witnessed Haakenson’s descent. “I saw it from my garden. They shot at him as he was coming down.” Her son Jindrich added, “I remember there was a snowstorm and my mother and father were outside. That parachute was going down very fast and hit the ground close to the Novak’s. When I got there, a protectorate policeman was already there. I saw a door opening to the yard and I noticed a parachute covered with blood. Then I learned that they had taken the flyer to the hospital in Slany.”

Haakenson continues: “I stayed there for seven days and then they brought me to the Stalig 17B prison. I stayed there until our liberation on 8 May 1945. On 17 June 1945, I returned to the United States of America.” [On 8 April 1945, 4000 of the POWs at Stalag 17B began an 18-day forced march of 281 miles to Braunau, Austria. On May 3, they were liberated by part of the 13th Armored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army. The remaining 900 men at Stalag 17B, including Selmer Haakenson, who were too ill to make the march, were left behind in the hospital. These men were liberated on 9 May 1945 by the Russians.]

Within a day of the crash, the bodies of Don Christensen and the rest of his crew were brought to the Slany cemetery. The Germans were prepared to dig a mass earthen grave at the crash site and shove the bodies in and cover them up, but due to protests by the International Red Cross and local Czech citizens the Americans were brought to the cemetery in Slany and buried with military honors, although still in two mass graves and in the German section of the cemetery. This event was witnessed by many citizens of Slany who came to honor the American airmen. The following day the graves were covered with flowers, much to the displeasure of the Gestapo. Three local women were arrested and imprisoned at Terezin concentration camp for that offense. During the month of March, Germans removed most of the wreckage of the plane by truck. 

The bodies of the crew remained unidentified at this point since the Germans had taken everything at the crash site including their dog tags.