World War II vet turned dentist

March 21, 2012

Wayne Erickson can’t forget the sound of gunfire strafing the outside his cockpit or how he once flew a mission over France during which the cloud cover was so heavy a fellow pilot crashed into the Cliffs of Dover. 

Wayne Erickson can’t forget the sound of gunfire strafing the outside his cockpit or how he once flew a mission over France during which the cloud cover was so heavy a fellow pilot crashed into the Cliffs of Dover. 

Before taking off on a more than 40-year career as a dentist, Erickson flew fighter planes in World War II.  He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and completed a total of 42 missions  – 30 of which were flown before he turned 21.

Erickson was just 18 years old and had recently finished high school when he decided to enlist.

“In those days you were going to be drafted,” said Erickson, now 87 and living in Elmhurst, Ill. “joined the army air corps because I didn’t want to go into the infantry.”

Erickson was just 20 years old when he and other pilots crossed the Atlantic Ocean to join in the biggest fight of their lives. Erickson was stationed in 1944 at Wormingford Air Base in Essex, England

“We went over on a ship that was just smaller than the Queen Mary,” he recalled. “We did S curves to avoid (enemy) subs.”

Erickson was a member of the 55th Fighter Group which flew P-51 Mustangs to protect bombers on missions in the European theater. 

“We were the first planes that were able to go all the way to the targets,” said Erickson, adding that the planes would eject their gas tanks on the way back to England.

Twenty-seven of his fellow pilots in his squadron were killed in action, but the group was credited with destroying 940 locomotives and 585 enemy aircraft. During one especially heart-pounding mission, Erickson was returning from Germany and was unable to see the ground because of heavy cloud cover.

“When you’re flying blind like that you don’t know what’s beneath you,” he said.

Despite the dense fog, Erickson managed to land safely. Another pilot with whom he was flying was not so lucky. Erickson later learned that the airman had crashed into the Cliffs of Dover.  

Erickson named his plane “Mary Lou” in honor of his then girlfriend who, after the war, became his wife. They have been married for 65 years. Though wartime was far from easy, Erickson remembers having some good times while stationed in England. He and other pilots took trips into the country to purchase fresh eggs from farmers and took short leaves in London.

Returning to the U.S., Erickson planned to study aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, but, with the crush of returning soldiers, there was no housing available. He went to see his dentist and his career path took an entirely different course.

“I was getting my teeth fixed by an elderly dentist and he said, “Why don’t you go into dentistry?” said Erickson.

Soon Erickson enrolled at Loyola University. After graduating, he opened his practice in 1951 and has never regretted deciding to pursue a career in dentistry. He enjoyed meeting patients and, in the early days, liked doing a lot of his own lab work.

“I enjoyed working with my hands,” said Erickson, adding that he would use a Bunson burner, wax and other materials to do some lab work after-hours at home.

Erickson’s practice was taken over by his son Steven. The two worked together for about five years before Wayne retired.

“I learned a lot from him,” said Steven. “I learned how to treat people. It was a great experience working with him for five years and learning new and old ways, and hopefully the best ways.”

Looking back on his life, Erickson said no one should be fooled into thinking dentistry is a cushy career.

“Dentistry is hard work, and don’t’ let anyone tell you it isn’t,” he said.

Erickson recently was flown to Washington D.C. on a trip sponsored by the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization that honors veterans. According to the group’s website, about 1,000 elderly veterans of World War II die every day. The organization pays homage to them by sending them off and greeting them on return from their one-day trip with applause, bands and fanfare. They also are taken to see the World War II Memorial. 

“That was a very good experience,” said Erickson. “I never considered myself a hero, but you get done with that and you feel like a hero.”