JoAnn Christman Chisholm
January 12, 1995
Interviewer: Joan Day
JoAnn Christman Chisholm's brother is remembered in many ways in our community: He was admired as a member of the "Flying Tigers" air squadron which fought in Burma before America entered the war; he became famous as the creator of the "Scorchy Smith" wartime comic; and he was proud to be a native of this city and a graduate of Colorado A&M. He was a good son and brother and well-loved by many friends. Bert Christman was one of the first local boys to die in action in W.W.II. The college airfield west of town was named "Christman Field" in his honor a year after his death. Bert's college degree was in engineering, but his avocation was art. He had moved to New York City after graduation and landed a job on the art staff of the Associated Press. His comic strip "Scorchy Smith" featured aviation adventure and was carried by 200 newspapers and magazines. His drawings were accurate and authentic, and it was partly to obtain additional background for this art that Bert enlisted at the Pensacola, Florida, naval training school for aviators in 1938, leaving behind material for a year's comic strips. He volunteered for the Flying Tigers commanded by American General Claire Chennault in hopes of keeping China's last link with the outside world, the Burma Road, open despite heavy Japanese bombing and threats of invasion.
Bert Christman was shot while parachuting from his disabled plane over Rangoon on January 23, 1943. He was first given a military burial in Burma and eventually re-interned in Grandview cemetery. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all served their country in wartime. He was just 26. He had survived being shot down and wounded a few weeks before, as well as a second attack just three days before his death, in which he managed to bring back his plane, despite 27 bullet holes. His "last letter home" about this adventure was published after his death.
When news of her brother's death reached Fort Collins, JoAnn was a sophomore in high school. She stayed out of school for a week. She remembers her mother as being totally destroyed by the death of the son who had been so good to her. Bert had been the man of the family since their father's death when Bert was barely a teenager.
Her brother's heroic life and tragic death was the subject of many articles and a movie newsreel; but JoAnn remembers him more personally as a person who never said anything bad about anyone, and a brother who looked out for her and wrote wonderful letters home, sometimes with little drawings just for her. Bert had predicted that the Japanese would bomb an American target and we would enter the war. He told his sister, "you have no idea of how protected you are here." That's how he wanted it; his little sister enjoying a happy life in their "Andy Hardy" town.
And mostly that's how it was, living in a small town where the biggest problems were children's Halloween pranks. As a high school girl, JoAnn never dated service men or went to the beer halls to dance. Although everyone thought smoking was movie-star glamorous, and marijuana was a common plant along the railroad tracks, her only experience with a "strange cigarette" was part of a health class demonstration. Teachers also kept students protected and stuck to the basics of learning; the ancient past being more important than current events. She stayed in her home town to go to college. Tuition was about $250 a year. JoAnn lived at home where college friends liked to visit to escape the restrictions of dormitory life. Even visits to the German prisoner of war camp are remembered as happy times, when they saw prisoners who were relieved to be in America. Her first jobs paid as little as 14 cents an hour; she worked up to 32 cents, but had to go to Cincinnati to get a "big" wage of 72 cents per hour. But hamburgers were just a dime and they were always good. There weren't many restaurants in Fort Collins then -- the Northern Hotel, the Armstrong Hotel, Ace Gillette's, and something called "the Sugar Bowl," which was more a "beer drinking place." For fine dining one drove to the Wayside Inn in Berthoud.
Looking back at the war years, JoAnn recalls that she was personally sad at losing her adored brother, "but as far as growing up at that time, it was a happy time. . . .you were so young and you were so eager and you knew we were going to win this war. You just knew that we'd win it."
Preserving the history of Fort Collins, Colorado & the Cache la Poudre region