After clambering off a dusty truck in December, 1942, Reynold Erickson was among a large group of soldiers who set about erecting tents in the cold desert near Yuma, Ariz., at a place called Pilot Knob. Far away from his home in Wisconsin, he was visiting the vast desert of the southwest for the first time.
Some of the soldiers wandered off to a nearby road of planks which headed toward sand dunes glistening in the far distance. They returned again later with trucks, which they loaded with sections of heavy wood planks which formed the road. They had discovered the sections of planks were the perfect size for the floor of their olive drab canvas tents. Later, the unit's officers ordered the men to return the planks, for they formed part of a historic and only recently abandoned roadway.
Only 22 years of age, Erickson was a high school science and mathematics teacher in Alden, Minn., when he received his draft notice. Though his superintendent appealed to the local draft board for him to be allowed to complete the school year, it was to no avail. In November, 1942, he completed the necessary physicals and departed from Fort Sheridan, Ill., aboard a troop train which delivered him to Indio, Calif.
"Our arrival there was completely unexpected by the folks in Indio," said Erickson. "We stayed there overnight, then boarded trucks the next morning. The trucks took us to a place called Knob Siding, near Yuma, but again we weren't expected. We set up camp there and waited for the unit to which we were assigned to show up. It did, after about ten days."
The 606th Tank Destroyer Battalion was in the Yuma area conducting maneuvers using World War I-era 75mm guns mounted on halftracks. The system was formally named the M3 75mm Gun Motor Carriage. Though highly maneuverable, the halftracks were too lightly armored for modern warfare and were later replaced with a newly designed vehicle more effective at defeating enemy tanks. Another weapon used by the battalion was the M6 37mm Gun Motor Carriage, which was a swivel mounted 37mm anti-tank gun mounted on a truck. Developed in the late 1930's to punch through the most common armor plate of the day, the 37mm gun had been badly overtaken by rapid advances in armor technology by 1942. German tankers derisively called it the "door knocker."
The first order of business for the novice soldiers was to undergo six weeks of basic training. Senior enlisted personnel took charge of the program, which included intensive drill in subjects like map reading, the maintenance of small arms, and the use of weapons. Subjects that didn't seem as important or urgent, such as close order drill, were glossed over.
As the recruits developed into hardened soldiers, one thing that always remained constant was that the food was both good and plentiful. With full credit going to the unit's mess sergeant, Erickson says meals were almost always prepared and served well. He especially remembers the sumptuous dinner served on Christmas day.
"We had a wonderful Christmas dinner, with turkey, dressing and all the trimmings," he said. "A dust storm came up, however, and clouds of fine dust and sand came down on everything. We carried our plates of food to our tents, where we tried to keep them covered to keep the dust off. I remember feeling the grit and tasting the flavor of the sand for days afterward."
Erickson remembers the job to which he was assigned as the unit prepared for upcoming maneuvers.
"I was a teacher before the war started and had earned a baccalaureate degree in college, so they made me a truck driver," he laughed. "I drove supply trucks, jeeps and command cars."
He remembers driving through the night in California's unfriendly Chocolate Mountains, convoying cross country as far north as Blythe. The temperature was always cool at night, but the afternoon heat sometimes got uncomfortable.
The unit moved to U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground's Camp Laguna in February, 1943, and stayed there until summer. In June, the 606th moved to Camp Cook, Calif., which was located on the Pacific Coast near Santa Barbara. He was sent overseas in March, 1945, as part of the 663rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, which saw action in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
"This was late in the war and we disarmed a lot of German troops," said Erickson. "We gathered truckloads of rifles and other military equipment."
Erickson had a brother who was also fighting in Europe. He was captured by advancing German troops during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944.
"The Germans were unprepared for the prisoners, so they just marched him and hundreds of others toward the Russian lines. When they neared the lines, the guards turned them around to march in the other direction," he explained. "Only about ten percent of the men survived."
"My brother was one of the lucky ones, for he lived. He went from 185 to 95 lbs, surviving on things like boiled grass and raw chicken. There were only a few Prussian guards and police dogs to watch the men, but anyone who didn't keep up was shot."
When peace was declared in Europe, Erickson's unit was sent back to the United States for transfer to the Pacific. While still in the U.S., the Japanese surrendered and the war ended. Erickson was mustered out of the Army and returned to teaching.
"I have to admit, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the desert around Yuma," he explained. "For me, it was new and different. I liked the mountains and discovered all sorts of desert life -- toads, cactus flowers in bloom, that sort of thing. We always slept under the stars, and I can remember writing a letter home in which I said I didn't know whether I could sleep inside a house again."
Erickson stated he didn't get to know the town of Yuma well during the war years, though he visited it several times. He says people tended to be friendly and he remembers taking a shower at the local high school. Large groups of soldiers were brought to various area towns on Saturday nights, such as El Centro, Brawley and Calexico.
"Soldiers walked around in droves on those Saturday nights," he smiled. "I would have thought that the locals would get sick of us, but they never did."
One order that restricted soldiers from Yuma restaurants during weekdays still causes Erickson to scratch his head in wonderment today.
"One day I went to a cafe for a cup of coffee with several officers after picking up steel cable at a mine near Castle Dome. After sitting down, the waitress told us she was sorry but that she couldn't serve us. We asked if she could give us cups of hot water, and she said 'sure.' We went outside to get some instant coffee, which we made and drank right there in the restaurant."
In the years since World War II, Erickson has passed through Yuma three times, but never for more than a few hours. In early February, 1999, he visited Camp Laguna for the first time since those wartime days so long ago. He came with his wife, Marian, at his side, who he married in 1953.
He generally kept his camera near at hand during his months in Southwest Arizona, and he has donated the photographs he took to the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground Heritage Center for public display. He diligently wrote letters home each week, which his mother saved and he has also donated to the center. In this way, he hopes to remind future generations of the sacrifices hundreds of thousands of Americans freely made during the 20th century's greatest conflict.