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101-year-old Joe Erickson still remembers his time spent as WWII medic

101-year-old Joe Erickson worked as a medic alongside doctors and nurses 12 hours a day in tented hospital wards during World War II. In Belgium they were stationed within 30 miles of some battlefields.

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Joe Erickson, 101, shares stories from World War II at his grandson's home in Bemidji on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. He spent 38 months as a medic in Europe during the war. (Dennis Doeden / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- As a teenager, Joe Erickson cooked for loggers and joined a traveling carnival. Then he served his country in World War II. In retirement, after a career in paper mills, he served his fellow man by fixing roofs for people who couldn't afford the work.

And now, as Veterans Day approaches, the 101-year-old Joe reflects on his years of service.

"It's been a pretty good life," said Joe, who lives with his grandson and granddaughter-in-law in Bemidji. "Even when you can live this long. I've had good care."

And a sharp mind. "Pretty much yet," he said. "Now I forget a few things."

Joe was born on Nov. 29, 1919, and grew up at Indus, Minn., near International Falls. At age 15, he worked as a cook for a logging company, feeding five loggers and earning $5 a week. When he was 16, he went to work for the Royal America Show Carnival, assisting a woman who ran a ball toss game and a mouse guessing game. He did that for more than three years.

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The carnival was in New Orleans in 1940 when Joe received his draft notice to report for U.S. Army training at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities. He was 20 years old and World War II was raging in Europe.

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Joe Erickson was drafted into the U.S. Army at age 20 and served for four years, including 38 months in England, France and Belgium during World War II. Contributed

After a few months of training as a medic, Joe was shipped across the Atlantic for 38 months, first to England, then to France and finally to Belgium. He worked alongside doctors and nurses 12 hours a day in tented hospital wards, and in Belgium, they were stationed within 30 miles of some battlefields.

“It was really bad,” Joe said. “We were close to the battles. Not good. We took care of the fellows who were in the battles. At night you could hear the whole buzz bombs going over and over. One came close, and there was one nurse who got hurt bad. You had to watch what you were doing.”

Despite all that, one good thing came from Joe’s time in Europe. He met a nurse from Michigan named Bertha.

“We worked together for about a year in the hospital,” Joe said. “I just worked with her. We worked together pretty good.”

After the war ended and both completed their Army service, Joe got a phone call from Bertha.

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“So I went to Michigan and we were married,” he said.

Joe got a job at the Mando paper mill in International Falls, but his new wife couldn’t handle the cold in the unofficial Icebox of the Nation.

“We were there about a month,” Joe said. “It was in January. She walked about a block in town there and froze her legs. She said that was time enough. The next day we got together and went back to Michigan.”

Joe worked at the Sutherland Paper Company in Kalamazoo, Mich., for 38 years. He and Bertha had two daughters. One died at a young age from leukemia. Bertha died in a car accident after 55 years of marriage.

After he retired, Joe took some time to travel. But he decided he wasn’t finished with his desire to serve. At 75 years of age, he decided to get back to work.

“So I started roofing with a guy,” he said. “We started putting roofs on for people who didn’t have much money. I did it until I was 80. We roofed for a lot of people who didn’t have too much. They’d buy the roofing and we’d put it on.”

Did he worry about falling off?

“Never even thought about it,” Joe said.

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Matt and Bonnie Puro have welcomed Joe Erickson into their home in Bemidji. Matt is Joe's grandson and says he got his first summer job as a teenager on his grandpa's roofing crew. Joe was in his 70s at the time. Contributed

During the summer, he was joined on the roofs by his grandson, Matt Puro.

“He gave me my first summer job, Matt said. “I got to go work for him. We had fun doing it.”

Matt and his wife, Bonnie, now care for Joe at their Bemidji home.

They’re proud to be a part of Joe’s life and to celebrate Veterans Day with the soon-to-be 102-year-old.

Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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