BY Molly Congdon
REXFORD — The morning of Jan. 7, 1945, John Ericson lay in the snow in Belgium, wearing only a field jacket to protect him from the frigid temperatures after taking a chunk of shrapnel to the chest.
He could see men falling all around him, moaning in pain and fear. He recited the Lord’s Prayer over and over until he heard the sound of German machine guns. Bullets raked all who remained on the ground, and one found his lower spine, tearing through muscle and nerves.
Ericson thought the day would be his last on Earth.
He was one of more than a half million Americans fighting back Germany’s last big attack of World War II — the Battle of the Bulge. The German advance had been halted by then, but the battle would drag on for two more weeks, eventually becoming the bloodiest of the entire war for U.S. forces.
The fighting was desperate and ferocious over the five weeks, and more than 75,000 American casualties were recorded by the U.S. Army. The German forces suffered more and worse, and the loss helped seal Germany’s eventual defeat five months later. But the fact that the Allies were winning the battle and the war was of little comfort to men like Ericson, bleeding and freezing in horrible conditions.
Even after 70 years, he remembers every detail like it was yesterday.
“It felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer and come down on my spine,” Ericson said last week in his Rexford home. “Another 16th of an inch and I would have been completely paralyzed.”
As time passed, his desire to survive waned.
“I wanted to pull through for the sake of my family,” he recalled. “I was in such misery, it didn’t seem like there was much sense to carry on.”
Finally, after three hours, two men emerged from the darkness and dragged him back to an area where medics were tending to wounded soldiers. They cut off his clothes to inspect his wounds.
“I’ll always remember the doctors and nurses in that area with little light bulbs hanging over their heads,” Ericson said. “A surgeon cut the shrapnel out of my chest and asked me if I wanted it as a keepsake; I’ve carried that chunk around ever since.”
His back wounds were the most worrisome.
“The nurse looked at it and said, ‘Oh, you poor kid,’ ” Ericson recalled. “That comment has always stuck with me.”
He was then transported to a hospital in Birmingham, England, for further treatment. He doesn’t recall any details of that trip except the six tiers of cots that were stacked up on the train as the legion of bloodied soldiers were carted away from the battlefield.
Despite all the injuries Ericson endured, his worst discomfort occurred while safely inside the walls of the hospital, when the blood began to surge back into his frozen feet.
“It was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “You couldn’t touch them; even a finger was unbearable. Luckily they didn’t amputate mine. Many men had gangrenous tissues and lost their feet.”
It was a medical condition known as “trench foot,” caused by moist, unsanitary and cold conditions. Before being wounded in battle, Ericson had been dwelling in 4-foot-deep foxholes, ideal for developing trench foot.
“It was the coldest winter that Europe had experienced in many years,” he said. “The living conditions were absolutely miserable.”
Ericson grew up in what was then the open farmland of Whitestone, Queens, on New York City’s eastern edge. Living close to the water, he and his sister, Irene, spent many hours sailing their boat across the waves.
His mother and father, Carla Nelsine Pederson and John Ericson, had a Scandinavian background; his mother was Danish and his father Swedish. In the 1930s, Ericson’s mother started to save money to take him and his sister to Scandinavia to see their roots. In 1939, when he was 14, they boarded a Polish ship and journeyed to Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
By the end of the summer, tensions in Europe were reaching the boiling point. On Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland, kicking off World War II.
“On our way home, on a Polish ship, we did lifeboat drills every day and always had life vests on,” Ericson said. “Standing on the stern deck, I watched the pattern of the waves as the ship quickly zigzagged back and forth,” trying to present a tough target to any nearby submarines.
One month after graduating from high school, Ericson turned 18 and was drafted. He wanted to be a pilot, but since the need for infantrymen was great, he was assigned to the 17th Airborne Infantry at Camp Forrest in Tennessee, one of the largest training bases during the war.
After being shot, Ericson’s recovery took place mostly back in the United States and involved a great deal of massage and heat. Finally, in October 1945, he was granted a medical discharge while being treated in Georgia.
The next chapter in his life was his college years, spent at RPI. That’s also where he met his wife, Gloria.
“We were set up on a blind date through my Chi Phi fraternity brothers,” Ericson said.
They were married in 1948, and Ericson began working at General Electric. After 10 years with GE, he transferred to the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna, where he focused on prototype nuclear reactor manufacturing for the rest of his working life, retiring after 28 years in 1986.
On Jan. 6, 2015, in the quiet safety of Rexford, Ericson sat in his dining room, his eyes tightly closed, almost as if picturing the battlefield that long-ago morning on a television screen within his memory.
“I’m so fortunate to have pulled through something like that,” he said. “The body is amazingly resilient.”
BY Molly Congdon