Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ray Christensen- Making a Night Fighter out of a Farmer

FO Ray_Color
© Karen Seeman.
Whatever possessed Ray Christensen to do an about-face on the life he had planned, and enlist in World War II?  He was 28 years old; had two and a half years under his belt at the University of Minnesota, and was working on an agricultural degree; he had a job selling insurance for State Farm, and admittedly had a “pretty good setup” living rent free as a grounds-keeper in a women’s boarding house (not bad for a self-proclaimed “ladies’ man!”)  

Agriculture was in Ray's blood, and after high school he continued to help his father on the family farm, then traveled the midwest as a hired man.  Autumn of 1938 finds him at the University of Minnesota to work on a degree in agriculture.  I don’t know what his plans were – go back to farming?  Extension work?  Something else?  But he worked hard to pay his tuition, and was the first in his family to go to college.

And then suddenly, between semesters, he enlisted.  Did the attack on Pearl Harbor 3 weeks prior have anything to do with it?  I don’t know, but before you can say, “What happened?” he’s at Scott Field in Illinois.

Scott Field, 1942
One of his first letters home says he’s learning code and electricity, and eventually will learn radios.  He’ll have to “work like heck to make it,” but hopes to make the grade as a radio man on a bomber, or an instructor.  His scores on the exams are high - sometimes the highest.  Well, he did work like heck, and he was eventually a navigator on one of the most wild rides a soldier could get – an assignment to a night fighter squadron.

A typical radio class at Scott Field.

Ray seemed to enjoy his time at Scott field – good food, comfortable bed, and only four men to a room.  The food was so good, in fact, that he complained about his uniforms getting “a bit snug.”  The only problem is that passes were hard to come by, even on the weekends, and for a guy like Ray who loves who loved to dance, well, that part did not go over well.
By June, Ray had completed his coursework at Scott Field and has moved on to the AAFTTC Technical School in Boca Raton, Florida, which had just officially opened for business on June 1st.1

The main mission of the Boca Raton AAF was radar training – a field that was considered top secret at that time.  The personnel attending this school had to pass a “rigorous background investigation” and be among the most highly ranked candidates academically.2  During this time, Ray was also doing some instructing of some sort; his letters don’t say much, but do frequently mention his students.

During his time at Boca Raton, Ray passed the aerial gunnery board, and was anticipating gunnery school before going “across.”  

In March of 1943, 7 months after arriving at Boca Raton, Ray is still there, but anticipating being sent to Japan “any day now.”  By the time of his next letter in June, he has been sent to Kissimmee, Florida, and would then go to the 417th Night Fighter Squadron by way of the British Isles for additional training.  The night fighter assignments were so dangerous, men were considered on a volunteer basis only.  I don't know what might have prompted Ray to ask for this hazardous work - perhaps an adventurous spirit, perhaps something else.  From the British Isles, he began his career as a night fighter navigator in the European Theater.  So much for going to Japan! 

More on Ray's story in a future post~


Photo of Scott Field and Radio class: “Scott Field, United States Army Air Corps: A Pictorial and Historical Revies of Scott Field.”  1942
Various Letters from Ray Christensen to his sister, Lillian.

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