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St. Helena’s Newell Erickson tells MASH war stories
They Served With Honor

St. Helena’s Newell Erickson tells MASH war stories

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When asked to be interviewed about his war service, nearly the first thing that Silverado Orchards resident Newell Erickson said was “I don’t have too many war stories to tell.”

Turns out he was wrong.

Newell Erickson

When asked to talk about his war stories, St. Helenan Newell Erickson says he doesn't have too many to tell, then spends the next 45 minutes telling his stories, many with great laughter.

In 1952, the U.S. Army drafted Erickson, who turns 89 this month, and he ended up spending 14 months in Korea, first driving an ambulance and then serving at a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit. “I turned 21 in Korea,” he said, laughing and talking on an outside concrete patio, adjacent to his room. “What a heck of a way to celebrate a birthday.”

He didn’t like driving an ambulance, because it was “a moving target” with a big red cross in the center of a big white circle. The symbols were on both sides of the ambulance and on the top – “so the planes could tell what they were bombing.” The Army “wouldn’t let us paint over” the symbol, “because that was destroying government property,” he said, so, they smeared mud on the sides, making the ambulances less of a target for the Chinese and North Koreans.

At the MASH unit, Erickson’s job was in Admissions and Dispositions, a job now called “triage.” Erickson said, “My job was to decide who needed attention and who was beyond attention. That was a tough job, to decide who lives or who dies. I didn’t care for it too much. But that’s what I did.”

After basic training in Virginia, Erickson took his medical training at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Although he was trained as a surgical technician, he said he “never saw the inside of a surgery.”

Mother Dunn

At the MASH unit, nurses also served, just like in the well-known television program. “There was a lot of hanky-panky going on,” Erickson added. Showers were taken in separate tents – one for the nurses and one for the GIs. “Somehow or other, and I have no idea how, I didn’t have anything to do with this,” Erickson said, nearly 60 years after the fact, “there was a hole in the nurses’ shower room tent. And the guys were lining up to take a peek. It was ridiculous,” he said, adding, “The entertainment was pretty sparse there.”

Newell Erickson plays guitar in Korea

Newell Erickson plays a guitar when he was a soldier in Korea. He is not a left-handed guitar player, the negative was flipped when it was printed.

“Most of the nurses were pretty nice,” including an older nurse, whose last name was Dunn. She was a lieutenant colonel and in charge. “We called her Mother Dunn — she looked after all of us young kids, kept watch on us and got a kick out” the nickname.

The U.S. Army used Sikorsky helicopters to transport patients, each strapped to a skid. There was a plastic canopy that went over the litters – “so they wouldn’t get the blast of the rotor blades in their faces,” Erickson said. “They were a lifesaver in the wintertime, because the helicopters would come in and they’d have what we called chopper bags” – a huge down sleeping bag – covering the person and the litter. When the helicopters left, they’d leave the chopper bags, “because sometimes they’d be bloody,” Erickson said. The ground crew used to take the bags and wash them. “I think we’d have frozen to death if it hadn’t been for those bags. We put our sleeping bags right inside of them,” he added.

Eight GIs slept in a large tent, with space heaters at each end, fueled with diesel oil. Erickson remembers a time that was so cold – 40 degrees below zero — that the diesel fuel was frozen and wouldn’t flow into the heaters. “I thought we were going to freeze to death,” he said. They wrapped rags around a coat hanger and lit the rags to thaw out the lines.

USO tour offers entertainment in Korea

USO (United Service Organizations) tours provided entertainment for the American soldiers serving in Korea. In the background is an ambulance like the one that Newell Erickson drove.

The MASH unit was at Inge Pass, high in altitude and about 40 miles north of the 38th Parallel. “I know it was cold up there, we were in the mountains,” the St. Helenan said.

Hot chow

Time for a couple more war stories? Yeah, sure, why not? After all, Newell said he doesn’t have too many, clearly a fib. As he was remembering his stories, his eyes would light up, he’d squint and then he’d laugh while telling the tale.

“Every once in a while, they’d bring the kitchen trucks up and they’d cook us a hot meal.” The GIs would line up, under camouflage nets, waiting for “this hot chow.” Now, this was a big deal, because Erickson said they lived on cold C and K rations.

Only one problem – “There was a stinking little plane that used to come over … they knew exactly when we’d form up for our hot meal and they’d drop a hand grenade or some small explosive. Everybody would scramble and the food would go everywhere.”

Erickson was in line and, he said, “I got some shrapnel in my rear end, just a tiny little bit and it did more damage taking it out then going in. I thought sure I was going to die right there, because it burned like heck.” He adds he has some scars to prove it.

Moving MASH

Another time, Erickson said he remembers when the Chinese entered the war and orders came down to move the MASH unit to a safer location – they were about to be overrun. “So they loaded everything up in a convoy” and headed to South Korea. “Of course our truck broke down. The convoy didn’t stop, they just kept going. They did call on a walkie-talkie to get another truck to come up,” he said.

Newell Erickson

Newell Erickson is a resident of Silverado Orchards on Pope Street in St. Helena. He served in the U.S. Army for five years, beginning in 1950 and spent 14 months in Korea.

There they were, two drivers and two GIs with a loaded down truck, pulling an equally loaded trailer. “We’re sitting out in the middle of no man’s land,” Erickson said, but while they were waiting, they discovered they had the officers club on their truck, and it included a keg of brandy dates. You can imagine what happened next and Erickson said, “We weren’t feeling any pain.”

The second truck arrived and soon was loaded. “We took off and didn’t know where the convoy went. We headed down the road,” he said. They passed a group of MPs, who were waving, “We just waved back and kept on going.” Another half-mile, they stopped because the road was blown up and was just rubble. “We couldn’t get through, we were pulling a trailer and we spent the night there,” Erickson said. The next morning, one of the GIs got out to find fresh water and another GI popped out of a foxhole with a question: “Are you crazy, you’re right in the middle of a battle zone!”

Erickson said daylight came, an airplane flew over and shot rockets at the truck. “They missed, thank goodness. They hit the bank, probably 100 yards above the truck and all the rubble came down.” The driver’s eyes “got as big as saucers” and Erickson said he never saw anybody turn a truck around as fast as he did. It took the four men to unhook the trailer and push it out of the way, and then hook it back up again. “We finally caught up with the convoy, because the MPs knew where it was and they told us where to go.”

Susan and Newell Erickson

Susan Erickson and her son, Newell, share some time while he is on leave from the U.S. Army. At the time, Erickson said he drove a 1939 Lincoln Zephyr.

That experience of spending 14 months in Korea wasn’t fun, but Erickson said, “We made it. It’s funny because when you’re young, you don’t worry too much about those things. You’re immortal. We weren’t terribly scared even then, because when you’re young, you don’t know any better.”

Overall about his service in Korea, Erickson said, “It was an experience that I’m glad I had, but I sure didn’t want to go when I first got my orders.” His first thought was that he was never coming back, but “everything worked out OK.” The Korean War was from June 1950 to July 1953.

Married, with kids

After leaving the service in 1954, Erickson said he got married “like a fool” in 1955 and their first child was born a year later. “We didn’t want to wait. He who hesitates is lost,” he adds.

Newell and his wife, Kay, had two girls and a boy, not included a baby that died at 30 months. Today, his son has spent 30-some years teaching conversational English to executives in Korea.

After his war service, Erickson said, “Not much happened after that … all I did was worked and raised kids.” He dug ditches for a while, shingled roofs for several years in Lincoln, Nebraska, and during the winter, he and a friend shoveled snow in the ritzy part of town. “We made more money shoveling snow than we did working, because as soon as the snow fell, someone would call us and because we had a regular route, people knew we’d be there,” Erickson said.

In the roofing business, he thought he was making pretty good money, $1.45 an hour, and he got up to $1.75 an hour before he quit.

Erickson split up with his first wife and ended up meeting and marrying Sharon at Pacific Union College. “I knew her for 35 years,” he said, and they were married for 31 years. Sharon passed away last November. Erickson’s last job was running the commercial laundry at PUC, which he did for 24 years, until he retired in 1997. “We did five hospitals and all the hotels from Calistoga to Napa. We had a big operation going there,” he said.

The commercial laundry was right across from the PUC church, in the boiler plant, which is where they got the steam.

Growing up

Nels and Susan Erickson

Nels and Susan Erickson were Newell Erickson's parents. Nels was born in Sweden in 1882.

Erickson was born in 1931 and grew up on a farm on South Dakota. His parents, Nels and Susan Erickson, were sharecroppers. They farmed with horses … no tractors … and Newell’s oldest sister, 12 years older, “worked like a hired man around the farm,” he said. “She would help my Dad go out and harness the horses, so they would go out and do the work in the field. And when they came home, she’d help Dad unharness the horses and rub them down.”

When he was 6 years old, his sister taught him to milk the cows. “It didn’t hurt me any, because I’m still here,” he said with a laugh. At one time, the family had 22 cows, which were milked twice a day.

The farm was a mile from the town of Unityville, which had a population of 60, which, according to Erickson, includes the dogs and cats. “The only thing they had was a garage, grocery store and grain elevator.”

When Newell was 15, the farm was sold and the family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where his two older sisters were renting a house. Nels, Susan, Newell and his younger brother moved into an upstairs apartment, while the two sisters lived downstairs.

It was really primitive, Erickson said, no electricity, no running water and no indoor bathroom, although there was “an outhouse we had to use. It wasn’t fun in the winter time, because it got pretty cold there.”

In 1950, he graduated from high school in Salem, South Dakota, which he says, “We thought it was a big town, but it was only 1,882 people.” After high school, he went to work in Kansas and spent half a semester in college, when he ran out of money. “That’s when I got my draft notice, almost immediately.”

Watch Now: Veteran Newell Erickson discusses his service in Korea

You may reach David Stoneberg at 967-6800 or editor@sthelenastar.com

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star and The Weekly Calistogan.

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