The grim air combat memories of Selmer Haakenson are recorded on a half a page of paper, typewritten, double spaced.
But in those precious few words are written his agonizing, personal life-death struggle, refusal to lay down his twin 50's in what had to be a hopeless situation, a miraculous survival from a separated tail section, the loss of an eye and two months in Stalag 17B.
And. .. the loss of EVERY ONE of his B-17 crew comrades!
This was the Donald Christensen crew of the 603rd. They were on their fourth mission for the 398th on March 2, 1945. The target, the secondary that day, was a petro-chemical facility at Bohlen, located 17 miles southeast of Merseburg, Germany.
And it was one of those long hummers, like seven hours on oxygen. Solid clouds beneath the group formation, led by Col. Pete Rooney, with tight formations difficult at best, impossible at the worst.
The flight path to the target and back was somewhat parallel with the northern border of Czechoslovakia. Just before the turn to the target a squadron of FW-190's smacked into Ken Beckstrom's 603 high squadron. Christensen, flying No. 2 on the wing of element leader T.L. Guice, took several 20-mm hits and was forced from the formation.
One of these hits caught Haakenson in the face, knocking him backwards on the catwalk in the tail section.
"I landed on my chute, so I grabbed it and hooked it up on one side," recalled Haakenson. "The flak vest kept me from hooking up on both sides.
"I got back on the seat and kept firing at the 190's until the entire tail section separated and went into a spin. I was pinned in the tail until it stalled out for a second. I got the vest off, hooked up the chute and bailed out the tail door. I just made it."
Haakenson said he came down in a small town and was quickly rounded up and taken to German authorities.
"From here I was taken to a hospital, X- rayed, and then sent to Prague. I recall the hospital being on higher ground than the rest of the city and the doctor who took out my eye was a Dr. Schutz."
All this drama was observed by a number of Czech civilians, and later recorded by Manuel F. van Eyck, who now lives in California. A friend of van Eyck, working on a factory building in the city of Slany, 13 miles from Prague, was one of the eye witnesses to the demise of the Christensen aircraft. He wrote -
"At approximately 1100 hours we saw American bombers with fighter escort flying east. At approximately 1300 hours all bomber groups were returning and we heard the engines from one bomber flying at a very low altitude. Two engines were not working. When it was directly above us the tail section broke away and one man bailed out.
"The Germans guarding us began shooting at him, but the strong northwest wind carried him away."
"The tail section and aircraft crashed into the ground. The Germans waited for a while and then entered the plane and pulled out eight dead airmen, the Germans took the shoes from the airmen and other parts of the equipment."
"The bodies were taken to the cemetery in Slany for burial. The next day the graves were covered with flowers, which the Gestapo did not appreciate."
Van Eyck, who searched for a number of years before locating Haakenson - the lone survivor - also reported that the Christensen B-17 was not the only aircraft to be downed during this drama in the skies over Czechoslovakia on this day.
"Two German fighters also came down," he reported. "The first landed due to engine failure. The pilot was Lt. Krapp, and he said he was hit by one of the American bombers. His FW-190 was identified with a blue '3.'
"The second crashed into the ground and the pilot was killed. He was Lt. Gunther Schulz." Thus, it could well be that Haakenson, in the final moments of his plane's death plunge, took one - possibly two - of his tormentors with him.
Besides Haakenson, the tail gunner, the Donald Christensen crew was made up of William Love, co-pilot; Harry Ostrow, navigator; John Gustafson, bombardier; Robert Dudley, engineer-gunner; Elmer Gurba, radio; Albert Carlisle, ball turret; and Kenney Plantz, waist. The bodies of all Christensen crew members, except Plantz, were recovered and sent home to respective families. Plantz is buried At Loraine American Military Cemetery, near Metz, France.
Joe K. Mansell converted this article to digitized text for inclusion on the 398th Web Pages in January 2003.