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Remembering Bert Christman (part 3)

continued from part 2

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 The First and Second Squadrons were to be withdrawn on December 18 to the city of Kunming, China, 700 miles to the North.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.

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