Former Commander, WII Pilot fights back tears on return to Lincoln base

Clarence Christensen Jr. hasn’t been to this place in years.

But on Wednesday, a bus carrying the 93-year-old World War II veteran pulled up before the main hangar of the Lincoln Air National Guard Base and let Christensen out to be greeted by Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, Nebraska’s adjutant general, and other air guardsmen.

“When’s the last time you were around airplanes?” Bohac asked.

“It’s been quite some time,” said Christensen, who retired from the Nebraska Air National Guard in 1978 as a lieutenant colonel.

Bohac pushed Christensen’s wheelchair through the hangar, past a massive Boeing KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft and up one floor to a conference room.

The former pilot and officer fought tears as he saw a roomful of nearly 50 Air National Guard members gathered to meet him.

“They’re all here to see you,” Bohac said. “Welcome, Colonel.”

The Nebraska Air National Guard hosted a reception for Christensen Wednesday that included a tour of a KC-135.

Gayle Resh, a recreation therapist for Southlake Village Rehabilitation and Care Center, where Christensen lives, helped organize the event and said Southlake tries to connect its resident veterans with active-duty military personnel.

Christensen flew a B-24 bomber in World War II and safely guided his plane through southern European skies filled with antiaircraft shells. He and his crew flew 35 missions.

His son, John Christensen, shared the story of one particularly perilous mission in which his father flew with two engines shut down after taking fire. Clarence Christensen — a self-described tinkerer — managed to replace a fried wire on one of the two remaining engines by stealing wire from one of the destroyed engines.

After preventing the third engine from burning out, Clarence Christensen and his crew threw out every nonessential item from inside the bomber to make the aircraft as light as possible and managed to make it back to their base.

“You got them home,” Bohac said. “That’s pretty amazing.”

“I had an awful lot of help from upstairs,” said Christensen, whose actions earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He earned more accolades after winning the Ricks Trophy Race in 1958. Representing the 173rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron, he flew his F-86D Sabre jet over the 850-mile course between Jacksonville, Florida, and Dallas in one hour and 48 minutes.

Christensen retired as operations commander for the Nebraska Air National Guard. On Wednesday, several former air guardsmen who served under Christensen shared stories of their time with him.

Bob Bailey, retired major general and son of Fred Bailey, who helped establish the Nebraska Air National Guard, described the first time Christensen visited the Lincoln base.

He had been working as a mechanic at a Valparaiso farm store and came to the base wearing coveralls and a seed hat, his hands covered in grease. He asked the base commander, Milton Hagelberger, if he was looking for pilots.

“Yeah, we are,” Hagelberger replied. “Do you know any?”

“Obviously, they figured out that he was one, and a real good one,” Bob Bailey said.

Printed with permission from the Lincoln Journal Star written by Kevin Abourezk