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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published May 27 2012

WW II pilot killed in action honored in France, native North Dakota every year

EDMORE, N.D. – Two weeks before he died in a World War II bombing raid on the German submarine base at Lorient, France, 2nd Lt. Roy W. Christianson wrote home to Edmore, to the aunt and uncle who raised him after his parents died.

“Just came back from London this afternoon from another 48-hour pass. Had a pretty nice time and enjoyed myself very much. Bet Winnie and Bruce and Judy are having quite a time with their presents. Wish you would draw out some money from the bank and buy them and yourselves something. … Will you?

“Listened to Roosevelt’s talk last night. Glad he’s optimistic, anyway. We still go on raids every now and then, but there isn’t much to say about them. … Some of the raids are pretty rough, and some are pretty easy.

Well, I guess I better hit the hay for tonight. Love, Roy.”

On a wintry day in January 1943, a French girl named Sidonie came upon the body of an American flyer in the woods near her village, not far from where his B-17 bomber had crashed.

For nearly 70 years, Sidonie Le Neillion and members of her family have remembered Roy “Christie” Christianson, an American flyer and UND graduate who had planned to be a teacher.

At a simple memorial outside the village of Pluvigner, in a clearing where young Sidonie found his body, a relatively new plaque bears Christianson’s photo and a brief account of what happened that long-ago day.

Part of the inscription in French says, “He died that we may live. We remember him.”

On this Memorial Day, Christianson also will be remembered in and around the little Ramsey County town of Edmore, where the boy arrived about 1930 to live with relatives after his father died. His mother had died in the flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

“We grew up hearing about him, that he was killed in France during World War II,” said Jackie Johnson, 34, whose grandparents, Edward and Esther Johnson, farmed northwest of Edmore and took Roy in.

Her father, Bruce Johnson, was 3 when his cousin Roy was killed.

“I saw sympathy notes my grandparents received, and people said such wonderful things about Roy, what a great guy he was,” Jackie Johnson said. “He was obviously dedicated to serving his country.”

The report of his death was published in the Edmore Herald on Feb. 11, 1943, under the headline, “First Edmore Boy to Die in Active Service.”

“He was a splendid type of American youth,” the notice read, “and has a host of friends in this community who feel his loss very deeply.

“It has stirred the community to a grim realization of war and has made the folks on the home front more determined than ever to do their part to bring victory and avenge the death of our gallant young fighter.”

Christianson and other members of his crew are buried in a common grave at Rock Island National Cemetery in Illinois. When she was 16, Jackie Johnson visited the site with her father.

Christianson was born on Oct. 4, 1916, at Upham, N.D., and graduated from Edmore High School in 1934. After attending UND, he taught at Appleton, Wis., before joining the Army in February 1941.

In November 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, Christianson transferred to the Army Air Corps. He received his wings and commission as an officer on July 3, 1942, and soon after shipped out to England.

He was stationed at a former British Royal Air Force base at Molesworth, which had been converted to an American bomber base. He was the co-pilot on a B-17 named “Beats Me” – apparently the answer given with a shrug by most of the crew when pilot Mel Schulstad asked them what they should call the plane.

Their target on Jan. 23, 1943, was a large German submarine base at Lorient, France, on the Bay of Biscay. The U-boat port represented a major threat to Allied ships bringing troops, munitions and supplies to England.

During the mass raid, according to subsequent military accounts, Christianson’s B-17 was hit by a bomb dropped by another U.S. plane flying above. It tore off most of the tail section, killed the tail gunner and caused the bomber to roll and fall from formation.

As it fell, German fighter aircraft attacked, killing the pilot and other crew members, and the bomber went into a slow glide into the woods near Pluvigner.

The three survivors spent more than two years in German POW camps. One of them, 2nd Lt. John Embach, later served in Korea, where he was killed on May 24, 1952.

Louis Schulstad, a native of Reynolds, N.D., was the regular pilot of the ship named “Beats Me,” but he was sick with the flu and missed the raid on the submarine base.

About eight years ago, Schulstad’s son contacted Bruce Johnson, Roy Christianson’s cousin and Jackie Johnson’s father. They traded information on the bomber, its crew and the fateful raid, and in 2007, some in the Johnson family went to France to see the memorial.

Jackie Johnson didn’t go, but her father later asked her to write something to share with family and others. She was a natural choice, having graduated in December from St. Cloud (Minn.) State University with a master’s degree in public history.

“The Johnsons were astonished to witness the gratitude that the people of this village continue to have for the soldiers who helped them,” she wrote, after describing the raid, the memorial and its message of remembrance.

“May we as Americans echo the spirit of the town of Pluvigner, France. Let us remember those who have died in battle. Let us honor those veterans who have fought to keep our freedom. Let us support and thank those who

continue to fight for our country today.”

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald