Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Remembering Bert Christman

[A tip of the virtual hat to Andrew Glaess, who interviewed Christman's sister and some AVG veterans for the following story, which is copyright by him. -- Daniel Ford]

As tombstones go, it is small and enigmatic. A modest, low, marker that you need to stand directly over to find, it lies in the middle of an unpretentious cemetery, tucked in behind a stately old neighborhood. The inscription indicates that a Lt. Colonel lies here, killed in Rangoon, Burma, in 1942.  Scores of people over the last 50 years have probably come across it, scratched their heads at the logo of a winged tiger cut into the stone, and never put in the effort to decipher it.

If they had bothered to look into the matter they would have discovered even more questions that needed to be answered than they would have ever imagined. For after being buried in Burma, and then again a few years later in India, the Lt. Colonel of the Chinese Air Force that lies here, was finally laid to rest in a quiet Fort Collins, Colo., cemetery in 1950.

How did he end up there? Why would a Chinese officer be buried in a college town along Colorado's front range?

He belongs there. At one time he was its most famous citizen. His life was a fascinating story of youthful ambition, talent, adventure and tragedy; first as a famous cartoonist, and then as a member of the legendary Flying Tigers. It is a story that has become nearly forgotten over the past half century.

Allen Bert Christman was born in Fort Collins, Colo., to Allen and Elise Christman on May 31, 1915. Even then the Christmans were an old Colorado family. Bert’s paternal grandfather, Frederick Christman, had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1853. For a time he had lived in Wheeling, W Va. and then enlisted in the Third Virgina Volunteer Calvary of the Union Army during the Civil War. He moved west and settled near Fort Collins in 1873, and in 1884 married Mary Belle Young. The couple had two sons, Allen and Carl.

Bert’s father, Allen, married a Chicago girl named Elise Reuter in 1910. They too set up a household in Fort Collins, and had three children. The oldest, Ruth, was born in 1912; Allen Bert was born in 1915; and Joanne in 1926. Bert’s father continued what became a family military tradition by serving as an instructor in the US Army infantry during World War I.

Fort Collins was a small town early in the 20th Century. Bert Christman would often refer to it as an “Andy Hardy town.” Located 65 miles North of Denver, and 50 miles South of Cheyenne, WY, it is the home of Colorado State University.  Today it is a bustling, small city made up of mainly college students and first generation residents.

Bert’s father was a railroad man, and at the time of his death, in a work related accident, was a supervisor of the Burlington Railroad in Casper, WY. It was 1928, Bert was only 13 years old, and tragedy had already struck his life.

“That was a terrible time,” said Joanne Chisolm, Bert’s younger sister. “He was a man from that day on, so he took over. I will say that my sister and brother managed to never take one dime from my mother from the day my father was killed. They went and got jobs and never took a dime.”

All of the Christman children seemed to be remarkably self-contained, hard working with adventurous, independent streaks.

“We were railroad people,” Joanne Chisholm said. “We had lifetime passes. My brother, sister and I would travel, make money, pay for our school and clothes—whatever it took, we would find a way.”

Ruth, the elder sister, would move to Chicago, attend Northwestern University and eventually married and settled in Cincinnati, OH. Bert would frequently travel across the country, via the railroad, to visit her and to explore any place that piqued his interest. One summer, he decided to see Alaska and spent months working in a cannery.

“He was an adventurous person,” Chisolm said fondly of her brother. “There were no spring breaks, no summer breaks. He was just off to somewhere to make more money and to see something new.”

Local jobs that Bert did keep for several years included advertising art for local grocery stores and a paper route for the Fort Collins newspaper. As fortune would have it, the paper carried the cartoon section of the Associated Press, a section his talents were to prominently grace several years later.

“I remember Bert Christman as a quiet, businesslike, almost shy newspaper carrier, with a marked flair for cartooning,” said Norman A. Johnson, a reporter for the Fort Collins Express-Courier in a 1943 article about Christman. “I recall a dinner of the old Express-Courier staff at which his caricatures of members of our staff were the hit of the evening.”

Men like Frank Luke, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Charles Lindbergh were heroic figures of the day, and Bert was not immune to the appeal. He was great friends with a neighbor boy named Roger A. Wolf, and they shared a passion for aircraft and machinery.

Sadly little information is available today about Wolf, other than a telephone directory listing that stops in the early 1940s and Joanne Chisholm’s memory that he too died young--while flying as a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force during the late 1940s.

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

Once Christman graduated from high school, he decided to pursue higher education at home, and enrolled in the local college, Colorado A&M. He would earn a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Besides his constant sketching and painting, Bert spent what little free time he had tinkering with mechanical things. He created his own lamps, furniture, and maintained a hot rod that was known by family and friends as “The Silver Bug”. He also managed to find time to letter in gymnastics, winning several major competitions.

When he graduated in 1936, with a Bachelor’s degree and honors, Christman had grown to 5’11” and weighed 150lbs. Blonde, blue eyed, slender and handsome, he had an education, talent, and meant to make his mark on the world. With a portfolio full of art samples, he left Fort Collins and headed east to New York City.

Initially he worked at whatever he could find, at small publishing companies, doing what was necessary to eat. It didn’t take long for him to attract attention, however, and soon the Associated Press hired him on as a general artist for their feature service. The AP had started offering various illustrations, fiction, maps and a comic section to papers around the country in 1930. Typically newspapers of that era contained more artwork than today’s, adding attractive graphics in an era before quality photo reproduction was easily achieved.

The most popular strip in the AP’s comic section during this time was an aviation feature called Scorchy Smith. Contrary to several articles written since his death, Bert Christman did not create the character. It was originally developed in 1930 to play off the Lindbergh craze that had swept the country. Scorchy Smith was a young country boy, aged 18, who had a talent for aviation and a nose for adventure. It was created and very crudely drawn by a cartoonist named John Terry. Christman must have become aware of the strip immediately as it was carried in the Fort Collins newspaper, and he had always followed the comics intently.

John Terry soon became ill with tuberculosis and was forced to take a sabbatical. The AP looked to its bullpen of feature artists and decided that a young man named Noel Sickles should take over the strip…. What Sickles did with it over the next two and a half years was pure cartooning magic. It is considered to be one of the most significant artistic stints in comic strip history, and it created a major challenge for any artists who followed him. For not only did he improve Scorchy Smith’s quality and popularity, but he created an entire new school of cartooning in the process. It was a black, impressionistic style that made use of cinematic type points of view and was massively different than the straight, illustrative approach of the other masters of the medium like Hal Foster and Alex Raymond….

By the fall of 1936 Sickles had burned out. He had researched the comic strip’s popularity, something that the AP didn’t discuss with their artists, and estimated that it was running in 250 papers across the country. He was paid $125 a month, with the AP’s take on the feature being around $2,500. He presented his research to his employers and asked for a raise. It was declined. He promptly left the strip….

In need of a replacement for the departing Sickles, the AP management searched their staff of artists for a likely successor. On November 23, 1936 Bert Christman became the writer and artist of Scorchy Smith. That first strip was not one of his better efforts, although it would take only a month or so before the 21-year-old would find his stride. It was also unsigned, and would remain so until the jungle story sequence that he had inherited was complete on February 16, 1937.

“He was young, but it wasn’t all that unusual,” said Ron Goulart, a noted comic strip historian of Christman’s rise to prominence. “The AP went in for younger guys. Noel Sickles, Frank Robbins, Christman—they came cheaper.”

The first full Christman story-arc had the character working as a test pilot in San Diego. Seeking to illustrate authentic looking aircraft, Bert started to hang out at airports in the New York area to do research. It occurred to him that flying lessons were a also a good idea, so he took that up and soon was drawing the best planes on the nation’s comic pages.

Low-wing monoplane “It was all very well done,” said Bill Blackbeard, a comic strip historian and founder of the San Francisco Academy of Cartoon Art. “Romantic and dashing stuff. He was a typical kid from the 30s, turned on by aviation.”

When looking back on Christman’s life, its common to see imagination transferred to the comic page and then again transferred into reality. His character was a pilot, so Bert became a pilot and in March of 1937 Scorchy Smith began an eight-month adventure working as a mercenary for a Chinese warlord. There was no Claire Chennault, but the parallels are striking.

Other adventures concerned a “Lost Horizons” inspired adventure in Tibet and an adventure involving airliners, sabotage and murder. At one point Christman even had his character pursuing a killer through the streets of Rangoon, Burma.

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

After only 18 months on the strip, Christman was on to other adventures himself. Young, restless, and probably under the impression that, like Sickles, he too was being taken advantage of, he began to look for something new to tackle.

Bert told his family that one afternoon he was out walking and that a Navy recruiting poster caught his eye. He came back a few days later and signed up as an aviation cadet in June, 1938.

The training he received at Pensacola, Fla. was intense. The cadets had to qualify in dive-bombing, gunnery, torpedo drops, horizontal bombing and the crude instruments of that day. Naval aviation was not then, nor is it now, easy, and many cadets washed out of the program. Christman applied himself and found the talent to successfully complete the course. After graduation he was assigned to VB-4 on the aircraft carrier Ranger.

During this time Christman was also keeping his art skills sharp, and supplementing his income, by doing work in the then new comic book industry. Squeezing the work in during his rigorous aviation training must not have been easy, but the quality of his art never suffered. “He was an unorthodox comic book artist for the day,” said Bill Blackbeard. “Early comic book art was pretty crude, and Christman had excellent training with Scorchy Smith. His work was quite polished for the day. He really understood the medium and his art stood out.”

Bert Christman's Sandman He worked on such titles as Funny Pages, New Fun, Adventure Comics, Action Comics and Detective Picture Stories. His best remembered work in this field was The Sandman [left], a Batman like playboy adventurer whose adventures had a regular aviation slant; and Three Aces, a feature about “Three winged soldiers of fortune” that was printed as a back-up feature in Action Comics for early episodes of a character named Superman.

Probably wanting to save his real name for comic strip work, Bert adopted pen names like "Christopher" and "Larry Dean" during this period.

Three Aces is notable for more than the relative sophistication of its art. Its also autobiographical, for Christman had become reunited with one close friend and made another on the Ranger. Two men who were to become real aces in the near future.

David Lee ‘Tex’ Hill was born on July 13, 1915 in Kwangju, Korea. His parents were Presbyterian missionaries, and his father would later become a chaplain with the Texas Rangers after the family relocated to San Antonio, Texas. He graduated from Austin College, and joined the Navy at age 23 in 1938. He first met Bert Christman at Pensacola Naval Air Station during training

Edward Franklin Rector was born September 28, 1916 in Marshall, N.C., and graduated from Catawba College in 1938. He joined the Navy in 1939.

Along with Christman, Hill and Rector flew SB2U-2 Vindicators on missions in the Atlantic as members of VB-4. More than 50 years later they both had fond memories of Bert. “I often read quotes that he was shy,” said Rector. “That’s not really accurate. He was quiet, but not shy. He was well mannered, a gentleman--the nicest guy. He was a good pilot, damn good one in fact. He also had a very wry sense of humor. He told good stories. I remember him as sort of reticent, all knowing in a way.”

Tex Hill said that Christman had become a military pilot to add background experience to his artistic credentials. “Really the whole reason he was a pilot and in the military was that he wanted to live the things he sketched out, the things he drew. We were reunited when I was transferred to the Ranger from the Saratoga,” said Hill. “We were inseparable. Just real close friends in the same formation….”

At the same time as his Three Aces comics were backing up Superman in the comics, Christman, Hill and Rector were living the real thing. Young guys full of energy, looking for some adventure. The Ranger was involved in ‘Neutrality Patrols,’—escort missions for British ships that were in constant danger of attack, from the German navy, while crossing the Atlantic.

The trio also found time for fun on the side, “There was one time when we were at a bar in Bermuda,” Rector remembered. “I went outside looking for a place to relieve myself and ended up vaulting over this wall. Well I ended up falling through some trees for about 20 feet to the ground. When I woke up, Bert made me lie back down to see if I was okay. He got me straightened out in time to make the last boat back to our ship. Another time when our ship came back to Norfolk, the three of us came flying in and buzzed these riding stables that my aunt had in the area. We had those horses looking like motorcycles in a Hippodrome!”

The Lady and the Tigers

When the Ranger returned to its base in Norfolk, Va., in March of 1941, Christman, Rector and Hill were met by a man with a very intriguing proposal for them. His name was Rutledge Irvine, and he was attempting to recruit pilots for a covert mission in Burma. By 1941 China’s war with Japan was going very badly and since the United States was still a neutral country, President Roosevelt was unable to officially offer any help. A covert plan was formulated, however, to recruit U.S. military pilots and ground crew to form an “American Volunteer Group”.

The pilots were to be allowed to resign their commissions from their respective branches of the armed forces, without recourse. They were then to be trained by Claire Chennault on American fighter aircraft upon arrival in Burma. Their task was to keep the Burma road and its critical flow of supplies open .To sweeten the pot, each pilot was promised $600 a month wages and an additional $500 per Japanese plane destroyed.

For some men the money was irresistible, for others it was the lure of adventure. Irvine didn’t face a hard sell with the trio from the Ranger. “The deal sounded good to us,” said Hill. “It was adventurous, so we said we’d go. For me it was the adventure that I was interested in. I wasn’t particularly dedicated to anything.”

Rector remembered that he and his friends were anxious to take up the offer. “We were all ready to go,” Rector remembered.  “We were delighted when the contracts came through.”

By mid-summer the three pilots were discharged from the Navy, sent to San Francisco and then on to Burma, with passage on a ship called the Bloemfontein. Christman had told his family that he suspected that war with the Japanese was imminent, and that they should prepare themselves for hostilities in the near future. He said that volunteering was his opportunity to do something of real meaning for the future.

In a Fort Collins Express-Courier article, his brother-in-law, Al Schroeder, recalled Bert saying that “The people of the United States do not know the meaning of patriotism yet, but they will eventually as it takes a severe shock to tell them.”

The group of volunteer pilots arrived in Toungoo, Burma, on September 15th and began training on the P-40 fighter aircraft that the group was to soon make famous. Unfortunately at first, few of the pilots had any experience with the fighter plane, and training mishaps were frequent. Several aircraft were destroyed in these accidents.

Christman and Tomahawk The living conditions were poor, the temperature and humidity were stifling, and parts and supplies were scarce. Several of the volunteers became fed up with the situation and quickly departed. Christman, however, pressed on with his training and tried to take the difficulties in stride. He began to keep an illustrated diary of daily events, that he called Logan’s Log. He also created caricatures of the pilots in his Second Pursuit Squadron, incorporating their “Panda Bear” theme. Several of these he managed to paint on the fuselages of the pilot’s planes, but this work remained unfinished as the AVG began the defense of Rangoon. “He never had time to do a Panda for his own plane,” Hill said. “But then again, he didn’t think he was going to get killed. Time ran out on him.”

Christman did not, however, create the shark nose paint design that the AVG adopted and made famous as the symbol of The Flying Tigers. That design was copied from a photograph of some RAF P-40s in a magazine that pilots Charles Bond and Erik Shilling came across. Bert’s contribution probably came as his steady hand was drafted to help paint the design on several planes throughout the group.

The hectic period of training and organization came to an end for Chennault and his men on the morning of December 8, 1941 when they received word of massive Japanese assaults on Pearl Harbor and throughout the Pacific. The squadrons were mobilized for immediate action.  On December 11 Christman and Rector were chosen to escort a photo plane for a long-range reconnaissance mission over Bangkok, India, and its Dong Moung airfield.

The mission was a success, but it revealed a massive buildup of Japanese aircraft--poised to attack Burma. Realizing that an air attack on Rangoon was imminent, and that a ground assault against his air group was very possible, Chennault decided to divide his forces. The Third squadron,  “Hell’s Angels”, would remain in Rangoon to assist the RAF No. 67 squadron with the city’s defense. The First and Second Squadrons were to be withdrawn on December 18 to the city of Kunming, China, 700 miles to the North. Kunming had also been under aerial attack by Japanese aircraft, but their raid on December 20 was met with stiff resistance by the AVG. After this action Japanese attacks on Kunming ceased.

The story over the skies of Rangoon was different, however. The Japanese continued to stage large attacks against the city, and the third squadron “Hell’s Angels” were worn out, and had lost several aircraft. Chennault decided to rotate them to Kunming, and the “Panda Bears” to Rangoon to take up the city’s defense.

Christman arrived with the rest of his squadron at the Mingaladon airfield on December 30. It was the start of the last, and most intense, period of his life. January 1942 would turn out to be a hellish month for Bert Christman. All of his skill and determination would be put to the test, and he would rise to the occasion time and again. But the thing he needed most he would not find, for luck had deserted him.

On January 4 Bert was shot down, his plane riddled with bullets he was forced to parachute to safety. One of the rounds had traveled through his cockpit and grazed his neck, he was hospitalized briefly before returning to duty. On January 20 he returned from another mission with a badly damaged aircraft. He described his situation in a letter to an editor for his former employer, the Associated Press Feature Service:

Jan 20, 1942

Dear Joe:

Things are getting hot here. Even Scorchy Smith would be satisfied. Today I returned from a flight with Blenheims over Thailand with twenty-seven bullet holes in my plane. The Tomahawks have proved good pursuits. Armor plate behind the cockpit saved more than one of our pilots. The Japanese navy Naughts [Zeros] and army 97s turn up fair[ly often?] and are very maneuverable, but the American volunteer group’s average to date is twenty to one.

The A. V. G.’s are army and navy trained. We wear wrapped leggings or waterboys. As an outfit, it doesn’t polish many brass buttons. Uncle Sam was a good flying instructor, however. Today we brought the Blenheims back okay and knocked down two Japs when eight dived out of the sun on umbrella protection. Blenheim pilots are first rank and seem to thrive on low level bombing.

I enrolled in the A. V. G. last June, leaving the scouting squadron of the aircraft carrier Ranger. Flying always has been interesting to me. Now with real purpose it is especially so. However, when “this” is all over, I’m sure I’ll be content again to sit at a drawing board and pen my experiences and those of my friends in an authentic aviation comic strip.

Tales of the Flying Tigers

Bert never received confirmation that the letter had cleared censorship and was being cabled back to the U.S., for at that same time he had taken off with his pal Ed Rector for the last time. It was Friday, January 23, and 72 Japanese aircraft had attacked Rangoon. Christman was one of the 18 planes that were launched to intercept them. He would never return.

“We had a report of bogeys to the east,” said Ed Rector. “Bert was to lead but his radio wasn’t working. He pointed at me and gave me the thumbs up—saying ‘you lead.’ We approached them from about 500 to 1,000 feet above. It was a formation of 27 dive bombers with escort fighters about 20 or 30 miles north of Rangoon. I rocked my wings and headed in. Bert followed and we made a raking pass and kept up our speed.  Their rear gunners were firing and we turned and made a second pass. Bert followed me and I saw him pull up behind me, then head back into the fight. I never saw Bert after that. I had someone on my tail and I had to dive away.”

Christman’s plane had been hit in the engine, and he was forced to bail out once more. This time, however, as he hung from his parachute and descended to the ground a Japanese pilot strafed him. Bert was hit in several places and probably died as a bullet passed through the back of his neck.

Hill was one of the men who went in search of Bert’s body. “That was a sad day.” Hill said. “They didn’t have any way to embalm people, and bodies deteriorated real fast. My best friend was in a wooden box in the back of the truck and smelling so bad and everything… Its not something you forget.”

The news did not reach Fort Collins until the following Monday morning. Christman’s mother was at first confused as she had already received a telegraph, dated January 24, that he was healthy and everything was fine. It was determined that the earlier telegram had been delayed, and that this second telegram reported the sad truth.

Rector and Hill had taken a measure of revenge that Saturday, shooting down three Japanese aircraft. At dusk that same day, Allen Bert Christman was buried at the Church of Edward the Martyr in Rangoon.

One week later a letter from T. V. Soong, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of China, arrived at the Christman home in Fort Collins. “The record display made by the American Volunteer Group in aerial combat against the Japanese is one every American may be proud, “ Soong wrote. “Although this may be of small comfort to you, in view of your son’s sacrifice, perhaps it will help you to feel that he met death as I am sure he would have wanted to meet it—in quick and valiant action against an enemy not only of China, but also of his own country.”

In January 1942, the United States was still coming to grips with the brutal realities that war brings. Bert Christman’s death, and the manner in which it came—strafed while parachuting to safety--became notorious. The AP ran a feature with the Scorchy Smith artist of that day’s version of the final moments; Paramount pictures came to Fort Collins and made a newsreel feature called, “Minute Man Bert Christman”; Colorado War Bond advertisements were headlined by a photo of Christman and the words, “He gave his life, what will you give?” It is even said that a similar incident in the Howard Hawks film, “Air Force”, was inspired by his death.

A beautiful portrait of Bert arrived one day in his mother’s mail. It was a token of respect from famed artist Noel Sickles and it hangs proudly today in his sister Joann’s home.

In 1943 the Fort Collins airfield was officially dedicated as “Christman Field.” [Christman Field was evidently closed a year or two ago to make way for expansion by its owner, the University of Colorado. -- Dan Ford]

Decades later, Ed Rector grew frustrated as he returned to his friend’s burial place in Burma. “I knew it was the spot,” Rector recalled. “I couldn’t forget where it was, but there was no marker there. I couldn’t figure it out.”

Christman grave After the war Christman’s body had been moved to an English cemetery in Calcutta, India, where it was placed in an above ground vault. When his mother learned of this, she reversed her original decision to leave his body in Burma, and requested that his remains were returned to Ft. Collins. On Saturday February 4, 1950 Allen Bert Christman was finally laid to rest with military ceremonies and a Chinese Air Force rank of Lt. Colonel, just down the street from where he grew up.

Bert’s mother never moved away from Fort Collins. She remained in the family home  until she passed away in 1970. Friends and neighbors were often given samples of her once famous son’s art as gifts. His personal effects had been returned soon after his death, and they included his illustrated diary, Logan’s Log, and the revolver that had been broken as his body crashed to earth. Unchecked by his family, it had remained loaded for many years.

The Associated Press ceased publication of Scorchy Smith and its comic strip feature section in the early 1960s, and today Bert Christman’s artwork is nearly impossible to find. His Scorchy Smith work hasn’t been reprinted in any form since the 1940s. The last comic book reprint of his work came over 30 years ago, and to purchase originals at today’s collector’s prices would cost tens of thousands of dollars.

What would have become of Allen Bert Christman if he had survived January, 1942? Would he have returned home after The Flying Tigers were absorbed by the U.S. Air Corps to launch a popular new comic strip, and become wealthy like Milton Caniff? He certainly had the credentials at that point, both in combat and at the drawing board.

A more likely scenario would have found him following his two friends and seeing the hostilities through to the end. Sitting at a drawing board at that point wouldn’t have been true to character. Sticking your neck out, working hard, applying your talent and guts to the next challenge at hand was more his style.

Fate was cruel to Bert Christman, and sadly history has done its best to forget him.

© by Andrew Glaess

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