Above & Beyond: A Bougainville Mystery

Above & Beyond: A Bougainville Mystery

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Neither Rist nor his aircraft was ever recovered.

According to the Web site of the American Battle Monuments Commission (abmc.gov), Rist was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation for the latter commends Rist’s “aggressiveness, courage and devotion to duty.”

I set out to find a member of Robert Rist’s family and share information. Rist’s enlistment records, in the National Archives (aad.archives.gov/aad/), show that at the time of enlistment he lived in North Dakota. The 1930 U.S. Census records list Robert P. Rist as the son of  J. Arthur and M. Ann Rist. Robert had one brother and three sisters. The family lived in a coal mining camp in Park County.

Next I consulted the Social Security death records and found someone whose name and age matched the Census data: James Rist—born October 1893, died October 1972—could be Robert’s father. If so, that left the mother and siblings as possible survivors. M. Ann Rist had been born about 110 years earlier, so she was probably deceased. According to the Social Security records, Robert’s brother had died in 1954. And as for the sisters, if they had married, I did not know their married names.

On the Web, I connected with a genealogy group in the region where Robert’s father died: Hennepin County, Minnesota. Charlie Peasha located an obituary for James A. Rist. It gave the married names of Robert’s sisters.

I posted a query on the genealogy site, and the next day, a woman e-mailed me the address of an Ellajane Rist Knott, Robert’s youngest sister. I sent her a letter and she e-mailed me four days later.

“You surely know how to knock the wind out of my sails!” she wrote. “It was so wonderful to hear my brother’s name again. The piece you sent me describing Bob’s final moments in the air over Bougainville was moving, he died as he was just beginning life. It is wonderful to know how much he accomplished in his last hours.”

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.

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