After 67 years, Williams’ father coming home
After 67 years, Bonnie Williams, of Blue Earth, is getting some closure on the death of her father.
In November of 2008, a story in the Faribault County Register’s ‘Our Heroes’ special section related the details of Williams’ father’s death in World War II.
Robert Christopherson was a 21-year-old gunner on a B-17 bomber (nicknamed the Naughty But Nice) when it was shot down on June 26, 1943, over New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
One of the ten crew members, the navigator, fell out of the plane and survived. He spent some time as a prisoner of the Japanese. Years later, he returned to locate the crash site, and the fuselage of the downed aircraft.
Five bodies were eventually recovered. They had been buried at the site, and later removed and re-interred in a cemetery in Hawaii.
The remains of four crew members, including Williams’ father, Robert Christopherson, were never located.
Just before Memorial Day, two weeks ago, Williams received a call.
“It was first just a message on my answering machine,” she says. “A woman was calling from Washington, telling me that she had news about my father.”
An excited Williams tried to call her back, but kept missing her. When she finally connected, the woman actually wanted to set up a meeting between Williams, her family, and some representatives from a special service of the military.
“They said they had found some remains at the crash site,” Williams said. “They wanted to tell me more, in person.”
On Thursday, June 10, Williams and members of her family, including her mother, Hazel Enger, met with two military men.
One was Michael Mee, a retired army officer from Virginia, who serves with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. Their work is to locate – and bring home – missing servicemen from all U.S. wars, all over the globe.
With him was Army Sgt. Jeff Ulmen, of Madelia, who is stationed in Mankato.
Mee told Williams and her family that the crash site had been thoroughly searched, and some remains had, indeed, been located.
However, there were not enough human remains to positively identify individual bodies.
Williams was shocked to learn that this effort to locate her father and the other missing crew members of his plane had been underway. She was especially surprised to learn it had been conducted during the summer months of 2001 – nine years ago.
Mee presented Williams with a large book, detailing every aspect of the search for the remains of the crew of the Naughty But Nice.
Included are photographs of the bone fragments, teeth, personal effects such as a watch, rings and coins, and also pieces of uniforms.
“They say they were unable to really identify a body,” Williams says. “After 60 years in the jungle, and because of the devastating crash impact itself, there just wasn’t that much there to find.”
However, identifiable parts of the aircraft itself were still clearly visible in the New Guinea jungle.
The report details how the crash site was divided into four areas, then each of those was broken down into roughly six foot square search grids.
“They dug down and sifted through the dirt from the whole search area,” Williams says. “It was a very thorough job. It took months.”
The report lists where each item was located, whether it was a part of the crew’s remains, or their personal property.
Mee also told Williams and her family that a full military funeral for the crew members will be held next summer at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
“They are going to fly three members of each family out to Washington for the ceremony,” Williams says. “They will provide hotel rooms, too, all at no cost to us.”
The ceremony will include a military band, honor guard, and a full military ceremony.
“There will even be a visitation the night before,” she says.
Each of the four crewmen will have an individual casket. The military will provide an authentic uniform from that era to be placed in each coffin.
Then, they will divide up the unidentifiable bone fragments, teeth, and personal effects, and place some into each coffin.
“I know it is a shame that my father’s body can’t be specifically identified and buried,” Williams says. “But, I think this will bring some closure to this whole story.”
Williams mother, Hazel, married Gordon Enger after Christopherson was killed, and Williams has always considered him her father.
“I was just three months old when my father, Robert, was shot down in that plane,” she says. “I don’t have any real memory of him. My step father has been my dad all these years.”
This coming Saturday, June 26, marks the 67th anniversary of the crash of the Naughty But Nice.
Now, at long last, the final chapter to that story is being written, and crew members will be able to rest in peace, and with the full honor for their courage that they deserve.