Authors: Stephan Talty
Tags: #HISTORY/Military/World War II
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First Diversion Books edition October 2013
Late one evening, in the spring of 1944, as World War II raged across Europe, a tall, handsome, middle-aged American man was crouched in the bomb shelter of a Mercedes-Benz factory in northern Germany, listening to the drone of heavy bombers in the earthy air. From the deserted streets of Stuttgart, the keening of the air raid sirens echoed down into the factory's basement, momentarily blotting out the sounds of aircraft. High above, hundreds of B-17s from the United States Eighth Air Force were preparing to drop several tons of high explosives on the roof of the plant where Eric Erickson was huddled with a group of terrified Nazi engineers.
Had the day gone according to plan, Erickson wouldn't have been in the factory at that unlucky hour. He'd been scheduled to inspect the plant earlier in the day, alongside its manager, a fat, florid German in his forties. Their meeting had been delayed by a surprise visit from a group of Nazi officials that worked for the Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer. Erickson had been forced to wait in the factory manager's anteroom for hours while Speer's men checked and rechecked production numbers, totaling up every jeep and transport truck the plant was contributing to the war effort. To make amends for the inconvenience, the Mercedes manager had invited Erickson to dinner in his office. The German didn't get to meet many Americans, and he was fascinated to find one roaming the country as the five-year-long war was reaching its crescendo. Erickson repaid the man's hospitality with a
, a food package containing real coffee, as rare and valuable as gold dust in wartime Germany. As they finished the coffee and lit up two of the American's fine cigars, the air raid sirens began to wail.
Erickson had followed an odd path to the factory in Stuttgart. His German friends knew him as “Red,” a raffish, Brooklyn-born oilman who'd betrayed his country and helped the Nazis find oil for their tanks and planes. Erickson was a risk-taker and a storyteller. He'd been all over the world and could charm men and women alike in Japanese, French, English, Swedish or German. Best of all, the American was a fine Nazi. By smuggling Swiss chocolates and bottles of gin and whiskey from his homeland of Sweden, Red had become a favorite of the German elite. Hermann GÃ¶ring invited him to go shooting at his estate near Berlin. The architects of the Final Solution saved him a seat in the capital's finest restaurants. Erickson kept in the pocket of his suit a rare
, a pass signed by his friend, Heinrich Himmler, allowing him to travel unescorted throughout the Third Reich.
Erickson had been a roughneck in the Texas oil fields. He'd been the All-American boy on the Cornell University campus. He'd built a small oil empire and, in turn, had become the kind of playboy who rubs elbows with Errol Flynn at the Hotel du Cap and winters in the South of France. He was funny and charming, and no one looked better in a tux.
But to some, Eric Erickson was also one of the most despised traitors of the war â a profiteer, a soulless Nazi collaborator. He used a brilliant mind for petrochemical production to help the Third Reich develop the most precious commodity of the war: a miracle product, perfected by Nazi scientists, known as synthetic oil.
By 1944, the German High Command faced a problem that endangered the Reich's war machine. The dilemma mystified everyone from Himmler to the FÃ¼hrer himself. The liquid that kept the Wehrmacht running, which the Nazis produced in a system of hidden plants and refineries spread out across the National Socialist empire, was in short supply.
The Nazis were running out of oil.
Albert Speer, a former architect whom Hitler had put in charge of Germany's industrial output, complained to the Fuhrer that every time he got a synthetic oil plant up and running after an attack, the Allies, “with uncanny timing,” would bomb it again. The Germans were taking enormous pains to hide their petrochemical facilities from Allied reconnaissance, but it wasn't working. The biggest plants, such as the enormous complex at Leuna, were too large to camouflage, but many of the smaller ones were cunningly disguised or buried underground. Visitors were strictly monitored. Passes were hard to come by. How were allied bombers getting the locations of the top-secret plants?
Eric Erickson knew the answer. In fact, he
the answer. “Red” wasn't a traitor; he was an American spy. Even as he appeared to be helping the Nazis win the war, the secret agent had been sending detailed reports, at the risk of his own life, to Allied Bomber Command in London.
He'd become a Nazi to defeat the Nazis.
Now, high above the Mercedes factory, USAAF bomber squadrons began releasing their 500-pound bombsâpainted bright red and yellow so the “toggleiers” in the planes following could spot them and release their own. A flock of warheads appeared in the night sky, spinning and tumbling, dropping silently toward the factory.
In an instant, the American felt compression waves press through his body as the high explosives slammed through the factory's roof and smashed into the pipes and compressors, turning them into arrowheads of hot shrapnel. The sound was tremendous. Deafening. Walls and rafters were blown away. Dust and sediment showered down from the shelter's roof and settled into the folds of the American's expensive suit. Erickson believed he was going to die, and the irony of the situation wasn't lost on him. He was going to be blown up by a bomb that he'd directed to its target.
As he waited, Erickson could hear the manager muttering something under his breath.
Erickson, too, cursed in the darkness.
Now I am my own victim
, he thought. He knew that his death would mean death for many Allied soldiersâairmen like the ones flying above him that night, who didn't even know he existed.
The third son of Swedish immigrants, Eric Erickson was born in 1898 and grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New Yorkâjust a few blocks from the grand vistas of Eastern Parkway. His father, Fritz, owned a jewelry shop, “F.W. Erickson, Jeweler and Watchmaker,” at 146 Ralph Avenue in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant. Eric was raised the middle of five children in a cramped, two-story house on Sterling Place. It was here that he learned a man must have a mix of ambition and brawn to get what he wants in life.
In 1916, the year Erickson graduated high school, there was one place a bright but under-educated young American in search of fortune would have turned. Not Wall Street. Not the gold fields of the Klondike. East Texas. Thirteen years earlier, in a dull-as-spit town called Beaumont, deep inside the salt dome that became known as Spindletop, drillers had discovered the richest oil strike in American history. Not since the California gold rush of 1849 the prospect of wealth seemed so promising. Men could hitchhike to Texas and, if they staked the right claim, become fabulously rich in the blink of an eye. “There really were poor Texas boys who discovered gushing oil wells and became overnight billionaires,” writes historian Bryan Burrough. After a few years, Spindletop, which pumped out an astonishing 100,000 barrels a day, had combined with the derricks on nearby plots to produce more oil than the rest of the world's fields combined. Five hundred companies sprang up in Beaumont, including Texaco and Gulf Oil. In a matter of a few years, America had become the world's largest oil producer.
With dreams of remaking his destiny, Eric Erickson said goodbye to his parents and caught the first train south. He got off in Beaumont, swallowed a choking breath of heat and dust, and found himself in a new landscape, a dry coastal plain transformed into something unique on the North American continent outside of the oilfields of Pennsylvania. At night, Beaumont was a purgatory of fire and shadow on the flat land: the harsh lights of the saloons and lean-tos and makeshift brothels fed off the wells' unwanted natural gas. Beaumont was an ersatz community of drifters, whores, oil sharks, and the sunburned farm boys who worked the wells, young men very much like Erickson. After work there wasn't much to do but get drunk and brawl in the streets. The sun rose early and withered the land. Outside the window of Erickson's tiny room, black iron derricks, like giant insects, stood in rows against the big Texas sky. Twenty-four hours a day the high-pitched
of the flare stacks reached Erickson's ears. He would hear that sound continuously for months, even in his sleep.
A tough-minded young man who rarely accepted “No” for an answer, Erickson quickly found work as a roustabout. The foreman had asked Erickson just two questions before hiring him: “What's your name?” and “Who is your next of kin?” Nothing else mattered in Beaumont. Every man, regardless of his age or where he came from, had come to Texas to get rich or die trying. The pay was goodâfive dollars a day when the average worker was making far lessâbut the job was fantastically dangerous. One roughneck called his job “torturesome work”: slathered in foul-smelling oil, slogging through knee-high mud, wrestling oil-slicked pipes into position, lungs scarred by exposure to the “sour gas” (hydrogen sulfide) produced at the wellheads. The men were tough, physical specimens, and working in 110-degree heat didn't cool tempers. Occasionally, Erickson would see a knife fight between crew members. In later portraits, Erickson's nose appears to have been broken. He never said where it happened, but Texas is as good a guess as any.
Without a grubstake from his family to buy a claim, Eric was one of the thousands of young men sucked into the boom, most of whom lasted only a few years before the lifestyle ground them down. Wildcatters struggled to repeat the success of Spindletop, and most failed. When Texas began to dry up, Erickson headed toward Oklahoma in search of steady work.
While the roughnecks around him spent every penny they earned on women and whiskey, Erickson carefully saved his money. He still dreamed of going to college in the Northeast and strolling across the campus quad with a geometry textbook in one hand and a coed on another. Soon he was promoted to line-walker, patrolling the pipelines, looking for leaks and washouts. Walking and riding from Ohio to Bayonne, New Jersey, Erickson saw new refineries cropping up to feed the country's insatiable thirst for oil. Soon he was working as an assistant supervisor of the refinery in Oklahoma, a shirt-and-tie position took him off the derricks and put him on the plant floor.
But the life of a company man bored him. Like the wildcatters he'd met in Beaumont, when it came to the oil business, Erickson wanted everything or nothing.
In 1917, Erickson was accepted to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Happy to be away from the strenuous workdays in Oklahoma, Erickson threw himself into his engineering courses. He received a bid from the exclusive Beta Theta Pi fraternity and played halfback on the Big Red football team, switching to baseball in the fall. His football teammates nicknamed him “Red,” after the Viking Explorer, “Erik the Red.” He was a talked-about figure on campusâolder, tougher and more charming than the boys he was surrounded by.
By the end of 1917, the war touched close to home. Erickson's oldest brother, Henry, was sent to France as a private in the 315th Infantry, which was part of the division that later distinguished itself at Monfaucon during the battle of the Argonne Forest. Nearly 117,000 Americans died in the Great War, and Henry saw action up close, while Eric could only read about it in dispatches from the front. The brothers exchanged frequent lettersâgrowing up Henry had always been his favorite sibling. In their letters, they mentioned the war, but they also talked about poetry and Cornell baseball. “If your eye is as good as it used to be,” Henry wrote Eric, “and your arm is as strong as ever, I don't see any reason you shouldn't land a job on the team.” There's a discernible touch of hero-worship in Henry's letters to his younger brother. In another letter, Henry wrote about his newborn son: “We dug up a picture the other day of when I was about 8 months oldâyou can hardly tell the difference between â¦ you, the baby and me.”
As the war raged on, Erickson tried to stay focused on his studies. Still strapped for money, he was getting up at four o'clock in the morning to study and to run his very own startup: selling insurance to his Cornell classmates. (Henry suggested that Eric peddle subscriptions to the
Saturday Evening Post
as well). Two years later, in 1921, Erickson walked across the stage at graduation and received his degree. At 23, he'd already lived more than many men twice his age. And the wanderlust that had once driven him from Brooklyn to Texas to Oklahoma was beginning to itch again.