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!

3 thoughts on “following the trail of plastic

  1. Hi Allison,

    Having just discussed the picture of the ‘full of plastic albatros’ with a friend, I was fascinated by this blog entry.
    I love how it describes so well the ‘organic’ development of your reserach. So far it seems like you have done amazingly well finding people so good luck! I look forward to the next installment.

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