20 August, 2011

Profile 57 - FINAL - "192" as flown by Don Erickson

Note:  8-21-11 - something about this post has struck a nerve.  This post has received more unique views from around the world than any this year.  Any insight?

Have a look at "192"!

That black tail really does it for me - menacing, sleek; it's a mean machine.  Though I do have a certain loyalty to yellow tails and blue noses, this single P-51 of the 75th FS, 23rd FG  is my best to-date. 
But in comparison to some of the more colorful birds of the past, it's rather unremarkable.  No victory markings, no pin-up girls, no clever name painted across the cowl - just the black tail and the last three numbers of the machine's serial number stenciled onto the nose.
And, pilot Don Erickson isn't sure how many times he flew "192."  As a replacement pilot to the squadron, he didn't have the kind of seniority or rank to warrant his own plane.  "Erickson.  Today, you're flying XX."  "Yes sir."  

Did he fly 192 only once?  Twice?  Three, four times?  Who knows.  It was just a rank-and-file airplane assigned to the grind of shuttling bombs to bridges and blowing bullets at trains.
When I met Don, we were at the Air Force Memorial in Washington D.C.  When I asked him about his service in WW2, he replied matter-of-factly, "Nothing much" - hence the name I gave it during the prior posts.  "I've only got twenty one missions," he stated dryly.  "I saw a Zero once but fired way too far away.  I'd have never have hit it."  He raised an eyebrow and smirked.
In comparison to the swirling dogfights over Europe, or crashing into retaining barriers atop heaving aircraft carriers or dramatic bail-outs over enemy territory, Don's missions were rather lackluster.   When I was introduced as "an aviation artist and historian, Don's immediate reply was polite, but terse. "You don't want to interview me.  Really.  I didn't do that much."  
In comparison, Don was right.  He was simply one of thousands of pilots in WW2 who, in their vernacular, "...did their job."  Truly, the mythic deeds of men like Joe Foss, George Preddy, Joseph Priller and Douglas Bader were much rarer than popular entertainment would have you believe.  
Yet, to focus attention only on the mountain peaks means you miss the valley, the forest, the stream, the trees...  That being stated, I think you might find Don's story of "Nothing much" more interesting than he might lead you to believe.
In July of 1942, Don answered the Call (i.e. Draft) in typical future-fighter pilot fashion  - he took matters into his own hands and decided to be a Naval Aviator.  Airplanes were "interesting," there was a challenge, a bit of fun, sounds good!  So, he went to the nearest Naval recruiter in Minneapolis.  The Land of a Thousand Lakes served the Midwest with the next best thing to ocean, I guess.  Anyway, during the examination, Doctors detected a hernia and rejected him.  
"You'll never pass.  Next!"
And that was it.  Idea, plan, rejection.  Next!
With that dream dashed and the War Machine just beginning to whet its appetite for flesh, Don reported shortly thereafter at Fort Crook, Omaha for induction into the Army.  Again, Doctors detected the hernia and rejected him.  "1B" was his classification.  That meant he was potentially suitable, but only for limited service.  
This degradation didn't make sense to a guy who'd played football and handball.  And growing up sharing his bedroom with two other siblings AND grandparents,  Don learned a thing or two about cooperation and compromise.
Sure he'd had an appendectomy, but that'd been fixed long before and it was far worse than any hernia.   Don decided to petition the Draft Board for another examination.  This time, another doctor passed him on but not without the caveat, "When this bothers you, go on sick call and request limited service."
Three times, The System rejected Don.   Three times, the experts, working within their well-tried process, found Don unsuitable for combat, let alone Flight.   Instead, Don was lead to the realization that the Military believed his best service would be to study (drum roll) Teletype Maintenance.    I'm chuckling as I write this - can you imagine having your sights on flying fighters only to have it suggested that you're only fit to fix the FAX MACHINE?!?

Don Erickson swallowed this fate in September of 1942 at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois. 
What would you do?   
Don't hold it against Don when, after doing outside calisthenics in October's frigid spit, he remembered that he could, "...go on sick call and request limited service." Right now, my mind is conjuring the soft-faced South Dakotan grinning wryly at his miserable buddies doing jumping jacks in the rain while he trots off to get his get-out-of-gymnastics card punched by the base doctor. 
I'll tell you what I'd do - if I knew the die was cast that I'd be ordered to handle screwdrivers while my heart was in the sky, I'd feel condemned.  Darned right I'd ditch Drill!  
Yet, that visit to the doctor turned into a strange twist of fate.  It lead to a quick conversation with a surgeon who commented that the hernia could be repaired.  A two week recovery, 30 day leave and...maybe...just maybe...that 1B could be reclassified and maybe, just maybe...
Of course you saw what-happened-next coming.   Notice the type under my artwork that reads, "...as flown by Don Erickson."   Equipped with his born-in sense of determination and maybe even a skill or two picked up via Teletype Repair Training, Don went on to make the highest selection-cuts of all and graduate to flying fighters.
Don's story is - to me - the classic American story of what happens when the individual is free to move freely within the confines of destiny.   Great societies and bold works happen when individuals are strong enough to question the system and follow their own compass in order...well, to form a more perfect union.

Don, you're anything BUT "Nothing much" to me.  You're an ordinary example of how it's done.

PS - I almost forgot to mention that Don was Class 44A's highest scoring pilot in aerobatics.  He put this skill to good use when after WW2, he joined Congressional Medal of Honor holder Joe Foss's fledgling South Dakota Air National Guard.    While with the SDANG, Don flew aerobatic displays at airshows.  However, he "settled down" and became the Warden of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. I am grateful to the Erickson family for their help in getting this project put together and completed and look forward to hearing of a wonderful time at Don's upcoming 90th birthday.  

PSS - note to self;  Ask Don if he ever repaired the Squadron's teletype.