It’s a designation that William H. Erick, even at 87 years old, will never forget.
The eight numbers and three letters represent the Army Serial Number on the dog tags he wore fighting his way across Europe.
“France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. If we were caught, the only thing we were permitted to say to the enemy was our name, rank and serial number,” said Erick, who is forever grateful he was spared the hardships of becoming a World War II prisoner of war.
And in the decades since then, even after suffering a major heart attack doctors said should have killed him last January, Erick remains full of life and quick to offer a laugh.
When asked what his rank was in the Army, he said, “Pfc., personal friend of the colonel.”
Though, he adds, there is really nothing funny about war.
“I’m glad I went through it, but I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through it.”
At 18 and just graduated from Angola High School, now Lake Shore High School, he attempted to enlist in the Navy but was told he was color blind and disqualified.
“I wanted to go in the Navy because my dad was in the Navy in World War I,” Erick said. “The recruiters told me to sit tight. I would soon be drafted.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
As an Army infantry replacement, Erick officially entered the war in August 1944 when he landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, serving with the 30th Infantry, 119th Regiment, 1st Battalion, Headquarters Company, Communications Unit, Radio Section.
It’s a mouthful, but like his serial number, Erick has never forgotten it.
Nor has he forgotten certain images.
“It wakes you up when you go to the top of the hill at Normandy Beach, and you see acres and acres of white crosses. You know you’re in for something.”
He describes the battle at Saint-Lô in France as the “door” that would open the rest of Europe to Allied Forces.
“American planes dropped small smoke bombs to mark where the front lines were. The reason they did that was to carry out saturated bombings. That was to help with the breakthrough. There was only one problem: The smoke drifted over our lines and when the bombers from Britain came, they dropped some of their bomb loads short and killed many of our own people.”
Erick said he watched helplessly as “friendly fire” took a toll on his comrades.
But when the smoke finally cleared, the Americans had succeeded in pushing the Germans out of Saint-Lô.
“When we went through Saint-Lô, it was absolutely flat. I don’t think there were two bricks left together. That was our breakthrough. We opened a door for Gen. [George S.] Patton’s Third Army to go through.”
As Erick’s unit progressed through France, he said, “We took a lot of prisoners and bypassed a lot of Germans. There were as many Germans behind us as there were in front of us.”
At the Siegfried Line, a heavily fortified area held by the enemy, he said, “The only way you got the Germans out of their block houses, which were pretty near bomb-proof, was to bomb them with white phosphorus bombs. If a drop of it hit your skin, it would burn you awful.”
He believes they could have broken through the Siegfried Line if they had been properly equipped.
“Two things happened: We ran out of gas from the supply lines. They couldn’t get it to us fast enough. We moved too fast. If we had had enough gasoline, we could have walked through the Siegfried Line. We beat most of the Germans. But without gasoline, the Germans had time to build up the line.”
Erick’s memories are many, and he enjoys recalling some that have a trace of humor.
“In a hedgerow in France, one of our radio operators was walking behind the row and just the top of his antenna was showing. The Germans must have had their binoculars. An 88-millimeter gun of theirs let go. It hit the top of the antenna and radio and knocked the radio operator ass over tea cart, but he was never scratched. The shot tore the radio right off his back.”
The Germans, he added, were relentless with their 88-millimeters at different crossroads, but he was wounded only once.
“Much later in the war, I got nicked in the rear end,” he said. “I took a lot of heat for that. I got kidded for getting hit in the rear. I still have that piece of shrapnel. I put it in a tiny Dutch shoe, a souvenir from Holland. A Dutch girl gave me the shoe.”
He says he never filed the paperwork for a Purple Heart.
“I was too scared to see the medics when I was hit, because enemy fire was so intense,” he said, and afterward, he never got around to pursuing the medal.
Another amusing incident occurred when he and fellow troops sought a place to sleep.
“We climbed into a barn at night. There was hay in it, and we were going to get a good sleep in that hay. I wound up beside a pig pen with a big pig in it that was snorting the whole night, and I couldn’t sleep, but it kept me warm. The next day when we woke up, we found out we had company.
“There were Germans in the barn. They woke up about the same time we woke up. Everybody bailed out of both ends of the barn. There was no fighting that time. We were just getting the hell out of each others’ way.”
And while he was able to maintain a sense of humor throughout the war, he said, death was everywhere.
“At one terrible battle scene in France, I was asked to help carry the dead off the field. We carried both Americans and Germans. A French girl came along and spit on a German corpse and then put flowers on an American corpse. One of the most terrible sights I saw was the great big Belgian work horses killed from strafing and bombings. The horses would be laying everywhere, and after the bombing, civilians would come out with carving knives and take away great big chunks of horse meat. The people were starving.”
He also recalls the Battle of the Bulge and how cold it was. “That’s when we got the Presidential Unit Citation. We fought Hermann Goering’s SS Division and stopped them cold.”
When Erick finally made it back home at 20 years old, he said, he was more than glad to be in Angola.
“Oh, boy. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry,” he said. “I was home, and yet I could not vote or go into a bar and get a drink. You had to be 21.”
In time, he found work in the banking industry, working his way up from a teller to a loan officer and retiring after 31 years.
And though he now lives at the Pines of Machias and needs oxygen around the clock, he says he feels good and right at home. “They treat me well.”
Erick also does not have far to look when he wants to recall his days as a warrior.
“All my medals are in a picture frame on the wall beside my bed.”
William H. Erick, 87
Residence: Arcade and now Machias
Rank: Private first class
War zone: World War II, European theater
Years of service: Drafted September 1943 - December 1945
Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, Presidential Unit Citation, European Theater Medal With four battle stars
Specialty: Infantry, radio operator