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Counterattack

Remembering Bert Christman (part 2)

continued from part 1

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!”

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.

continued in part 3

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