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Adventure, aviation runs in the family

WWII pilot was inspired by his uncle -- legendary pilot, Charles Lindbergh, Jr.

By Tim King

George Christie, III, a World War II Navy veteran aircraft carrier pilot, was inspired to become a pilot by his uncle. But his uncle wasn’t just an average uncle -- he was famous aviation pioneer and adventurer, Charles Lindbergh, Jr.

Memories came back to George Christie, III, as he looked at a scrapbook in his Mora home in 2016. Christie was a WWII pilot and newspaper publisher. Photo is by Jim Downes of the Christie Home Museum in Long Prairie.

George passed away last July at the age of 99 after an adventurous life filled with flying, publishing newspapers, and traveling around the globe.

George was born in Crookston in May 1922. His parents, George Christie, Sr. and Eva Lindbergh Christie, were newspaper publishers in Red Lake Falls, east of Crookston. Their paper was the Gazette, which is still published today. George Sr. was the son of a prominent Long Prairie physician, and Eva was the daughter of Minnesota Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Charles August Lindbergh. Eva’s half-brother was Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the famed aviator and pilot of the Spirit of St. Louis.

When George III was five years old, his 25-year-old uncle made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris. In doing so, Lindbergh, a former barn stormer and U.S. Airmail pilot, won a $25,000 prize, and launched himself into international fame.

The aviator married an East Coast blue blood and ambassador’s daughter, Anne Morrow, in 1929. Anne got her pilot’s license later that summer. Then, in 1931, George’s aunt and uncle made another pioneering flight. They flew to Japan via Canada, Alaska, and the North Pacific. The flight made them a mythic couple in the minds of the nation, as well as the little boy growing up in northwestern Minnesota.

Then, that following March, their baby, George’s infant cousin, Charles III, was kidnapped and murdered. George was 10 when baby Charles was murdered. There is no record of the impact it had on him and his family, but it must have been profound and deep.

Sometime that summer, Charles and Anne flew from their New Jersey home to Red Lake Falls. Charles, no doubt, was seeking solace from his sister.

Charles and Anne may have flown to Red Lake Falls in a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. After all, Charles took Anne and her family for Anne’s first plane ride, in a similar aircraft several years earlier. Christie family lore has it that while he was in Red Lake Falls visiting Eva, Charles took young 10-year-old George for an airplane ride. An airplane ride will have a powerful effect on any 10 year old. A ride with uncle Charles Lindbergh had a lifelong effect on George.

This unusual aircraft is a Sikorsky S-38 amphibian airplane. George and his father likely saw it at the 1934 World’s Fair. George’s uncle, Charles Lindbergh, flew one to Panama in 1929 to establish an airmail route from the U.S. to the Panama Canal. Wikipedia photo

There is one other memory from that long ago flight over the Red River Valley. George is said to have asked his uncle what the best kind of airplane was. The aviator replied that one with two engines was probably best. There is no record of George following that sage advice.

George wouldn’t fly again for more than a decade but, from that flight on, he was interested in anything having to do with aviation, his family wrote in his obituary last July.

For a small town boy, George did have more than his share of traveling adventures, however.

In 1934, at age 12, George and his father went to the Chicago World’s Fair. The fair was also known as “A Century of Progress International Exposition.” The two Georges no doubt took in the aviation exhibits. One of those exhibits included the Sikorsky S-38 amphibian airplane, also known as a flying boat. In 1929, an S-38 was flown by uncle Charles to inaugurate airmail service between the United States and the Panama Canal.

The USS Wolverine aircraft carrier leaves a port on Lake Michigan in this photo taken during WWII. Both George Christie and George H.W. Bush did flight training on this historic ship. Wikipedia photo

Then, in July of 1937, he attended the first ever Boy Scouts of America national jamboree. The event was held in Washington D.C., over a period of 10 days and was attended by 25,000 Scouts, most of whom arrived via train. Among other things, the boys camped on the national mall and attended a three-ball game series between the Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox.

George graduated from Red Lake Falls’ Lafayette High School in 1940, attended Carlton College in Northfield for a couple years, and then enlisted in the Navy in 1942.

He was called up in May of 1943 to start training as a pilot at the Naval Air Training Center in Pensacola, Florida.

From Florida, George returned to Chicago, site of his World’s Fair adventures, to learn how to land airplanes on aircraft carriers. There were two carriers based on Lake Michigan, and George told Jim Downes and Lorna Hunter, from the Christie Home Museum in Long Prairie, that he trained on both of them. The USS Wolverine and the USS Sable were the only freshwater carriers in the Navy, and they served as the primary training ships for pilots based on the Navy’s carriers. Former President George H.W. Bush was in the flight training class immediately ahead of him, George told Downes and Hunter. By the end of the war, the two ships trained over 17,000 pilots, landing signal officers, and other personnel.

A young George Christie with his N2S Stearman airplane during WWII. Photo contributed by Jim Downes

The Wolverine was originally built in 1912 as the Seeandbee, a luxury side wheel coal-fired steamship. At the time of its construction, the Seeandbee was said to be the largest and most costly steamer on inland waters around the globe. The Navy bought it in 1942, converted it to an aircraft carrier, and relaunched it as the USS Wolverine. The Sable was originally built as the passenger ship Greater Buffalo, also a coal-fired, side wheel powered excursion steamboat.

Flight training on an aircraft carrier was dangerous. Of the estimated 135–300 aircraft lost during training on the Sable and Wolverine, 35 have been salvaged from Lake Michigan so far. Many of the trainees flew a bi-plane called the N2S Stearman. History shows that George H.W. Bush piloted one, and George Christie, who was acquainted with Bush, told Downes and Hunter that it was his plane also. Both men did flight training on Lake Michigan and, later, at Wold Chamberlain Field in Minneapolis. George Christie was training in Minneapolis during the winter of 1944 when he invited his mother to visit him, he told the two Long Prairie interviewers.

Christie graduated as a Navy aviator in January of 1945 and did not see service overseas. When the war ended, George finished college, and he and his wife Peggy went to work with his parents editing and publishing the Gazette. George also spent 20 years in the Navy Reserve, first out of Fargo, and later out of his old training base in Minneapolis. He told Jim Downes and Lorna Hunter that he flew reconnaissance for the Navy during those years. His uncle Charles was a Reservist with the Army Air Corps briefly.

George and Peggy co-owned the Kanabec County Times, in Mora, Minnesota, with Peggy’s brother and his wife. They moved to Mora in 1970 and retired there in 1980. George bought a Piper Cub in 1986 and continued to fly for some years.

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