WWII navigator reflects on military career

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Eric Peterson
  • 120th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office
Retired Lt. Col. Leonard Erickson has much to be proud of accomplishing during his 96 years of life.

The World War II navigator fought for his country in the European and Pacific theaters and returned home after the war to become a successful businessman running a grocery store in his hometown of Butte, Mont.

During the war the United States Army Air Forces officer was assigned to the 654th Bombardment Squadron of the 25th Bombardment Group (Reconnaissance), and served as a navigator on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the De Havilland DH-98 Mosquito.

120th Airlift Wing Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Arthur McCaffrey had the opportunity to meet with Erickson and members of his family at an assisted living facility in Butte March 10.

During the visit, Erickson showed McCaffrey mementos of his military service-his World War II officer's service cap and silk navigator's survival map of Holland, Belgium, France and Germany.

Family members told the story of how their parents met. The young navigator met his future wife-to-be, Mona Lomax, during his first combat tour in England. Shortly afterwards, he completed the required number of flying missions to be able to finish his tour and return home. After corresponding with her through many letters, he made the decision to request another combat tour and return to England and to Mona. After the war ended Erickson brought his bride home with him to Butte and began a family.

"Love drew Lieutenant Colonel Erickson from the safety of Butte and back to England," said McCaffrey. "Love buoyed his heart as he awaited victory in Europe and then victory in Japan."

With his loving children and grandchildren gathered around a table he answered questions and shared memories of his illustrious military career.

McCaffrey provided historical photographs to Erickson of a DH 98 Mosquito aircraft which had been restored to the wartime markings of an USAAF aircraft. The markings included the distinctive red tail painted on the aircraft flying photoreconnaissance missions by members of his squadron.

"We had to put that on there because we used to escort the bombers all the time," Erickson said. "We always got there at the IP (initial point of the bombing run) and went down the run before the bombers went over. The only trouble is they would shoot our bombers down coming in. So they painted (the tails) red. It just helped a lot."

The USAAF aircraft and crew members suffered heavy losses during the war. Family members said their father told them that 25 aircraft were once assigned to fly a mission. Erickson's aircraft was one of only four to return home to base.

According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force website, while nearly 8,000 DH 98 aircraft were built in Great Britain, Canada or Australia, only 140 of the Mosquitoes were transferred to the United States to use for special wartime duty. These aircraft required a two-person crew consisting of a pilot and navigator to fly photoreconnaissance, weather information gathering or night fighter missions.

The plane was light, powerful and fast. The museum's fact sheet stated that it was built almost entirely of balsa wood and plywood. Two Rolls Royce Merlin engines powered the aircraft to speeds up to 415 miles per hour. Fully fueled, the Mosquito had a flight range of 1,955 miles.  
Once victory in Europe was achieved, Erickson's group and its aircraft were sent to Hawaii to prepare for the war still raging in the Pacific.

"I had the honor of celebrating a true hero of World War II and the love he showed for his wife," said McCaffrey. "It was a love that not only endured, but grew to include his children and grandchildren. And of course, the plane that did not fail to bring him home-the mighty Mosquito."

During McCaffrey's visit Erickson wore his brown service cap slightly canted to his right. The 654th Bombardment Squadron group photo taken over 70 years ago shows him wearing this cap in exactly the same fashion.   
When asked what life accomplishment he was most proud of Erickson softly replied, "My family."