Some heroes never come home – Bonnie Williams (Heroes Story)
Some of our heroes never come home.
Such is the case of Tech Sgt. Robert Christopherson of Blue Earth.
Serving in the Pacific Theater in World War II, Christopherson was a gunner on a B-17 bomber, nicknamed the Naughty But Nice (the plane was complete with a drawing of a scantily-clad girl on the nose of the bomber).
For the highly decorated B-17 crew of 10, the night of June 26, 1943 would be their final flight in the Naughty But Nice.
Returning from a bombing run at 3 a.m., the plane had been damaged by ground fire over New Britain, part of Papua New Guinea.
Then the plane was hit by Japanese ‘night fighter’ aircraft and the B-17 crashed in a remote jungle.
Back home in Blue Earth, Christopherson’s wife, Hazel, and his parents anxiously awaited word about his fate.
Eventually the news came. None of the crew was thought to have survived and were listed as missing in action and presumed dead.
Leonard and Clara Christopherson lost a son, and Hazel had lost her 21-year-old husband. Also, her daughter had lost her father.
Bonnie Williams of Blue Earth was exactly three months old when her father, Robert Christopherson, was killed in the crash of the Naughty But Nice.
“He never had a chance to see me before he was killed,” Williams says, “so I have no memories of him.”
She does, however, have lots of his memorabilia. Those items include his uniform, medals, pictures, wallet – even his Blue Earth High School class ring.
Three years after her father was killed, her mother, Hazel, married Gordy Enger of Blue Earth.
“I couldn’t have hand-picked a better step-dad,” Williams says. The Engers had three more children together, giving Bonnie two half-sisters and a half-brother – Mike, who lives across the street from her, in Blue Earth.
Williams never knew a lot about her biological father while she was growing up.
“I knew he was killed in the war, but that was about it,” she says, even though she spent some time with her Christopherson grandparents as a child.
“I think it was just too painful for everyone to remember,” she says. “That was the way it was back then – things were not discussed in front of the kids.”
That might have been the way things would have stayed forever, except for one fact that resurfaced for Williams in 1985.
Not all 10 crewmen of the Naughty But Nice were killed in the crash in 1943.
The navigator, 2nd Lt. Jose “Joe” Holguin, had survived.
Holguin had literally fallen out of the plane moments before it crashed. He had survived serious injuries and 27 days alone in the jungle. He was captured and kept in a prisoner-of-war camp until the war was over in 1945.
Back in the states, he lived in Los Angeles, married, had children and eventually retired.
But the night of June 26, 1943, and the fate of his crew mates, had haunted him for years.
Holguin had made a promise to his nine friends who had not survived. That promise was to return, find them, and give them a proper burial.
He had remained in the air force after the war, and had requested permission to return to New Guinea to search for his comrades. Holguin was told it was a military matter and the air force would take care of it.
In 1950 an official inquiry had been held, and a board of review had officially ruled the nine missing crew members “be declared non-recoverable,” and the case was closed at that point.
In 1983 Holguin finally took his own time and money and returned to search for the crash site. It took him a week to travel there, rent a car, and try and find the village where he had first been rescued.
He was unsuccessful.
However, a year later he returned to New Guinea with two Australians who had taken an interest in his mission.
This time they searched the jungle area by helicopter first. After landing in a likely spot, they went on foot up a dry river.
When Holguin went around a bend in the river, he knew he was very near the spot he had first started to crawl away from the crashed plane.
He was right. They found the B-17 concealed by jungle growth. The picture of the scantily-clad girl, and the words ‘Naughty But Nice’ were still visible on the fuselage.
What they did not find were any human remains.
Holguin did not give up. While reading reports from that area of the war, he noted a report by an engineering team in 1949 that had found remains of several crew members in an area of New Guinea – right where the Naughty But Nice had gone down.
The bodies had not been identified and were eventually buried in the National Military cemetery in Hawaii.
Holguin asked for – and got – help from the military to find the right grave and have the bodies disinterred.
The remains were thought to be that of three men, but were in fact five men – each a crew member of the Naughty But Nice.
However, Tech Sgt. Robert Christopherson was not among the five bodies. Neither were the two pilots or the radio operator. Those four have never been found.
The five identified bodies were returned to their families. In one case, 70 telegrams were sent all over New York to people with a common last name, looking for relatives of one airman. Relatives were eventually found.
Separate memorial services for the five were held throughout the U.S.
Sgt. Joe Holguin attended all of them.
It was a letter to Pastor Neil Christopherson in Blue Earth that brought her father back into Williams’ thoughts.
“The military sent out letters in 1985 trying to find relatives of my father,” Williams says.
Her grandparents had died in 1974 and 1983, her mother had remarried and had the last name of Enger, and Williams also had a married name.
“Pastor Neil was not related, but found the letter to be interesting, so he did some investigating,” Williams says.
Some ladies from the Evangelical United Brethren Church told him they thought Hazel Enger had once been married to a Christopherson.
Finding it was true, he responded to the letter, and the military got in touch with Williams and her mother.
“It was to tell us that remains of some of the crew members had been identified, but that my father was not among them,” Williams says. “I have to admit, when I first heard they were looking for me, I briefly thought my father might have survived all these years somewhere.”
However, it was not to be.
At this time Williams began to find out a lot about her father. She got a gift from her mother.
“My mother had saved a couple of boxes of his material,” she says. “It includes a lot of photographs that I have treasured.”
Williams has studied pictures of the Naughty But Nice, and has a good idea of where her father was when the plane crashed.
There are also pictures of her mother and father together, when they had met in Blue Earth.
Her mother had moved to Blue Earth from Hazel, S. D., with a friend, looking for a job.
“The friend had relatives here and said there were jobs available,” Williams says. “My mother was out of high school and looking for work.”
Hazel started a job at a small grocery store on the east side of town, where she met Robert Christopherson.
Williams also heard from friends of her father’s – members of Blue Earth Class of 1940 – who remembered him well.
“I found out he loved to dance, and played the trombone,” she recalls. “It all helped make him a real person to me.”
Meanwhile, Williams mother received an unexpected jolt from the past.
Hazel Enger’s brother, Roy Denny, was living in California. One evening he attended an air force recognition dinner, where he and another man were honored.
“My uncle heard the other man talk about being in a B-17 bomber that was shot down over New Britain,” Williams says. “My uncle told him that his brother-in-law had been killed in a similar crash.”
It turns out the speaker was none other than Joe Holguin, the lone survivor of the Naughty But Nice.
Roy Denny arranged for his sister and her husband Gordy to fly out to California and meet Holguin.
Hazel (Christopherson) Enger heard first hand about the night her husband, Robert, had been killed.
That meeting was in the late 1980s, Williams recalls. Holguin died in 1995, his mission of finding the remains of all his fellow crew members not totally completed.
Williams has joined A.W.O.N., American War Orphans Network. Through the group she has learned that her father’s name is on a memorial wall in both Hawaii and the Philippines.
She has also been in contact with Curt Holguin, the son of the navigator survivor.
“He has been to the crash site, and has told me about it,” Williams says.
She has not had a desire to go there herself, but would like to see the memorial walls sometime.
“Because I never met my father, I don’t really have an emotional attachment,” Williams says. “But I do feel very, very proud of the fact that he served his country and is a true hero,” she says with a catch in her voice.
Clearing her throat, she adds, “Well, maybe I have a bit more emotional attachment to him than I realize.”