Above & Beyond: A Bougainville Mystery
- By Paul A. Roales
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
(Page 3 of 4)
The very next day I was contacted by Bernice Salo, the wife of Robert’s nephew, who independently was searching for information on Robert and had come across one of my posts on the Internet. She e-mailed: “My husband remembers Bob as a very nice uncle, but he was only five years old when he died. When we go to air shows my husband is always very interested in the P-38’s because of his uncle Bob.”
Ellajane and Bernice shared materials with me, including newspaper clippings and photographs. I was finally able to fill in some gaps.
Robert was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on July 29, 1920. In 1926, his family moved to North Dakota. After graduating from high school there in 1938, he attended the University of North Dakota as a pre-med student, then transferred to the University of Minnesota. On January 20, 1942, he quit college and enlisted in the Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet.
According to North Dakota’s Velva Journal and other sources, Robert got primary flight training in a Ryan PT-22 Recruit, basic flight training in a Vultee BT-13 Valiant, and advanced flight training in a North American AT-6 Texan. After graduating at Arizona’s Luke Field he was shipped off to March Field in California for training in the P-38. In November, he was sent overseas, and later assigned to the 339th. That squadron sent detachments of fighters to Guadalcanal to escort bombers in attacks on Japanese bases on New Georgia, Bougainville, and the Russell Islands.
Robert flew his first mission from Guadalcanal on January 13, 1943. On February 10, he scored his first kill: a Mitsubishi Ki-21-I “Sally” heavy bomber. Three days later, he was shot down.
Because his body was not recovered, he was declared missing in action. On December 15, 1945, the War Department listed him as “expired.” Robert’s family held a memorial service two and a half months later.
Today, Robert is survived by two of his three sisters: Elizabeth Rist Owren of New Jersey and Ellajane in Minnesota. In her e-mails to me, Ellajane helped bring Robert to life in a way that written archives could not. “So many years ago and his memory is still as indelible,” she wrote. “He was such a sweet, compassionate man.”
The one mystery I never solved concerned the framed assembly of items I’d found at the flea market: Who had preserved them, eventually providing me with a link to the life and death of Robert P. Rist?