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Double vision: New horrors, honors of war come home to veteran
World War II veteran gets shock, surprise as academics and governments recall warHolly Wenzel
It’s been nearly 70 years since North St. Paul resident Ellsworth Erickson returned home from the European Theater of World War II.
But, in just the last six months, the long arm of the world’s deadliest conflict reached out to the 89-year-old and shook what he thought he knew and felt about his service to their foundations.
At an address at the North St. Paul Historical Society Museum last March, the former art teacher and lifelong North St. Paul booster described his “job” in the Army, working with what at the time was cutting-edge photographic technology.
Erickson said he tried not to dwell on the fact his work in aerial reconnaissance helped Allied bombers to carry out missions that sometimes killed civilians and troops beyond just destroying munitions centers or suspected command headquarters.
“I felt honored to have the job I did. I’m not proud of helping to kill Nazis, but I am proud of my work in that it helped save our soldiers.”
That was the thought he hung onto as six intervening decades and various new wars and “conflicts” with controversial beginnings and unclear objectives came and went.
At least his war, in most accounts, was a “good” war. At least his job, on balance, helped bring it to an end and saved lives.
At the time of the museum talk, Erickson was looking forward eagerly to receiving a copy of “Spies in the Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence During World War II.” He anticipated British author Taylor Downing’s research would fill in gaps in his understanding of his role in the war, as well as shed new light on other facets of the overall operation.
As Erickson paged through the book, though, he was transfixed by one of the descriptions under what looked like a typical aerial-reconnaissance photo.
“Auschwitz-Birkenau camp photographed by accident on 23 August 1944,” the caption reads. “The camp was working at full stretch and smoke rises from an open pit on the left where bodies are being burned. This photo was just filed away in 1944 and not rediscovered until 1979.”
Erickson checked his memory against the timing and his heart sank. “The photos taken over that area were sent back to San Severo, a little town in Italy, at the time. That’s where I was working during that month.
“I must have processed them and not realized it.”
He explains that “photographed by accident” means the pilot who activated the cameras had been flying over a different target; the cameras merely captured this image at the far margin of the target area.
As he processed film, Erickson says, he might have noticed what looked like “a camp,” but at the time, the Nazis were operating everything from camps with factory workers to youth indoctrination camps.
Although he wasn’t personally charged with interpreting the photos — the analysts in England had that job and had even been told to build models of the objects in the photos if they had any doubt of their contents — Erickson was devastated that the image had passed through his hands.
“Off to the side, you can see a train that’s pulling up, and now, of course, we know what it contained. I just felt terrible seeing that. It feels like a blot to the whole operation.”
‘No one was looking’
Contacted by the Review for his take on ramifications of the photograph and Erickson’s reaction, author Downing wrote, “Ellsworth Erickson should feel no remorse or guilt about failing to spot the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. As a photo developer it was not his job to identify what was on the images. This was a complex science developed by the RAF in the UK.
“As I describe in my book, Europe was littered with camps at the time and it was not easy to tell one from another. No one in the summer of 1944 was looking for gas chambers or burial ovens.”
Indeed, Sky Spies and other accounts note that reports of rounding up civilians and transporting them to death camps started reaching the Allies in 1942 — the first camp built had been the initial phase of Auschwitz early that year.
However, despite increasing numbers of accounts including testimony from escaped prisoners and finally formal appeals from the Jewish Agency in July 1944, the Allies didn’t believe the reports. For one thing, officials argued, any aircraft sent to bomb railyards feeding the camps would have to be diverted from other, more crucial missions — at the time, the Allies had hardly expanded their invasion from the Normandy beachhead, and London was still being bombed nightly. That made tracking down bomb-launching sites the priority.
For another, Downing writes in Sky Spies, “officials found it hard to imagine that even the brutal and evil Nazi regime could undertake crimes of such appalling proportions.”
It was while such discussions were going back and forth between Winston Churchill, the British Air Ministry and the U.S. War Department that the “accidental” shot of Auschwitz-Birkenau was likely developed in 20-year-old Erickson’s tent darkroom outside San Severo, Italy.
Downing writes in the book that a train is clearly unloading its human cargo in the photograph. “Jews are being separated and a line of people are being led to the gas chambers... (which) are identifiable by the vents in the roof.”
“In retrospect, this appears to be almost criminally negligent,” Downing continues in the book. “But this is to read back into events only what became fully clear in hindsight.” Though this “certainly was not one of their proudest chapters in the war,” the photo interpreters were never instructed to look for death camps and certainly weren’t the officials receiving and discounting the reports.
Over several months, Erickson reflected on the revelation.
“I have to remember interpreting those photos wasn’t my job. It should have been picked up by interpreters, but they, too, were sometimes working 12-hour days,” he recalled.
“And really, no one thought Hitler would stoop to that; we had no idea he’d go that far.”
Then, in October, Erickson received a heartening surprise — a package from the French Consulat General in Chicago.
“It is a great honor and privilege to present you with the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal,” the consul wrote. “Through this award, the French government pays tribute to the soldiers who did so much for France and Western Europe.
“More than 65 years ago, you gave your youth to France and the French people. Many of your fellow soldiers did not return, but they remain in our hearts.”
Thanks to your courage... France has been living in peace for the past six decades. You saved us and we will never forget. For us, the French people, you are heroes. Gratitude and remembrance are forever in our souls.”
The Legion of Honor medal was created by Napoleon, “and is the highest honor that France can bestow on those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France.”
As well as being a great honor, the medal has reminded Erickson of the many people who were saved during the war.
“I was just 19 when I was over there, and at the time, I didn’t have a real understanding of the scope of it — how many millions died, including civilians.
“When I was so young, I just didn’t realize as much, but I did as I got older. And the things that are still happening — the book, the medal — we’re still finding out more even though it was so long ago.”
It’s been a rough year for Erickson, who’ll turn 90 in February. “This old heart can’t take much more of this sort of thing,” he quips.
But he can again read the letter sent to all members of the Mediterranean Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Wing and signed by his adored commander, Col. Polifka, with a sense of pride in his part of the mission.
Polifka wrote: “By your work you have saved the lives of countless thousands of your comrades in the lines and speeded the final victory.”
Holly Wenzel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How Erickson got his birds-eye view of WWIIHolly Wenzel
Guests packed the North St. Paul Historical Society Museum last spring for an ever-rarer opportunity to hear from Ellsworth Erickson about his bird’s-eye view of the European theater.
His family, from children through grandchildren, lent a hand to scan photos and create PowerPoint presentations so others could hear firsthand accounts of the most pivotal clash in the 20th century.
Still wet behind the ears
Erickson was himself a high-school student, busy with a part-time job and classwork at North St. Paul High School, when he was drafted in 1943.
“I would have enlisted before that, but North St. Paul High School offered an aeronautics class to seniors. I wanted to be a pilot, so I stayed in school to take it.”
As classmates got called up, Erickson, Joe Sherman and Dick Neumann tore a dollar bill in thirds, promising to ‘reunite’ the bill after the war.
Only Erickson and Sherman made it back home to meet again.
Erickson arrived at Fort Snelling and says he felt honored to be picked out by a drill sergeant to “police the area.” Any basic-training alum from any era of the U.S. Army could probably have told the 19-year-old he wasn’t being selected for guard duty but to pick up cigarette butts and trash on the grounds.
Undeterred, Erickson pursued his quest to make sure he got into aviation training.
As a teen accustomed to working with adults, he simply decided to tackle the problem as he would with a principal or employer back home. That things might be different for a draftee didn’t occur to him.
“So I asked someone to take me to the commanding officer,” he recalls. “That was just crazy — there were thousands of us there and they were sending men out left and right. But lo and behold, someone took me.”
Erickson was somewhat stymied at the reception he got, but he stuck to his message. “Looking back, I bet no one ever asked to do that before — I was probably the only one naive enough to do it. He just listened and didn’t say a word as I explained that I had taken this course in high school and wanted very badly to be a pilot. He was still silent when I gave him my serial number and my name, so I gave it to him twice and then I just left.”
Something about the gangly teen’s poise must have impressed the commander, because his parents got a call the next day to tell them Erickson was going into the Air Corps.
A few months later, PFC Erickson had graduated in a class of 40 from the Air Force Technical Photography School. But when it came time for the group to be shipped overseas — in time to record the surprise D-Day invasion — Air Corps bureaucracy decreed that Erickson had to take another course.
That red tape kept him from being aboard a ship that was bombed en route to Italy. Erickson would certainly have perished with the rest of his photo-school classmates.
Erickson was assigned to the Third Reconnaissance Photo Group working from coastal France through Italy. As the U.S. and its allies made inroads in enemy territory, the photo group’s reconnaissance flew missions before them, using cameras mounted on the planes to pinpoint armed strongholds, war manufacturing centers, transportation hubs and other likely bombing targets.
After a bombing raid, the planes would fly out again to assess the damage.
Unlike the bombers, though, they were unescorted and not even armed with bombs, because the camera equipment was so heavy.
Erickson had been trained Stateside to ride along in the F-5 (the photo-reconnaissance version of the P-38 Mustang, taking his own photos. Fortunately, by the time troops hit the beaches on D-Day, the process had been honed so the pilot could shoot the photos.
The films came in pairs — from cameras mounted in two different locations on the plane. This led to a crude early-3D viewpoint, so film readers could “see” new construction, bunkers, munitions factories or the flat profile of camouflage that might be hiding secret operations.
Other reconnaissance missions documented the locations of cultural treasures. Erickson explained that the repercussions of leveling a centuries-old cathedral or museum would have met with such international outrage — even in the midst of a world war — that both sides avoided those sites if they could.
As proof, he showed the audience virtually indistinguishable 1944 and present-day aerial views of Vatican City, with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica casting its shadow as it has since 1590.
Seeing history — in negatives
Erickson’s job was to develop the films that came back from these missions. In his darkroom, which might be set up in a captured building that once housed Nazi commanders or in a tent along a dirt road, Erickson would develop the film that came back from dangerous aerial sorties over the continent.
Erickson revered two of the pilots: Col. Elliott Roosevelt, son of the U.S. President and chief pilot, and Col. Karl Polifka, commander. Polifka served from 1938 to 1951, flying missions over the European and Pacific theaters in World War II and going on to service in the Korean War, where his plane — another P-5 twin-fuselage — was shot down. “I heard that witnesses on the ground saw him eject from the plane and try to deploy his parachute, but it caught on one of those fuselages and he went down with it,” Erickson says.
As they were developing film, Erickson and the other members of the photo development teams could see the 3D in the images by employing a sort of “thousand-yard stare” and holding the developed photos at arm’s length. But, since their job was to develop the films and pass them on to England, they rarely had the time or equipment to study the images closely.
Although their darkrooms were set up behind the front, the photo group didn’t feel particularly safe. “They housed us pretty close to the line, and the enemy knew we were key to setting their efforts back. If they knew where our operation was located, we’d certainly be a target,” Erickson recalls. “In one town, we slept and set up our equipment in a building that had a Nazi swastika painted on it and a message in German that translated to ‘We will return.’”
The 13th set of prints
The amazing accuracy of the cameras is visible in a reconnaissance photo of a suspected Nazi command center, right down to a supply truck parked in front of an outbuilding. Another shot reveals treacherous submarine nets — mined to go off if they’re touched — ringing the entrance to a harbor.
“Now they do this reconnaissance with satellites, but even then they can’t do it in 3D like we did,” Erickson says with a twinkle. “But they say they can read license plates from space, so I’ll admit that’s pretty good.”
Erickson was the chief film developer, working out of a tent darkroom in Italy, when he received one of the most secret assignments he’d had — to develop film taken surreptitiously by an agent who’d smuggled it out of Milan. After promising a commander he wouldn’t let anyone else know about or see the photos, Erickson developed the film. In it, crowds gather to see Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s body hanging upside down from a scaffold. Next to him dangle his mistress and his henchmen. Below, men hose the blood off the pavement.
Erickson stretched his promise a little — he developed a set of the historical prints and smuggled them home. “They wanted 12 sets of prints, so I made 13.”
Throughout the war, Erickson says he “was just too young” to really understand the peril he was in. He did, however, appreciate that he could in some way help the soldiers on the ground and sailors aboard ship.
“I’m not proud of helping to kill Nazis, but I am proud of my work in that it helped save our soldiers,” he says. “I was in a different position than those poor kids who had to land, but they used our intelligence to help them.”
Erickson didn’t escape injury, and at one point he ended up in an infantry hospital with a life-threatening hepatitis infection. “They flew me down in a hospital personnel carrier after someone noticed the whites of my eyes were yellow, I was so jaundiced.”
A few months after the Allies declared victory in Europe, Erickson was headed to the U.S. across the Atlantic, en route to the Pacific theater. This time, he was slated to be a combat photographer traveling with the front lines in a planned land invasion of Japan.
“We learned of the (atomic) bombs being dropped on Japan the second or third day out,” Erickson recalls. “I felt terrible about all those civilian lives lost, but I was relieved not to have to go in with the ground invasion. What with carrying that 4 x 5 camera and the rest of the gear, I probably would have had a life expectancy of about 5 minutes.”
Though Erickson has done well maintaining his health — he’s an avid walker — the war has taken a slight toll. Within the last year he’s gone through surgery to remove ulcerated portions of his esophagus.
With his typical optimism and understatement, Erickson says, “I think I started developing that when I started having an acid stomach over in Europe. It was a little bit stressful there.”
Erickson was able to visit the World War II memorial in Washington D.C. during the past year, traveling with his sons Kurt and Kent.
The trio soon realized their visit — Erickson was clad in his World War II veteran’s cap — had added another dimension to the exhibit.
“He was like a circus attraction!” Kurt recalls. “People kept coming up and asking ‘Can my son have his picture taken with you?’ or ‘Were you really in the war?’”
“It was like I was a Neanderthal walking into a modern city,” Erickson says. “People were just so pleased and I got more hugs, even from folks in the service. One Marine guy, he just couldn’t get over it. To many folks it’s ancient history.”
While at the memorial, he left his victory medals in honor of three North St. Paulites who didn’t survive the war — Richard Neumann, Eldon Kuehn and Richard Notebaart.
Erickson looks back on the loss of young lives and says he’s just glad to have had a chance to help save some of them. “Even though I was just a kid, if you had knowledge or talents, you could contribute to the effort.”
He finds particularly prophetic a quote attributed to a German military expert speaking in the 1930s: “He said, ‘The country with the most effective photo-intelligence will win the next war.’”
Holly Wenzel can be reached at email@example.com.