Willow Run Memories Project: WWII Veteran Comes Full Circle at Yankee Air Museum

Gerald Joseph Christ, former World War II crewman on the B-17 Roanoke Magician is about to take a ride on Yankee Air Museum’s B-17 Yankee Lady.

A great delight here at the Yankee Air Museum is when a World War II veteran gets to relive his heroism with a flight in our Yankee Lady B-17 Flying Fortress!

Here’s the story of WWII B-17 crewman Gerald J. Christ, who survived a crash in Villafans, France aboard the B-17 Roanoke Magician. After the war, like so many WWII veterans, he married his sweetheart, worked, and raised a family with no notion that he and others like him were great American heroes. Later in life, in May of 2000, Mr. Christ was honored at a ceremony at the crash site in France. Then, in 2014, his life experience was brought full circle with a ride on our B-17 Yankee Lady, just a couple years before his passing.

Save the Willow Run Bomber Plant campaign supporter Thomas Gerald Christ shared his father’s story and photos with us as part of our Willow Run Memories Project. You can share your family stories about Willow Run, Michigan’s “Arsenal of Democracy” or any WWII experiences in battle or on the Home Front by clicking here. You can also help us Save the Willow Run Bomber Plant, to preserve the legacy of the Greatest Generation while providing a new home for the Yankee Air Museum and the Yankee Lady B-17 by donating here.

These photos are of my father, Gerald J. Christ, in World War II. He flew with the 485th Bomb Group, 835th Bomb Squadron, of the 8th Air Force based in Sudbury, England. On January 21, 1945, Dad was part of a nine man crew on a bombing mission to destroy a tank plant in Mannheim, Germany. Their aircraft was a B-17 named the Roanoke Magician. They were hit by flak and managed to fly to a small village in France called Villafans where the plane violently crashed! The pilot was killed and my Dad and remaining eight crew members were injured. Dad and his crewmates were taken by the townspeople to a nearby convent where the nuns ministered to their injuries. He was transferred to a hospital in England, never seeing his crewmates until a reunion in the 1990s. Then, over 50 years later, Dad got a very surprising letter in the mail… and my mother asked him, “Who do you know in France?” He had no idea. When translated, the letter was from Villafans and expressed gratitude to Dad that over 50 years later this letter was being written in French instead of German, and invited him to an upcoming ceremony in the town. The town of Villafans had erected a monument at the crash site to honor the Roanoke Magician and its crew. Dad and three of the still living crew were honored in an unforgettable and historic dedication ceremony in Villafans, France in May of 2000. Several years later, in 2014, my father’s “sentimental journey” came full circle. Some of you may know that in 1945 the song Sentimental Journey was a big hit… now it seems almost 70 years later Dad finally arrived full circle on August 9, 2014 with a plane flight on Yankee Air Museum’s Boeing B-17G Yankee Lady! The Yankee Air Museum was offering rides at Thunder over Michigan air show on one of the few remaining flyable B17s, and Lincoln Geltz was kind enough to purchase tickets for Dad and my brother Chuck. This time Dad flew the air waves in peace and landed safely! My brother Duane and I were witness to the joy of his experience….. a sentimental journey home. Among the medals pictured is the Purple Heart given Dad for his bravery and service. So Honored & Proud Of You, Dad!!! He passed away in December of 2016.
— Thomas Gerald Christ, shared with the Willow Run Memories Project via Facebook

The gilt engraving on the monument in Villafans, France reads:

“Ici Le 21 janvier 1945
S’ecrasait la forteresse volante Roanoke Magician

[Translation: Here, 21 January 1945, crashed the flying fortress Roanoke Magician]

Du 486th B.G., 835th B.S., 8th U.S.A.A.F. Equipage:  F/O Robert F. JARVIS, decédé, 2nd Lt Willis V. KING blessé, Sgt Calyton M. WALKER blessé, Sgt John W. SCHMIDT blessé, 2nd Lt David D. HILL, Sgt Gerald J. CHRIST, Sgt Charles R. FORREST, Sgt William O. ROSELLE, sgt Leo V. DAVIS”

“Au nom de la liberté, qu’ils ne soient jamais oublies.”

That last line translates, “In the name of Liberty, they are never forgotten.”

Sgt. Gerald Joseph Christ of the 486th Bomb Group, 835th Bomb Squadron, 8th Air Force during World War II

The B-17 Roanoke Magician during WWII.

Crash site of the B17 Roanoke Magician in Villafans, France during WWII.

Roanoke Magician crewman Gerry Christ and his WWII decorations.

Monument in Villafans, France honoring the B-17 Roanoke Magician and its crew, located on the spot where the plane’s tail section was found.