In 1939, Walter Ericsson and six other baseball players from Stamford traveled up to Cooperstown, N.Y., to try out for an all-American baseball team. Out of the roughly 10 dozen men who showed off their skills in baseball's hometown, Ericsson, a pitcher, was among the three Stamfordites who made the final team. The 14 young men on the team then packed up and headed to Havannah, Cuba, to play ball for a month.
"In 1939, that's when Hitler began the war with his invasion of Poland," Ericsson said on Tuesday. "But while we were down there playing ball, that was the furthest thing from our mind: Hitler and Poland.
"Though maybe it should have been on our minds, said Ericsson, who will serve as Grand Marshal of Darien's Memorial Day parade on Monday.
A little more than two years later, Ericsson signed up to join the armed forces, where he would serve four years, one month and 11 days in the U.S. Army Air Corp. His draft number had been called up previously, but he had been granted an exemption for his work in Chicago. As the exemption came near its end, Ericsson decided to enlist himself so he could choose which branch to enter into.
"While I was in Chicago, there was a [Air Corp] group training at an airport there and I thought it would be a good fit for me," he said. He headed off to Biloxi, Miss., for air mechanic school. After 12 weeks of training, he was certified to become an instructor, and stayed in Mississippi for another year.
"After that, I wanted to get in where the action was," he said. So he was sent across the earth to serve with the China-India-Burma Theater in India. Once there, he was assigned to work as a propeller specialist on C-46s, small cargo planes, which the army used to fly supplies to troops in areas that could not be reached by land.
"The Japanese had cut off the Burma Road, and the troops had to be supplied by air, so we were trained for that operation," he said. His group was made up of four squadrons of 25 planes each.
The C-46 planes were an interesting piece of machinery to work with on a daily basis, he said.
"That particular plane wasn't even on the drawing board when the war started," he said. "They hadn't worked out all the bugs on it, and they needed a lot of maintenance."
Most of Ericsson's work took place on the ground, operating on the plane's propellers, but he did find himself airborne on several occasions. The planes were typically operated by a four-man crew, who flew over "The Hump" -- the name given to the area over Mt. Everest and other parts of the Himalayas by military men during the War -- but Ericsson accompanied some missions that went over less extreme portions of the route.
"I flew over part of The Hump. In the lower mountains going into Burma, but not over Everest," he said. "But every time you went up in a C-46, you kept your fingers crossed."
Weather was another concern.
"When you're flying over Mt. Everest, the weather is always risky and changeable. We used to call it the `aluminum trail' for the number of planes that didn't make it," he said. Even on trips that skirted around the massive mountain, crews had to be wary of monsoons and muddy conditions, which could make it near impossible to land. In such conditions, the air units would drop cargo and supplies for ground soldiers out of the planes instead of making a landing. Ericsson remained at his location for 14 months. After VE Day, he was deployed to East China to prepare for invasion of the Japanese Islands. He and his troop remained overseas to continue bringing supplies to other soldiers who were still stationed in the area. He returned to New York Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1945, when he was brought to Fort Dix in Northern New Jersey.
"I hitchhiked home to Stamford, and got home just in time for Christmas dinner," he said. The following day he returned to Fort Dix, and was discharged four days later.
Being home for Christmas was especially important for him that year, he said.
"My older brother got out of the service before I did," he said.
His younger brother volunteered to join the Navy, and was assigned to a Destroyer, which was sunk in the Mediterranean. Ericsson's brother was 20 years old when he was lost at sea, and had been in the service for less than a year.
"It was a comfort to my parents that my older brother and I were home OK," he said.
Memorial Day is aptly named, Ericsson said.
"It's an honor for me to be in this parade, especially if I look at it as a memorial to my brother who was lost," he said. "It's important to memorialize those we lost. And knowing what a lot of veterans went through, having a Memorial Day is the way it should be."
Ericsson is 91 now, but was 22 when he began serving his country.
"There were so many young people who were just beginning their lives," he said. "Back then, we were out of the Depression era. When you went through school and got out, it wasn't a question of which college you were going to. It was about pounding the pavement to find some way to make some money. A lot of men went into the service to do that, and they didn't come back home."
Ericsson said he is honored to serve as the Grand Marshall in Darien's Memorial Day Parade.