Arthur George Christensen, 88, Army colonel, World War II POW

January 28, 2004|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Arthur George Christensen, a retired Army colonel and World War II prisoner of war who became a Baltimore urban renewal official, died of complications from pneumonia Jan. 21 at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington. He was 88 and had lived for many years in Severna Park.

Born in State College, N.M., he earned his undergraduate degree from what is now North Dakota State University.

He joined the Army in 1936 and served for 24 years. In 1939, he was posted to the Philippines as an infantry officer. He later did cryptologic work until the Japanese attacked the Philippines in December 1941, shortly after the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Through the four-month defense of the Bataan peninsula, Colonel Christensen was a liaison officer coordinating campaign operations until his capture behind enemy lines the day before the general surrender of Allied forces. He subsequently survived the Bataan Death March and 3 1/2 years in POW camps.

"He was a great soldier," said retired Army Col. Charles C. Underwood, a friend who lives in San Antonio and was also imprisoned during the war. "He was smart and a good leader of his men. By his demeanor, personality and ability to deliver, he arranged with the Japanese to run our camp the way we wanted within the barbed wire. And he kept up the morale, too."

In 1944, Mr. Christensen and a group of 350 other POWs were evacuated from the Philippines in the cargo hold of a Japanese ship, one of the last to depart without being sunk by Allied aircraft unaware that American prisoners were aboard. At the Japanese surrender, he was commander in a POW camp in northern Japan.

""He was a man of demonstrated courage," said another friend and retired colonel, James Connell of Fort Belvoir, Va. "He had a keen intellect and was a compassionate man with a spontaneous wit, who was also pleasant to be around."

After the war, he did graduate studies in psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and was assigned to the Army's intelligence staff in the Pentagon. He retired in 1960.

Among his many decorations were the Silver Star for gallantry in action on Bataan, the Distinguished Unit Citation with two oak leaf clusters and the Legion of Merit.

He moved to Severna Park, and in 1963 he joined the old Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Agency, later the Department of Housing and Community Development. He was initially chief of renewal area operations and later its director of relocation.

In this capacity, he worked with families and businesses forced out of redevelopment areas, including the Franklin and Mulberry streets corridor in West Baltimore, where an expressway was partially built before the project was halted amid public opposition.

He later headed his department's vacant house program and led the rehabilitation of about 300 homes a year in the late 1970s. He retired about 25 years ago.

He then sold real estate in the Severna Park area for O'Conor Piper & Flynn. He retired again about 10 years ago.

"He was a marvel. Everybody liked him," said Guy Johnson, a retired insurance executive and former neighbor who now lives in Hilton Head, S.C. "He played a good game of poker and built his own television sets. He could do just about anything and do it well."

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at the Collington Episcopal Life Care Community in Mitchellville, where he moved two years ago.

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Sara Ryan; a son, Allen R. Christensen of Bowie; three daughters, Nona Ballard of Steilacoom, Wash., Elaine Gates of Naples, Fla., and Carol Christensen of Severna Park; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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