Life Imitates Art
Famous cartoonist was drawn into wartime adventure
Bert Christman joined the U.S. Navy as an airman in 1938. Photo: The Archive, Fort Collins Museum of Discovery
By Coleman Cornelius | Research and reporting contributed by David Armstrong and Andrew Glaess
The nationally syndicated comic Scorchy Smith portrayed the derring-do of an American flyboy and was already running in 250 newspapers across the country in Fall 1936, when a young graphic illustrator from Fort Collins, Colorado, took it over and pushed the aviation adventure strip to new heights.
Bert Christman had been hired by the Associated Press Feature Service in New York City just a few months after graduating from Colorado State College at the top of his class in mechanical engineering. He had worked under Noel Sickles, a brilliant illustrator of the day, and now held the lead pen on a strip that tapped public fascination with aviator Charles Lindbergh and reached thousands of daily readers at the dawn of the Golden Age of Comics.
It was everything Christman loved: drawing and airplanes. Growing up, he’d always tinkered and sketched, even illustrating department store ads while attending Fort Collins High School. His early work was in a portfolio Christman had schlepped around Manhattan, along with a glowing recommendation from the college president’s office, when he got his break at the Associated Press.
By 1937, as Christman settled into writing and drawing Scorchy Smith, conflict roiled overseas in the run-up to World War II. Thirst mounted stateside for tales of heroes and villains, and comics became a front-line source. The 22-year-old artist – to improve his aircraft illustrations – started flying lessons on Long Island and soon had a pilot’s license.
Meantime, his character became an airborne mercenary for a Chinese warlord. At one point, Christman had Scorchy pursuing a killer through the streets of Rangoon, Burma. It was eerie foreshadowing. Christman “wanted to live the adventures that he would be writing about in his series,” an aviator buddy recalled decades later.
For Christman, life and art became a vivid one. He chased the tales in his dailies until he lived them – so fully that his own story would run under heavy, black, rat-a-tat-tat headlines, followed by grim accounts of his strafing death on Jan. 23, 1942, under Japanese assault in a critical Asian outpost. He died several weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor forced the United States to enter World War II.
The prominence of his comics, combined with the gripping adventure and bracing reality of his wartime loss, made Christman’s death international news. The 26-year-old artist turned aviator was among the first U.S. pilots to die in the war. His heroism facing Axis powers was highlighted in newsreels and was even used to pitch war bonds: He gave his life. What are you giving?
It wasn’t enough for Christman to fly airplanes; he wanted to become a U.S. Navy dive-bomber pilot and aerial gunner. So in early 1938, he drove from New York to Pensacola, Florida, to start naval aviation training. He took a drawing board with him. As he explained in a letter to his mother and sister back home: “It won’t hinder my cartooning career, but help it. I’ll be a better man for the experience. Naturally, this adventure will delay the day that I climb the success ladder in cartooning. But it’s like school, college, or other study. When I do climb, if ever, I’ll climb faster and higher because of this.” And, he wrote his mother, he would have “one helluva good time.”
The cadet was wrong about one thing, though. He continued to climb in cartooning, drawing Scorchy Smith while in naval training in Pensacola and sending work each week to New York. He turned over the strip to another artist in late 1938, was commissioned as an officer, and in 1939 was assigned to Bombing Squadron 4 on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. As Germany invaded Poland to start World War II, the Ranger became part of the Neutrality Patrol that cruised the Atlantic Coast and the Caribbean Sea to watch for warring forces, often while escorting British convoys.
The same year, Christman improbably co-created his best-known series, The Sandman, for DC Comics. At the time, DC Comics had recently introduced Superman, the superhero who defined the genre and helped launch comic books – faster than a speeding bullet – into the publishing stratosphere. The Sandman had a millionaire playboy as an alter ego. In high-stakes adventures, some involving military aviators, the hero wore a suit, cape, and gas mask; he used a gas gun to put criminals to sleep. Christman produced several stories, then master illustrator Creig Flessel took on The Sandman.
Also for DC Comics in 1939, Christman created Three Aces, a feature paired with Superman about a trio of mercenary aviators who roamed the globe, “working for peace and sanity.” Remarkably, Three Aces presaged Christman’s tight bond – and soldier-of-fortune mission – with two fellow Navy airmen, David Lee “Tex” Hill, from San Antonio, Texas, and Ed Rector, from Marshall, North Carolina. Christman’s friends likewise were in the bombing squadron on the Ranger.
When the ship returned to its base in Norfolk, Virginia, in Spring 1941, the three fliers were recruited to join the new American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force. The proposition could have come straight from Three Aces: Join a covert team of 100 pursuit pilots who would help keep China in the war; earn $600 a month, with a $500 bonus for every Japanese plane destroyed for the Allied cause. Christman and his buddies quickly signed on with the group, better known as the Flying Tigers. Under the command of a daring tactician named Claire L. Chennault, its pilots flew Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter planes, their noses painted with an exaggerated shark-mouth design. The goal was to thwart Japanese attacks on the Burma Road, a critical wartime supply route through Burma (now Myanmar) into China.
As he prepared to ship out for Rangoon, Burma, Christman hinted to his family that war with Japan was imminent. He described his decision to join the American Volunteer Group in a letter to Joe Wing, an editor he’d worked with at the Associated Press. It would be the last letter Christman wrote, later published in news accounts of his death. “I enrolled in the AVG,” the pilot explained, “leaving the scouting squadron of the aircraft carrier Ranger. Flying always has been interesting to me. Now with real purpose it is especially so. However, when ‘this’ is all over, I’m sure I’ll be content again to sit at a drawing board and pen my experiences and those of my friends in an authentic aviation comic strip.”
In fact, Christman observed, wrote, and drew while at sea, en route to Burma. After arriving in Fall 1941, he sketched aviation and village scenes in the southern part of the country, keeping an illustrated diary called Logan’s Log, a compilation of accomplished renderings that he meant as a starting point for a new series of professional work. But war intervened: Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The United States entered World War II. Japan amassed military forces in the region near China, and an all-out battle for Burma began. The Flying Tigers were mobilized for action.
In early January 1942, Christman was wounded and his plane was downed in a dogfight over Rangoon. He described it to his former editor this way: “A bullet scraped my neck on operations Jan. 4. My radio earphones were knocked off and I had to land with a bullet-punctured tire. My plane slewed around on the runway, but stayed right-side up.” He was briefly hospitalized, then returned to duty and flew another mission on Jan. 20; it likewise ended with a damaged plane.
Three days later, Japanese aircraft attacked Rangoon, and Christman flew one of 18 planes launched to intercept them. Rector, his close friend, remembered the realization that Christman had been shot down. “We all came back then, after the fight, and landed – and no Bert,” Rector said. “I thought, ‘Oh, hell,’ because Bert had the regard and the respect of all of us. He was a great pilot, a great thinker, a great planner. I said, ‘I hope he made it. I hope he bailed out and we’ll hear from him.’”
When his body was recovered, it was clear Christman had bailed out and parachuted toward ground. But he was killed by machine-gun fire while descending and was found dead in a rice paddy, harnessed to an open parachute. His death was widely reported. According to a newswire account, datelined Rangoon: “Of the American volunteer pilots who gave their lives defending this Asiatic outpost of the Allied cause, none loved flying better than slender, blond Bert Christman, 26, of Fort Collins, Colorado, who at one time drew Scorchy Smith, an Associated Press comic strip.”
Christman was buried in Rangoon and later reinterred at an English cemetery in Calcutta, India. At his mother’s request, his remains were eventually returned to his hometown, and Allen Bert Christman was buried with the Chinese Air Force rank of lieutenant colonel at Grandview Cemetery off Mountain Avenue in Fort Collins.
One year after his death, to honor the local “cartoonist hero” of headlines, the bustling airfield on the western end of Laporte Avenue was renamed Christman Field. Maps of Fort Collins still show it that way. But Christman Field, on property owned by Colorado State University, is now a single airstrip with crumbling asphalt. It’s hardly visible, tucked beyond a shuttered airplane hangar, and used only rarely as a staging grounds for wildfire operations and other emergencies.