Decorated WWII Ace Fred Christensen, 84

Fred J. Christensen shot down six German transport planes July 7, 1944, saying they
Fred J. Christensen shot down six German transport planes July 7, 1944, saying they "didn't have a chance." It was the "kill" record for a single mission at the time. He had wanted to be a fighter pilot since childhood. (Family Photo)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

Fred J. Christensen, 84, a leading American ace of World War II who once shot down six German transport planes in a day, died April 4 at the Beaumont nursing home in Northborough, Mass. He had diabetes.

Mr. Christensen was a captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe and was assigned to the 56th Fighter Group, a unit called Zemke's Wolfpack for its commander, Col. Hubert "Hub" Zemke. Among the group's star fliers were David Schilling and Francis "Gabby" Gabreski, who was credited with 28 downings and was the top American ace in Europe.

From his single-engine P-47 Thunderbolt, Mr. Christensen managed 21 confirmed aerial kills and shared another.

Although he had a magnificent war record before July 7, 1944, his actions that day brought him national notice.

He was guiding a squadron over central Germany at 10,000 feet when he spotted a group of large German transport planes -- Ju-52s -- as they were preparing to land at a Luftwaffe airfield. He swooped in for a closer look, alerting other members of the squad first, he told the United Press wire service.

"They wanted to know if they should stay up there for top cover for me, and I said, 'Hell, no, might as well come on down, too,' " he said. "I just kept moving up the line, shooting them down. They were only about 50 to 100 feet off the ground, and they didn't have a chance."

Other members of his squad shot down several of the Junkers, but Mr. Christensen's six was the "kill" record for a single mission at the time.

He said in other interviews that the P-47s moved so fast that their gunfire could easily miss the "lumbering" German planes.

To compensate, he once said, he received permission to change the direction of the guns on his plane to aim in the same direction. Typically, he said, they were targeted in different directions so the gunfire would have a better chance of hitting something.

He also credited a good luck charm, a black cat named Sinbad that he took as a passenger in the cockpit.

Fred Joseph Christensen, the son of a Harvard University machinist, was born in Watertown, Mass., on Oct. 17, 1921. He had said he wanted to be a fighter pilot since boyhood and learned to fly at 15 when a high school friend's father let him practice in his plane.

After the war, he attended Boston University's music school -- in later years, he played jazz piano at Veterans Administration hospitals -- and flew in the Massachusetts Air National Guard for many years. In the 1960s, he served in the Air Force Reserve and also was a technical writer.

His military decorations included the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

His marriage to Marjorie Thompson Christensen ended in divorce.

Survivors include three daughters, Diane Haagensen of East Falmouth, Mass., Elaine Christensen of Upton, Mass., and Janine Christensen of Wayland, Mass.; two grandsons; and two great-grandchildren.

This year, Mr. Christensen told the Massachusetts National Guard's Minuteman magazine that he named his P-47 "Rozzie Geth" after a flame at Wellesley College. Her nude body was displayed on the front of the craft, and he was repeatedly ordered to clothe her, at least in underwear.

"I could never find the time to do it, though," he said.

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