PARKSTON — William “Bill” Christensen’s sacrifice he made while courageously defending the country as an Army Air Force pilot will never be forgotten.
While nearly 80 years have passed since the late Christensen was gunned down by a fleet of Japanese fighter planes off the coast of China following the attack of Pearl Harbor during World War II, the secretary of South Dakota’s Veterans Affairs Department and some of the state’s top elected officials honored the Parkston native on Monday by dedicating a bridge after him.
“It is our honor to preserve (Christensen’s) legacy, a man who paid the ultimate sacrifice while fighting for our freedoms in World War II,” said South Dakota Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden. “Today’s dedication carries a special significance. The attacks on Pearl Harbor happened in 1941, and it was the brave men like Sgt. Christensen who answered the call.”
During the ceremony at the American Legion Post No. 194 in Parkston, state officials unveiled the sign that has Christensen’s name before it was installed along the South Dakota Pony Creek Bridge that sits about a half-mile west of the Highway 37 and Highway 44 intersection.
Family members of the late Christensen took part in the special ceremony and shared some stories they learned about him. When Christensen was killed in the line of duty, while fending off seven Japanese fighter planes off the coast of Hainin, a province in China, he was 20-years-old.
Although Shirley Clark wasn’t able to meet her uncle “Bill,” she said her relatives spoke of the brave character he carried with him throughout his life that was cut short in 1944. Clark said the creek that runs below the “William Christensen” bridge is the source of fond memories she learned about her uncle.
“This is where Uncle Bill would ice skate, fish and catch minnows to sell,” Clark said. “He went to the North American Aviation School in Englewood, California. He then worked on the planes that had been in combat as a mechanic. He left for Brazil and China on Feb. 17, 1944.”
Christensen’s body was never found from the Japanese air attack that killed him on April 8, 1944, but Army generals declared him dead roughly two years after he was gunned down, Clark said.
His courageous efforts are honored at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific Punchbowl in Hawaii.
For Steve Ehlers, a sergeant with the South Dakota National Guard, helping dedicate the bridge after Christensen was a “true honor” and a reminder that “not everyone gets the privilege to live out their lives in a free country.”
“With the naming of this bridge, we once again bring light to the service of our military and remind ourselves and the community that not everyone gets the privilege to live out their lives in a free country. There is a cost,” Ehlers said during the ceremony. “Since there is a cost, we must be willing to stand up for those that stood up for our country.”
Bridge dedications preserving SD's military heroes
Greg Whitlock, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs, said the bridge dedications provide a unique way for people to learn about the “brave sacrifices” fallen military soldiers have made to preserve the freedom of America.
Since the inception of the bridge dedication ceremonies in 2019, Whitlock said they’ve named about 10 bridges after fallen South Dakotan military soldiers each year. The bridge dedication process was a product of Governor Kristi Noem’s challenge to the department to “think out of the box” in developing new ways to benefit and honor South Dakota military veterans, Whitlock said.
“Nowadays, everyone has a handheld computer in their hand, and when they go across a bridge they can see the name the bridge is dedicated to and look up who it was,” Whitlock said. “It will keep their memory and sacrifice alive, while giving everyone a chance to learn about the brave service our fallen military soldiers gave for us.”
While the bridge dedications have honored veterans who fought in wars dating back to the mid-1900s, Rhoden urged everyone to honor and remember all of those who fought in the recent 20-year War on Terror in the Middle East, which was the U.S. military's response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon.
With the U.S. military’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan that drew widespread criticism since it allowed the Taliban to take control of the region, Rhoden — a National Guard veteran — said it resulted in some military soldiers “questioning” the legitimacy of their service on the battlefields in the Middle East.
“They deserve our thanks, and most importantly they deserve to be remembered. They must be remembered,” he said. “It concerns me as I’ve seen across the state veterans of the War on Terror questioning that service and the legitimacy of that service. I’d ask you to remind them that for the last 20 years since the attacks on the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001 they’ve fought the war on our behalf so we can sleep peacefully at night.”