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Remembering Bert Christman

[A tip of the virtual hat to Andrew Glaess, who interviewed Christman's sister and some AVG veterans for the following story, which is copyright by him. -- Dan Ford]

As tombstones go, it is small and enigmatic. A modest, low, marker that you need to stand directly over to find, it lies in the middle of an unpretentious cemetery, tucked in behind a stately old neighborhood. The inscription indicates that a Lt. Colonel lies here, killed in Rangoon, Burma, in 1942.  Scores of people over the last 50 years have probably come across it, scratched their heads at the logo of a winged tiger cut into the stone, and never put in the effort to decipher it.

If they had bothered to look into the matter they would have discovered even more questions that needed to be answered than they would have ever imagined. For after being buried in Burma, and then again a few years later in India, the Lt. Colonel of the Chinese Air Force that lies here, was finally laid to rest in a quiet Fort Collins, Colo., cemetery in 1950.

How did he end up there? Why would a Chinese officer be buried in a college town along Colorado's front range?

He belongs there. At one time he was its most famous citizen. His life was a fascinating story of youthful ambition, talent, adventure and tragedy; first as a famous cartoonist, and then as a member of the legendary Flying Tigers. It is a story that has become nearly forgotten over the past half century.

Allen Bert Christman was born in Fort Collins, Colo., to Allen and Elise Christman on May 31, 1915. Even then the Christmans were an old Colorado family. Bert’s paternal grandfather, Frederick Christman, had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1853. For a time he had lived in Wheeling, W Va. and then enlisted in the Third Virgina Volunteer Calvary of the Union Army during the Civil War. He moved west and settled near Fort Collins in 1873, and in 1884 married Mary Belle Young. The couple had two sons, Allen and Carl.

Bert’s father, Allen, married a Chicago girl named Elise Reuter in 1910. They too set up a household in Fort Collins, and had three children. The oldest, Ruth, was born in 1912; Allen Bert was born in 1915; and Joanne in 1926. Bert’s father continued what became a family military tradition by serving as an instructor in the US Army infantry during World War I.

Fort Collins was a small town early in the 20th Century. Bert Christman would often refer to it as an “Andy Hardy town.” Located 65 miles North of Denver, and 50 miles South of Cheyenne, WY, it is the home of Colorado State University.  Today it is a bustling, small city made up of mainly college students and first generation residents.

Bert’s father was a railroad man, and at the time of his death, in a work related accident, was a supervisor of the Burlington Railroad in Casper, WY. It was 1928, Bert was only 13 years old, and tragedy had already struck his life.

“That was a terrible time,” said Joanne Chisolm, Bert’s younger sister. “He was a man from that day on, so he took over. I will say that my sister and brother managed to never take one dime from my mother from the day my father was killed. They went and got jobs and never took a dime.”

All of the Christman children seemed to be remarkably self-contained, hard working with adventurous, independent streaks.

“We were railroad people,” Joanne Chisholm said. “We had lifetime passes. My brother, sister and I would travel, make money, pay for our school and clothes—whatever it took, we would find a way.”

Ruth, the elder sister, would move to Chicago, attend Northwestern University and eventually married and settled in Cincinnati, OH. Bert would frequently travel across the country, via the railroad, to visit her and to explore any place that piqued his interest. One summer, he decided to see Alaska and spent months working in a cannery.

“He was an adventurous person,” Chisolm said fondly of her brother. “There were no spring breaks, no summer breaks. He was just off to somewhere to make more money and to see something new.”

Local jobs that Bert did keep for several years included advertising art for local grocery stores and a paper route for the Fort Collins newspaper. As fortune would have it, the paper carried the cartoon section of the Associated Press, a section his talents were to prominently grace several years later.

“I remember Bert Christman as a quiet, businesslike, almost shy newspaper carrier, with a marked flair for cartooning,” said Norman A. Johnson, a reporter for the Fort Collins Express-Courier in a 1943 article about Christman. “I recall a dinner of the old Express-Courier staff at which his caricatures of members of our staff were the hit of the evening.”

Men like Frank Luke, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Charles Lindbergh were heroic figures of the day, and Bert was not immune to the appeal. He was great friends with a neighbor boy named Roger A. Wolf, and they shared a passion for aircraft and machinery.

Sadly little information is available today about Wolf, other than a telephone directory listing that stops in the early 1940s and Joanne Chisholm’s memory that he too died young--while flying as a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force during the late 1940s.

Once Christman graduated from high school, he decided to pursue higher education at home, and enrolled in the local college, Colorado A&M. He would earn a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Besides his constant sketching and painting, Bert spent what little free time he had tinkering with mechanical things. He created his own lamps, furniture, and maintained a hot rod that was known by family and friends as “The Silver Bug”. He also managed to find time to letter in gymnastics, winning several major competitions.

When he graduated in 1936, with a Bachelor’s degree and honors, Christman had grown to 5’11” and weighed 150lbs. Blonde, blue eyed, slender and handsome, he had an education, talent, and meant to make his mark on the world. With a portfolio full of art samples, he left Fort Collins and headed east to New York City.

Initially he worked at whatever he could find, at small publishing companies, doing what was necessary to eat. It didn’t take long for him to attract attention, however, and soon the Associated Press hired him on as a general artist for their feature service. The AP had started offering various illustrations, fiction, maps and a comic section to papers around the country in 1930. Typically newspapers of that era contained more artwork than today’s, adding attractive graphics in an era before quality photo reproduction was easily achieved.

The most popular strip in the AP’s comic section during this time was an aviation feature called Scorchy Smith. Contrary to several articles written since his death, Bert Christman did not create the character. It was originally developed in 1930 to play off the Lindbergh craze that had swept the country. Scorchy Smith was a young country boy, aged 18, who had a talent for aviation and a nose for adventure. It was created and very crudely drawn by a cartoonist named John Terry. Christman must have become aware of the strip immediately as it was carried in the Fort Collins newspaper, and he had always followed the comics intently.

John Terry soon became ill with tuberculosis and was forced to take a sabbatical. The AP looked to its bullpen of feature artists and decided that a young man named Noel Sickles should take over the strip…. What Sickles did with it over the next two and a half years was pure cartooning magic. It is considered to be one of the most significant artistic stints in comic strip history, and it created a major challenge for any artists who followed him. For not only did he improve Scorchy Smith’s quality and popularity, but he created an entire new school of cartooning in the process. It was a black, impressionistic style that made use of cinematic type points of view and was massively different than the straight, illustrative approach of the other masters of the medium like Hal Foster and Alex Raymond….

By the fall of 1936 Sickles had burned out. He had researched the comic strip’s popularity, something that the AP didn’t discuss with their artists, and estimated that it was running in 250 papers across the country. He was paid $125 a month, with the AP’s take on the feature being around $2,500. He presented his research to his employers and asked for a raise. It was declined. He promptly left the strip….

In need of a replacement for the departing Sickles, the AP management searched their staff of artists for a likely successor. On November 23, 1936 Bert Christman became the writer and artist of Scorchy Smith. That first strip was not one of his better efforts, although it would take only a month or so before the 21-year-old would find his stride. It was also unsigned, and would remain so until the jungle story sequence that he had inherited was complete on February 16, 1937.

“He was young, but it wasn’t all that unusual,” said Ron Goulart, a noted comic strip historian of Christman’s rise to prominence. “The AP went in for younger guys. Noel Sickles, Frank Robbins, Christman—they came cheaper.”

The first full Christman story-arc had the character working as a test pilot in San Diego. Seeking to illustrate authentic looking aircraft, Bert started to hang out at airports in the New York area to do research. It occurred to him that flying lessons were a also a good idea, so he took that up and soon was drawing the best planes on the nation’s comic pages.

Low-wing monoplane

“It was all very well done,” said Bill Blackbeard, a comic strip historian and founder of the San Francisco Academy of Cartoon Art. “Romantic and dashing stuff. He was a typical kid from the 30s, turned on by aviation.”

When looking back on Christman’s life, its common to see imagination transferred to the comic page and then again transferred into reality. His character was a pilot, so Bert became a pilot and in March of 1937 Scorchy Smith began an eight-month adventure working as a mercenary for a Chinese warlord. There was no Claire Chennault, but the parallels are striking.

Other adventures concerned a “Lost Horizons” inspired adventure in Tibet and an adventure involving airliners, sabotage and murder. At one point Christman even had his character pursuing a killer through the streets of Rangoon, Burma.

After only 18 months on the strip, Christman was on to other adventures himself. Young, restless, and probably under the impression that, like Sickles, he too was being taken advantage of, he began to look for something new to tackle.

Bert told his family that one afternoon he was out walking and that a Navy recruiting poster caught his eye. He came back a few days later and signed up as an aviation cadet in June, 1938.

continued in part 2