The young widow gazed through the glass-topped casket at her husband, dressed in his best uniform with all his ribbons, looking as if he had just fallen asleep.
Family members had tried to talk Margaret Erickson out of viewing the body, warning that she might be horrified at seeing the results of a plane crash that happened two months earlier.
Margaret insisted she would not — could not — bury her husband until she saw his body.
But everyone was surprised when the body of one of the first victims of the Cold War arrived home in Collinsville well preserved and sealed in the glass-topped casket.
“It was amazing,” said Margaret Acker who remarried in 1960 and lives in Florida. She recently returned to Collinsville to visit relatives. “A guardian angel was with us, all the way through.”
On Oct. 18, 1948, 1st Lt. Eugene “Gene” Erickson of Collinsville and two other airmen died when their C-54 Skymaster crashed trying to land at Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany. The three were among the 31 Americans killed between June 24, 1948 and Sept. 30, 1949, during the Berlin Airlift.
But apparently Erickson was the only one the Germans went to great lengths to preserve and seal his body in glass.
Gene Erickson and the former Margaret Archer had met while Gene was stationed at what was then Scott Field during World War II. They were married at Jefferson Barracks, Dec. 19, 1942, then Margaret followed him in his nomadic military life.
After the war, Gene tried civilian life but decided he wanted to fly more. He he went back in uniform, first as a master sergeant, but quickly converting to officer when the newly formed Air Force realized he was a pilot.
Erickson was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, with his wife and daughter, Diane, when Soviet troops closed all ground routes to Berlin in June 1948.
After Germany was defeated in World War II, the victorious Allies divided the country into four occupied sectors. The British, Americans and French controlled the western portion of the country, while the Soviets controlled the East.
Berlin, the former capital, was deep inside the Soviet sector. But under the post-war agreement, the city was also divided between the four Allies.
As tensions built between the capitalist West and the communist Soviets, it became increasingly obvious that Germany would not be reunited soon.
By early 1948, the western Allies had decided to create a West German government, with its own currency. They included a special version of the new Deutsche mark for Berlin to offset Soviet attempts to place all of the city under a currency it controlled.
On June 24, the Soviets closed all rail and highway routes from the west into Berlin and prohibited the sale of food, fuel and other supplies from the Soviet zone into the three western zones of the city.
The Allies launched what quickly became the most massive airlift ever attempted, flying everything from food to coal into Berlin. At times, heavily laden cargo planes were landing at the rate of one every three minutes.
The brunt of the 15-month airlift fell to the U.S. Air Force, which had just been split from the Army in 1947, and its C-54 cargo planes. The Air Force pulled planes and pilots from all around the world.
One of those was Gene Erickson.
“At first, he was supposed to be back in 45 days,” Margaret Acker recalled.
“Then it was another 45 days,” she said. “Then, he wrote and said we should go home to Collinsville.”
She scrambled to clear government housing and catch a ship from Hawaii to the mainland with their three-year-old daughter, Diane.
When Gene's plane crashed on Oct. 18, Acker was already with her family in Collinsville. But the Air Force didn't know it.
“They couldn't find me, ’cause they thought I was in Texas,” she said. “I don't know why, but our orders were cut to go to Texas, so my way was paid to go on to Texas. But when I got to San Francisco, I went on to St. Louis and then to Collinsville.”
She found out about the accident after it appeared in the newspaper.
“Our minister read it in the East St. Louis Journal, and he came out to console my mother,” she said. “I opened the front door. He was shocked. He said, ‘What are you doing here? Didn't you hear? Don't you know? ... My heavens above, you do not know.’ And he takes the paper and here he points to it.
“So that was how I found out.”
On Oct. 20, the Belleville Advocate carried a single paragraph announcing that Gene had been killed. The next day, the News-Democrat carried a two-paragraph brief about the accident, including that his wife and daughter had returned a few days earlier to Collinsville.
For reasons that still aren’t clear, Gene’s body was not sent home right away. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that Acker received word the body was on its way to Collinsville.
“He did not arrive in Collinsville until the third of January,” she said. “We buried him the sixth.”
Acker told the funeral home that she didn’t want anything done to Gene’s body until she had seen it. The funeral home and her family tried to talk her out of it.
“My father-in-law, at that time, lived in Wisconsin. He couldn’t come and said, ‘It’s just going to be a closed casket.’ He had a heart problem and said, ‘I can’t stand to see that.’”
But Acker was adamant that her husband would not be buried until she saw his body.
“They said, ‘Well, then we’ll let your brother look.’ I said, ‘No, because my brother would lie for me,’ because I was so hurt. I said, ‘That’s my life that’s still in there.’”
When Acker met the casket and the military escort at the Collinsville train station, she told the escort that she wanted to view the body. He said he had to deliver the casket and his orders to the funeral director, then would call for her.
“Well, when I got inside the funeral home, the lid was up and I ran. And there he was, just as if he had laid down and died,” she said. “They had him sealed in glass, the upper half of the coffin was all sealed in glass.
At the time, no one could tell her why the body was under glass. Acker decided it was an answer to her prayers that she be able to see Gene one last time.
Over the years, she’s pieced parts of the story together from records and talking to others involved in the airlift. The best Acker has been able to determine is the Germans embalmed and prepared Gene’s body, concealing any damage from the crash. Then they held a funeral ceremony for him.
He also received some kind of injections to preserve his body.
“I don’t know why him,” she said. “But when we went (to Germany) for the 10th anniversary, no one would believe me, that they held a funeral and then shipped him home in a glass coffin.”
William Morrissey, a Berlin Airlift veteran in Indiana and a member of the Berlin Airlift Historical Association, said he’d never heard the story of the glass coffin.
“It’s wild,” he said. “That’s a ‘Holy Mackerel.’”
But he knew the story of Gene Erickson’s crash, with Capt. James Vaughn and Sgt. Richard Winter.
“They were coming into Rhein-Main. It was night and it was snowing and they clipped a tree,” he said.
Bess Etter, the sister of Vaughn, said she was told a similar story by another pilot who was one of the first people to reach the crash site.
“He was sitting at the end of the runway at Rhein-Main when the accident occurred,” she said. “He said it was early in the morning and it was snowing really hard.”
Etter has a Frankfurt, Germany, newspaper from the day after the crash that quotes witnesses who said they saw what looked like fire coming from an engine. But she discounts that as a cause of the crash.
“I’ve talked to several pilots and they say that was not unusual to see what looked like flames coming from an engine,” she said. “That’s the way the old C-54 engines worked.”
But Etter had never heard the story of the glass coffin. Her brother’s body came home a month after the accident for a closed-casket funeral.
“My uncle told us that it was him. We never did look inside the coffin,” she said.
Today, Morrissey is part of a crew that flies a restored C-54, “Spirit of Freedom,” to air shows and other events. Inside, the plane is lined with photos of those killed in the airlift, including Erickson. Etter lives in Mississippi and both she and her children are active in the historical association.
Unwilling to shoot down aircraft and start a real war, the Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949. As ground transportation resumed, airlift missions were scaled back, ending on Sept. 30, 1949.
In 1959, Acker and her daughter, as well as other survivors, went to Berlin as the guests of the German government for ceremonies commemorating the 10th anniversary of the airlift.
They went back again this spring, for the 50th anniversary.
“Over there, those guys are still heroes,” she said. “They haven’t forgotten.”
Originally Published, Oct. 25, 1999, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 1999, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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