Purple Heart Veteran, 82nd Airborne, WWII
In 1922, RALPH D. ERICKSON was born to parents of Swedish heritage in Benesford, South Dakota. At the age of nine, in order to survive the great Depression, his family moved to Sweden for a year and upon returning decided to start over in Chicago, Illinois, where his mother had been offered a nursing position. Erickson was very proud of his heritage, spoke fluent Swedish, and he grew up to be a big six-foot-one, blond headed athlete.
Erickson was on a swimming scholarship at the University of Southern California when the United States entered World War II. He immediately attempted to enlist in various branches of the military, but his vision was less than 20/20 and initially they would not accept him. Several months later, when the Army offered the Specialized Training Program, he enlisted on December 2, 1942 for training as a ski trooper. He had skied as a little boy and enjoyed the woods and mountains. On April 10, 1943 he reported in for active duty and was sent to Camp Hale, Colorado, home of the Army Mountain Training Center and the 10th Mountain Division.
During Basic Training, he was recognized for his abilities and appointed acting squad leader. Erickson wrote, “Immediately after basic training, we acting squad leaders and several others were detached and sent to NCO School, run by a West Point Captain. For months we lived in the mountains, attacked 11,000-foot mountain peaks at three in the morning, and learned all phases of being a Non Com. It was the most important military training that I received in the Army. In no way am I trying to denigrate the airborne training which was just as significant, but in a totally different manner.”
After completing training at Camp Hale, Sergeant Erickson shipped out for Europe in May 1944 and arrived on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was sent, upon request, to the 82nd Airborne Division and further assigned to the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the “Devils in Baggy Pants.” Thirty-four days after D-Day he arrived as a replacement in Second Platoon, Company E. He later said, “I don’t believe anyone, NCOs or Officers, were too happy to have a green Non Com arrive in the platoon.”
On September 17, 1944, Ralph Erickson made his first combat jump into Holland as Operation Market Garden began with the largest air assault operation in history. The 82nd Airborne Division Drop Zones were near Nijmegen, and a good dramatization of their actions are shown in the movie, “A Bridge Too Far.”
The division was moved into France following Operation Market Garden and next saw action when it was rushed forward to oppose the German advance in the St. Vith area at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. They were committed to action on December 17, 1944 and, except for a few short breaks, would remain in combat through to the end of the war in Europe.
By late March 1945, the Allied Armies had crossed over the Rhine River and were driving rapidly eastward into Germany, having swept past 300,000 German troops that were cut off and holding out in the “Rhur Pocket.” On April 2nd the 82nd Airborne Division took up positions along the Rhine River, sealing off the western side of the “Rhur Pocket,” and began launching aggressive patrols across the river. On April 4th, Sergeant Erickson was part of a 24-man patrol from Company E. He later wrote in letters home, “I was in the first boat – one of the fellows ran ten yards up the shore as soon as we were on the German side of the river, to cover us in case the Germans opened up fire. Well, he set off a mine and was blown up. Then we moved 50 yards down the river where the second boat landed. We were lined single file and started to move out on our mission. Someone set off another mine, which set off even more……only three or four survived……I did not have to go on this patrol, but all of my close friends were going on it and so I felt I should go seeing as there was a lot of boat work involved.”
He was severely wounded himself and evacuated to a general hospital. He was still hospitalized when the fighting ended for the paratroopers on May 21st with the surrender of the German 21st Army to the 82nd Airborne Division, in fact he would remain hospitalized for several more months after the war.
Sergeant Ralph Erickson shipped from Europe on December 10, 1945, having participated in the Normandy, Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe Campaigns. He arrived back in the United States on December 21st, was discharged from the Army at Camp Grant, Illinois on New Year’s Eve, 1945, and returned home to Chicago.
Following the war, he earned degrees from Northwestern University (Bachelor of Science in Physical Education in 1949, and Masters Degree in Education, Counseling and Guidance in 1953). Over three decades of coaching in Chicago area high schools and at Loyola University, Erickson led many swimming and water polo teams to championships. In 1966, he started the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, PADI, with the help of co-founder, John Cronin, and many professionals in that field today attribute their success to his guidance and instruction. Ralph wrote the scuba instructors book used in training, developed the course requirements for the 11 certification levels for professional divers and instructors, and wrote many articles on diving and water sports for trade journals and magazines. PADI has grown to be the largest dive training and instructor certification organization in the world, with over 130,000 members in 5,300 dive centers and resorts operating in 180 countries.
He has been recognized as a world-class leader in his professional field and was the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. In 1992 he was inducted into the Diving Equipment and Marketing Assn. (DEMA) Hall of Fame, and was that year’s recipient of DEMA’s “Reaching Out Award for Education.” In 2004 he received the “Our World Underwater” Achievement Award for his contributions to diving. On January 27, 2007, Ralph Erickson was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in Grand Cayman, the Cayman Islands.
Retired after a long career, he was an accomplished educator, writer, coach, waterman and veteran. And, as a husband, father and friend, his life influenced a community, a university, an organization and an industry. He died May 25, 2006 at home with his family.