|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Jim Erickson by Gordon Doule. He discusses his experiences in the 838th AAA Battalion, 45th Division during World War II. He was present at Dachau when the camp was liberated.
Oral History with Jim Erickson
Conducted by Gordon Doule on 5 March, 1994
E: My name is Jim Erickson, age at this point is 70. I was born in Arcadia, Wisconsin on May 6, 1923. Elaine Erickson Swenson is my wife's name, she's from Whitehall. We were married August 4, 1947.
Occupation at this point is, I've been a salesman on the road for [ ] Engineers for, I'm just into 30 years. Before that I farmed, before I went into service, when I came back out I still farmed a little and then went into the lumber business for 17 years, and then wound up in this occupation I'm in now.
Children's names: Mary's my oldest daughter, she lives in Minneapolis, works [ ] [ ] is my only son, which is younger than Mary, and works, travels on the road for people that do printing, in other words he supplies the printing people.
I went to school in Arcadia, Wisconsin, I guess I gotta go back and say that I went to a small country small out in [ ] Valley, where I was born and raised and went to Arcadia High School, then of course [ ] the service, several different schools that the army gave you, and so forth.
Parents' names are - my mother was [ ] my father was Edward Erickson, Sr.
D: Is that spelled with a s-e-n?
D: Then you're not a Dane.
E: I'm totally Norwegian. My branch of service - navy - I was in a couple of them, but I was in the army I guess all the time, different branches, but the 838 Anti-aircraft Artillery Battalion was the one I was in. And the date I enlisted had to be...I wished I knew exactly, but I think it was April 1.
D: You were an April Fool.
E: I have to take that back...It was just after I was 21, which is May the 6th. It was the later part of May, anyway. And they discharged us...I landed back in April 1, 1946 I think.
D: What do you remember most about your hometown and your home area prior to going into the service?
E: Well, I would say offhand that I guess the farm is my dearest memory, I was born and raised there, and worked with all the animals, things like this, and of course I still love the animals. And Arcadia hasn't grown really that much but it's a pretty good sized city - it's around 2500, 3000 now, before that it was about 1000. So, you know. And [ ] since I've been back, or when I was gone and so forth.
D: How different was it [ ] you had some growth?
E: Well, I think probably they had a few more farm machines, and so forth, that were more modern than when I left. I think the most modern thing we had was horses. They did a lot of work for us. And the city itself, I suppose hadn't changed really that much. Newer buildings, you know, and different businesses and so forth.
D: How long were you away? Let's see, you went in, in '41...
E: I went in, in '43 and then came back in '46. I was in actual service in overseas for 18 months, I think it was. And that was from December, '44, until '45, well, the war was over in '46, May what was it - 7th or 6th or 8th or somewhere in there? The war was over? In 1945? And we were stationed in different parts of Europe, of course, guarding prisoners, I guess, and so forth.
D: You stayed over there for longer than we did.
D: You must of done all of your service was in the European Theater.
D: Well, would you like to tell us where you went from Arcadia - like to boot camp, and anything that might be of interest to posterity along those lines?
E: Well, the first place we hit was Fort Sheridan, and from there we went down to another camp in Georgia, and got some boot training there, and then we went to Texas, down in Camp [ ], Texas. From there we got our whole boot camp training. Then we headed from there up to New York, Long Island, and then from there down to Camp [ ], and then to [ ] port of debarkation was in New Jersey. I'm trying to pull that in but I can't right now. But we came back to the same port, too, in New Jersey.
D: You did the same thing we did. [ ] came back [ ] When was that, roughly?
E: Well, here again I couldn't give you the exact dates, but I wound back up in - I think I got home on April 1, 1946. Then I came into...tip of my tongue, can't tell you.
D: When you left New Jersey you went to England.
E: Yeah, we went to England.
D: You got to England before D Day, then, obviously.
E: No, it was after D Day.
D: You weren't in any of the landings.
E: No, I wasn't in any of the landings in France.
D: Did you protect England with anti-aircraft?
E: Well, I guess we did to a point. Bur really, we were more or less training over there for going over the Channel. And when we left there we landed at Le Havre.
D: So, when you got to England, give me a little background on where you landed - did you land on Scotland, or did you land at Southampton...
E: We landed at Southampton.
D: And you were there how long before they...
E: Well, I would say offhand, there again I should have checked all that, but I imagine we had to be there about a month I would say. And of course we were training all the time. We even got into London once, so we saw quite a bit of the country.
D: Then they put you on ships?
E: They put me and 20 others on one of those landing crafts that carry personnel and I'll tell you, we went across the Channel when it had to be the roughest. I think everyone of them got sick, and I nearly did but I didn't. And then of course we landed at Le Havre and from there we took a train - it had to be toward Nancy I think is where we went.
D: Way [ ]
E: We were way down south, or south and west, yeah. And then, the thing I remember is it took us 22 hours to go 22 miles with that French train. That was the worst part of the trip! [laughter] Never forget that.
D: So, you got over - were you in a camp there in place in the vicinity of Nancy?
E: Yeah, it was right in that area somewhere around in there.
D: It's a pretty good sized city.
E: Yeah, it is a good sized city, a lot of those things you don't remember...
D: Well, you had other things in mind.
E: It was one of those deals where you wouldn't give a million dollars to go there and do it again, and you're glad you got out of it.
D: Tell me a little bit about, while you were there, now you're getting into action, and you were probably visited by the Luftwaffe.
E: Yeah, we were, I guess, the 88 were things that we didn't like the least, those [cotton pickers] with fire, and of course we had places dug so we could get into, but when we heard them off, it took five seconds, we had to be inside, because so many of the times they had the shells set so that they'd explode above ground. And if you didn't have some cover you were in trouble.
D: The shrapnel [ ]?
E: Oh yes, I guess the closest we were to the front was when we came up to Worms, Germany, and the Rhine River, but with the anti-aircraft of course, you were either way back or way up depending on where they wanted you to protect aircraft. And shoot down aircraft if they came at you!
D: So, that 88 mm. was not a [ ] loader, was it? [ ] magazine load [ ]
They could fire just as fast as [ ]
E: I'll tell you, they were experts at war, that's all there is to it.
D: You get to use that for a field piece as well as anti-aircraft.
E: Yeah, that's right. They had, towards the end of the war, when the newer people came in, I guess they only got about six weeks training, and they ran down on their manpower, and they weren't as adept with it, of course, as the older ones were, because they were used to shooting at airplanes but on the ground they weren't as good at it as the other ones. But we were long [ ], whatever.
D: Go into a little detail on that, for the record.
E: Well, it's odd, you know, but I never actually got into the city of Munich but we were up on top of the mountains up there, and we could see Munich and we could see the US Air Force and British bombing. And it was kind of like a big park up there, a nice big park house and all this stuff, and we just came out of eating lunch, and they kind of had it set up so you could go in there and pick up your food, go back out. And we had P-47s strafe us, but they were German pilots.
D: Oh, captured 47s.
E: [ ]
D: [ ] Shoot them down.
E: You don't know, you know...
D: They could have been doing it by mistake.
E: Nobody was hurt. Everybody got down under some big trees. We sure watched after that.
But I think the worse that I saw was when we came into Dachau after, the day after the 45th Division had taken it. The 42nd Armored I believe it was. And we stayed there for probably roughly seven days, maybe a week or thereabouts, and every morning after that we would find several SS Troopers that were killed by the former prisoners. One of the worst things that I - I'll never forget it. They had 50 boxcars of starved people [ ] and I remember our chaplain made every one of us climb up there and take a look at them.
D: They were still alive, but they were...?
E: No, they were all dead. They were all ready to be taken out to some pit and dumped.
D: Was it the 42nd Division, did you say, that liberated them?
E: Well, I thought it was the 45th Infantry Division and the 42nd Tank Division, I think. Now I know the 45th did but the 42nd is a question. I've got it in the books at home and I can check it.
D: You were there when the smell was still there. You never get that out of your memory.
E: Unbelievable. And for these modern Nazis to say that it was all a hoax, all they have to do is talk to me.
D: Yeah, these Neo Nazis are spreading that around, and that's one of the reasons why we're doing these tapes, because this is correcting the record. It's giving the record rather than correcting it.
E: If every person in the United States would see something like that it would just wake them up completely.
D: How long were you there then, at the Dachau area?
E: We were only there about seven days, I'm thinking, the better part of a week.
D: Were there still live Jews there that didn't get killed?
E: Oh yeah, there were quite a number of live prisoners there yet. In fact, quite a few. We let them out and all they did was hunt the SS Troopers.
D: I suppose they depended on you to feed them for a while, too.
E: I'm sure the army set up something there to feed them. The poor devils were so tired. Some of them were so down that they didn't care what was going on around them.
D: They say that the German people didn't know what was going on. Well, they couldn't avoid the smell.
E: Those camp started in 1939.
D: [ ]
E: It just pierces.
D: That, and the burning. [ ] the worst. Go on with your story, you've got some other things, I'm sure, [ ]
E: Well, from there a lot of times, if I had more notes with me I suppose I could give you a little more detail of where we went and how we went...
D: You don't have to be that accurate, [ ]
E: The day that the war was over we wound up near Regensburg, Germany, which was near the Czech border. If it hadn't been for that day, we were scheduled to go to [ ] Czechoslovakia. And I think, on top of a hill, alongside a river by Regensburg, we were, I think there were armed battalion and I think there were two battalions, but we had 50,000 German prisoners up on top of that hill. [ ] And the Germans didn't put up any fuss.
D: You just had them corralled?
E: Yeah. We had them all on top of a hill and there were guards around...There again, the army, had taken care of that for us. And then of course, getting back, after the war, down in Nice, France, we never had any trouble with the Germans, they were good workers. And hopefully they had forgotten all about Hitler...
D: You found them to be very disciplined. They were very receptive to orders. What was your function, what did you do [ ] anti-aircraft [ ]?
E: Well, we had two gun sections, one had a 40 mm. which was [ ] to go up a long ways, and I had command of the [ ] 50s that we had on the trailer. And of course, they could be used for ground or for air...
D: [ ] Were the 40 mm. gophers? or [ ]
E: No, gophers, I believe.
D: That's a good gun, too.
E: They had [ ] fire and so forth ...
D: What else did you have in anti-aircraft, though, did you have 90 mm.?
E: No, our units didn't have any. I know that there 90 mm. that were anti-aircraft, but we had 40s and the 50.
D: The 50 caliber were the air-cooled?
E: Yeah, they were air-cooled.
D: I've heard mentioned [ ] that they really liked the 50 caliber.
E: That was a good one. You had 450 rounds a minute [ ]
D: OK, then from Regensburg, what did you do then, when the war was over, over there, and then - mostly try to help with POWs?
E: Well, not so much to begin with, we dealt mostly with POWs when we got down to Nice, France. After Regensburg we went back west to Augsburg and of course we were there when Patton got killed out on the highway, and needless to say that movie they had about him was all false, he didn't get hit and land in the hospital, he was killed right there at the place where the truck hit him.
D: That's correcting the record.
E: Well, I saw that and I said, holy smokes! And the clincher was when I traveled to Door County, there was a guy there that was in the truck that hit and killed him and he was fuming about that movie, I'll tell you. He said, that's the most false thing you ever heard.
D: Just about the accident, or the whole movie?
E: About the whole movie, and of course the fact that he died in the hospital instead of dying right there on the highway.
D: The guy must have been in the 3rd then.
E: Yeah, he must have been. He had to have been in the 3rd, because I was in the 7th, and Patch was the guy that had the 7th.
D: What experiences do you like to recall? That stick out in your mind in that way?
E: Well, I think that the best experience was probably, more likely, that you like to recall, are the good times you had with your buddies. And seeing an awful lot of these cities you read about in school, before you went in the service and so forth.
D: Does one buddy stand out more than others that you met - Who was the most interesting person, maybe, that you recall?
E: Well, I never met any of the top generals, never got into that situation, but I think some of my more important people were the people in our battalion and the officers, there were many good ones.
D: Would you say that your officers did a good job, basically? Some guys didn't like their officers for being [ ].
E: Well, that's true. I think we had one that was not well-liked by the men, but basically I think that all of them were good, good to the men and knew what they were doing. [ ] I have no complaints.
D: Did you keep up with them - did you keep up any correspondence going with any of your buddies and so forth after the war?
E: No, not too much in that respect except a few that lived in Wisconsin. I just, in fact, I just lost a good buddy, a classmate of mine that was in the glider troops over in Germany, I met him in [ ]
D: Oh, a Hitler slayer.
E: That was one of the more interesting parts of it, too, of course this was after the warm, too.
D: Did you get a chance to do a little socializing with him for awhile?
E: Oh, a little. Only about a day.
D: Hoist a German beer.
E: Boy, I'll tell ya, they had good beer.
E: They made it just like my uncle did back when they made home brew.
D: [ ] crocks
You bet. But you didn't keep in touch with any of them after the war, basically?
E: No, I guess I wrote so many letters during the war that I got tired.
D: What was the...I would imagine I could answer this, but what was the worst thing that you came upon in your experiences?
E: Well, I would say this Dachau prison was the worst. You know, you can explain it, but people never understand it until you've seen it. Or something like it. They had several more that were as bad or worse.
D: Well, then I think that's about it, unless you can think of some of your interesting other things come to mind it doesn't have to be chronological before you went over [ ] coming out of the service
E: Well, I guess one thing that sticks in my mind, when we left Augsburg, Germany, to go to Nice, France, a lot of little towns were controlled by the United States soldiers, of course, the military at the time, and they gave our battalion the little town of Rott, and it's southwest of Munich about, oh, I'm just guessing, but I suppose 80, 100 miles, and we were given the job of taking care of the town. And the sergeant of our group, he worked in conjunction with the mayor or the [ ]meister, and right in that city was a German prison hospital. And we got to talk to those people quite a bit, and one of the things that sticks in my mind was the fact that they said, you know, the best thing you Americans can do right now is to go over and beat Russia. And they were true words, too.
D: It was gonna be inevitable.
E: So, it's a funny thing, I'm glad that war ended. The rest of them haven't ended since.
D: Well, [ ] ever stop. From your memory, and you were exposed to a lot of these German POWs, did you ever see them mistreated in any way by an American, or Allied...?
E: I don't believe that I ever saw one mistreated, I guess at the time your feelings are a little high at the time, but I guess I we felt they were treated too well. Must different from our poor Americans. I lost a good buddy in a prison camp over there. He graduated from high school. And they just starved them to death, that's all there was to it.
D: I wanted to get that down into the record, so 100 years from now when they hear your voice they'll hear you say that we did not mistreat the people that we captured.
E: That's true. I just can't think of an incident. [ ] mistreating.
D: Very good. OK, Jim, I certainly appreciate your coming way over here and giving us the benefit of the experiences in WWII, I'm sure, that college students, when they pick up this tape at the library, that you've given them something that's very important to them in the future.
E: Well, I hope so, when I read that article, that first one that came out, I was interested in it, because I guess I wanted to set the record straight on the Neo Nazis that are saying that nothing like this ever happened
D: You've got firsthand experience that's invaluable to people that are coming after us that they're not going to be able to corrupt what we saw. You can't do that, because they're hearing us say that. Just like I was in the air force, and we didn't know innocent bombing, it was a court martial offence, if we couldn't get to our target to turn around and bring the bombs back. if we couldn't bring them back we dumped them in the Channel. And that channel's gotta be loaded with them.
E: They probably ran into a few of them when they built that tunnel.
D: Well, thanks ever so much, Jim, and someday, I hope, in the near future, that this will be also in print in the Northwestern, but I have no control over numbers...
E: I wish I could have done a better job, and I guess I could have, if I'd have brought along some of the notes that I got - I've got 22 books...
Oral History Interview with Jim Erickson
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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