Sitting in the pilot’s seat

This past weekend I visited the Tillamook Air Museum near the Oregon coast. It was a Naval Air Station during World War II that housed — believe it or not — blimps used to patrol for Japanese submarines along the coast. Today it houses what it bills as “one of the top five privately owned aircraft collections in the nation.”

I went because they have a plane of the same type that Lieutenant Commander Christman flew during WWII — the plane that was the source of the piece of plastic that turned up in the belly of the albatross on Kure atoll in 2004, as I wrote in my earlier post.

I hoped if I saw the plane in person, if I touched it, rapped on it, smelled it,  I could get some tangible sense of what it was like to be in that plane in wartime, of what it was like to be Christman.

I walked into the massive, dimly lit hangar and looked around. I am no aircraft trivia nut. I never built a model in my life. In fact, I find it kind of hard to believe I have grown so interested in a WWII plane. My eyes pretty much glaze over at talk of engines and horsepower and model numbers. But I’ve read so much about what it was like for the soldiers — average age 24 — to fly in these planes: long hours over the vast blankness of the ocean punctuated by terrifying attacks by Japanese fighters in faster, better armed, better equipped planes. I’ve read about the position of the gunners, the radioman, the mechanic, the bombardier. How they cooked coffee and canned soup on a hot plate and slept in canvas bunks while the engines droned on through the surrounding black of night and water. I wanted a sense of it in person.

I didn’t see the PBY straight off, and I wondered if I really would be able to identify the real thing after seeing it in pictures. I strode off randomly to the right, passed by a few potentials and many that were certainly not it. I came to the end and headed the other direction. I walked all the way toward the back of the gigantic hangar (the largest wooden structure in the world, built from Oregon Douglas fir because steel was scarce during the war, but wood in Oregon was plentiful). Finally, I spied it from a ways off — the last plane back in the far left corner. I felt kind of relieved that I could immediately identify its familiar contours.

I walked around the plane, tapped it, peered inside. It is an impressive aircraft — 63 feet long with a 100-foot wingspan. If it parked on my street it would dwarf the houses on both sides. Its wings rise up above its body from a gracefully fluted center pylon;  the engines swell out of the wings; the body curves just like the hull of a boat.

It is the hull of a boat. The fact that a machine like this could both fly and float in the water, that all the terminology around it is naval terminology (aft, starboard, hull) seems incredible, a flying boat, a fantastical hybrid now rarely encountered. The PBY became famous for landing in rough seas and plucking out of the water soldiers shot down in planes or set adrift from torpedoed boats.

I spent a long time peering into the windows, walking around the hull, taking notes. I felt like I’d entered a kind of cathedral, a hushed and sacred space. Or I wanted to feel that way. As I picked up my stuff to leave I actually felt a little empty. The plane was after all just a machine, ingenious but dated: engines, propellers and gears, welded and riveted steel.

I still had some questions about the plane, though, some minutia about its construction (using plastic) I wanted to answer. On the way out I asked at the desk if there were a staff historian, and I met Christian Gurling, the curator, who made the plane more alive for me.  But that’s for the next post.

following the trail of plastic

I said I was going to blog The Autobiography of Plastic as I wrote it, but so far I haven’t been doing any writing, only researching. I was describing my research saga to Jen–it was a bit of a red letter day. After six months of in-my-spare-time research I finally reached two people with direct connections to World War II veteran Lieutenant Commander Elwyn Christman, who died at age 30 at Iwo Jima in 1945. What that has to do with plastic I’ll explain in a minute.

After listening patiently, Jen, brilliant as ever, suggested I mark the trail of my research and write about it, make it part of the project. It seems like a blog might be the right way to do that for now, and maybe get some research insights and clues from others at the same time.

So the story of the Christman connection started in January when I was researching plastic and came across an article by Kenneth Weiss of the Los Angeles Times. It mentioned a piece of plastic found in the belly of an albatross chick on Kure Island in the Pacific. The plastic had been traced to a WWII plane. By the miracle of the internets I contacted Mr. Weiss and asked for his source. He led me to the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who also mentions the piece of plastic in his book Flotsametrics. Ebbesmeyer cites a navy expert who identifies the squadron the piece of plastic came from and surmises that it could have been lost at sea along with other equipment during a disastrous bombing raid against the Japanese at Jolo Island in the Philippines on December 27, 1941.

Not so incidentally, the picture of the baby albatross and the hundreds of plastic pieces inside its belly was taken by the photographer Susan Middleton. Published in National Geographic in 2005, the photo has done much to galvanize efforts to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean.

Dr. Ebbesmeyer led me to the navy expert and author Louis Dorny, who pointed me to more histories of the squadron. On that day in 1941, six planes went to bomb Japanese ships; two returned. But several crewmembers survived despite their planes being shot down, including Christman and his crew. They spent 30 hours in the water before being rescued.

I decided I wanted to write about Christman, but he remained somewhat of a mystery for a long time. For one thing, several accounts get his first name wrong. For another, he died so young. I requested the first-hand account action reports of the day–including one written by Christman himself–from the National Archives. It took months to even find the right department to talk to. But eventually they sent me a nice packet, with a few extras on Christman they found themselves, for free. Way to go tax dollars!

As I continued to research I discovered Christman was from the rural farming community of Monitor, OR, best-known now for its proximity to the Woodburn outlet mall off I-5 and only about 30 miles away from me in Portland. Plenty of Christmans appear in the phone book in the proximity of Woodburn, so I started calling numbers. I had visions of meeting the Christman family firsthand and hearing vivid accounts of his life. But I didn’t get far–no one called me back.

A little further research revealed that Christman was married to a woman named Celia Gow, last known residence Port Hueneme, California. So I looked up Christmans there. She would be quite elderly now. A search of her name pulled up an odd web site called — a sort of Facebook for the deceased, to put it crassly. It indicates that according to the Social Security death database, Celia Christman died on June 6, just a little more than a month ago. If only I’d been faster.

Her address on was linked to a man named Lance and a woman named Robin. Only Robin had a phone number listed, so I left her a message.

I also sent an email through one of the veteran’s news groups to a man who posted in 2002 that he had written a history about the VPB-133 squadron that Christman commanded just before he died.

Success! This evening Robin called me back. She is the ex-wife of Lance Christman, Elwyn Christman’s son. They are not in touch and she doesn’t have his number, but she told me to write him at the address of record. She said the family story is that Lt. Cmdr. Christman survived the entire war and performed many brave deeds that are written about in books, and then died at the very end of the war in a freak accident (an Army plane crash landed and killed him). She told me his wife was pregnant with their only son at the time: Lance.

I also received an almost instantaneous email back from the veteran, which was a relief. Fewer and fewer WWII veterans are around now. He is going to send me his history, but he also said he served with Christman as his radioman the entire time Christman commanded the squadron, and he’d be willing to tell me some stories about him.

So, I’m closer than ever to Lt. Cmdr. Christman. Keep your fingers crossed!