The Nebraska Air National Guard lost one of its early aviation pioneers, Feb. 12, when retired Lt. Col. Clarence Christensen Jr., died at the age of 94.
Christensen, a World War II veteran who flew B-24 bombers in the European Theater of Operations, served in the Nebraska Air National Guard from 1949 until his retirement from the organization in 1978 as the director of operations. He was buried with full military honors on Feb. 16 in Valparaiso, Nebraska.
According to his published obituary, Christen was born on a farm in Hooper, Nebraska, and helped his father with the farm until the Depression when his family moved to Fremont. There he helped support the family by delivering newspapers.
In his teens, the Christensen family moved to Dwight where Clarence helped his father in the family's machinery repair shop. During high school, they moved to Valparaiso where the future aviator attended Valparaiso High School.
As a teenager, he built a ham radio, secured a license and communicated with ham radio operators around the country, even serving as an operator for the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). Christensen worked with his family at Christensen Implement in Valparaiso where they repaired and sold farm equipment. There he was able to purchase a ride with a barnstormer pilot, launching his love for flying.
Christensen volunteered for the Army Air Corps to train as a B24 pilot. At 22, he flew 35 combat missions over Europe during WWII, and brought his nine member crew home safely to conclude their tour. He earned two distinguished Flying Crosses for his bravery.
After the war, Christensen joined the Nebraska Air National Guard where he not only served as an aircraft instructor, but also worked as an aircraft maintenance officer earning and honoring the respect of the aircraft mechanics; finishing his career with the military as a director of operations. Christensen bridged the gap between propeller airplanes of the 1940s such as the B24 (and his favorite, the P51), finishing his career in the supersonic RF4.
None of Christensen’s personal achievements surpassed his winning the prestigious Ricks Trophy Race in 1958. Representing the Nebraska Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron, "Chris" Christensen flew his F-86D Sabre jet over the 850-mile course between Jacksonville, Fla., and Dallas, Texas, in one hour, 48 minutes and 20 seconds.
While that accomplishment was one that would give him lasting fame, for those who worked with him, Christensen will be forever remembered as an outstanding leader, skilled pilot, extremely knowledgeable maintenance officer and complete gentleman.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. John Bailey, a long-time Nebraska Air National Guard maintenance sergeant, first got to know Christensen shortly after he enlisted into the Nebraska Air National Guard in 1972. At the time, Bailey said, the unit was transitioning between the RF-84 “Thunderflash” jet and the much more advanced RF-4C “Phantom II.”
According to Bailey, Christensen was one of a handful of World War II veterans still in the unit.
“We really looked up to them,” said Bailey. “Those (Airmen) were really invaluable to us.”
As a crew chief on the RF-4, Bailey said he and the other unit aircraft maintainers quickly grew to listen closely to Christensen’s suggestions.
“He knew the airplane so well to the point that, as a maintenance crew chief, if he asked you something about the aircraft that you didn’t know, you’d be well served to look it up because he already knew the answer," Bailey said. "Even though we were just transitioning into the airplane, he already knew it so well. His leadership, his skill in the aircraft, plus his knowledge of aircraft maintenance made him invaluable during that transition.”
The level of admiration was to such a level that, when Christensen retired from the organization in 1978, the members of the maintenance unit presented him with a chrome wrench, making him an honorary crew chief. It was only the second time that the maintenance unit had done that up to that point, Bailey said.
“I remember that it was a pretty emotional presentation for him because I think he really thought highly of the maintenance community,” Bailey said.
Christensen would later be inducted into the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame in 1993.
According to Bailey, Christensen leaves a lasting legacy within the Nebraska Air National Guard.
“He was just one of the most complete leader I ever met,” Bailey said. “Plus, he was just an outstanding gentleman.”